Novelist. A major (if controversial) figure of 20th Century American Literature. Sweeping lyricism, extravagant rhetoric, and spirited, almost mystical celebrations of America characterize his intensely personal writing. Wolfe maintained that all great art was autobiographical, and his four mammoth novels present thinly-veiled self-portraits in which his life and observations assume symbolic significance. "Look Homeward, Angel" (1929) and "Of Time and the River" (1935) are accounts of his impetuous youth channeled through the character of Eugene Gant. In the posthumously published "The Web and the Rock" (1939) and "You Can't Go Home Again" (1940) Wolfe is again center stage as George Webber, more seasoned and socially aware. Together they form an epic of an artist's growth in a changing society between the World Wars. Thomas Clayton Wolfe was born in Asheville, North Carolina. His father was a stonecutter, his mother ran a boarding house where he spent part of his childhood. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at age 19. As a graduate student at Harvard (M.A., 1924) he wrote several plays and hoped for a career in theatre, but stage producers expressed little interest in his work. Instead he taught English intermittently at New York University (1924 to 1930) and turned to writing fiction. "Look Homeward, Angel" brought him immediate notoriety, largely because its often scathing depictions of people and places were recognizably drawn from life (Wolfe's hometown of Asheville was pilloried as "Altamont"). It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner's publishers, was his most important influence. Unwilling or unable to trim his prose, Wolfe poured out gargantuan texts which he later admitted had "a quality of intemperate excess, uncontrolled inclusiveness, an almost insane hunger to devour the entire body of human experience". Contrary to his critics, he was a conscious artist who worked out the themes and structure of his books in advance, but his lack of restraint caused him to bury these in surfeits of digression and detail. Perkins patiently helped him reduce and shape the material, sometimes pulling out self-contained episodes to publish as separate stories. 14 of these were gathered in the book "From Death to Morning" (1935), including the well-known "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" and "Death the Proud Brother". The author was initially grateful for the assistance, albeit with misgivings, and viewed Perkins as a sort of father-figure. But the drastic editing for "Of Time and the River" (two-thirds of the million-word original were cut), and growing speculation that Perkins, not Wolfe, was really responsible for the books' success, eventually caused a rift between them. (Wolfe unintentionally fueled the gossip by acknowledging his debt to Perkins in his long 1936 essay "The Story of a Novel"). In 1937 he broke with Scribner's and formed a new working relationship with editor Edward C. Aswell at Harper's. Wolfe lived as large as he wrote. Tall (6'6") and massively built, he traveled extensively and cut an imposing figure wherever he went. He had insatiable desires for women, food, alcohol, and new experiences, which he duly transformed into literature. His one serious romance was with stage designer Aline Bernstein, 18 years his senior and married; she is fictionalized as "Esther Jack" in the later novels. Hard living eventually took its toll on his health. In July 1938 Wolfe was on the road again when he came down with pneumonia in Seattle; the illness and his run-down state activated a dormant tubercular condition, which quickly spread to his brain. He died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a few weeks short of his 38th birthday. Wolfe left behind an 8-foot pile of manuscript, from which Aswell extracted "The Web and the Rock", "You Can't Go Home Again", and portions of another story collection, "The Hills Beyond" (1941). Despite being under the general supervision of Perkins (Wolfe's literary executor), Aswell took great liberties with this material, not merely editing but altering the style and writing linking passages himself without attribution. The authorship/editorship debate over Wolfe's novels continues to this day. As for his reputation, it has waxed and waned. William Faulkner once called him the best American author of their generation, but later changed his mind, and his verbosity and unabashed romanticism have not set well with more recent trends. Even his finest biographer, David Herbert Donald, admitted that "Thomas Wolfe wrote more bad prose than any other major writer I can think of". But the sheer exuberance of his style has always attracted fans, and within the untidy sprawl of his books are many brilliantly sustained sections and unforgettable characters. For some Wolfe is the closest the United States has come to producing another Walt Whitman.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards