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Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe

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Thomas Wolfe was a major American novelist of the early 20th century, notable for his first book, 1929's 'Look Homeward, Angel.'

Who Was Thomas Wolfe?

Thomas Wolfe was a notable American novelist from the early 20th century. He first attended the University of North Carolina and then Harvard University before moving to New York City in 1923. It was there that he wrote his most popular work, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), an autobiographical piece centering on his alter ego, Eugene Gant. Wolfe followed with four novels over the following eight years and had more than 10 works published after his untimely death in 1938.

Early Years

Thomas Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina, to a stonecutter father and a mother who owned a boardinghouse. After attending a private prep school, Wolfe enrolled in the University of North Carolina in 1916. There he began his writing career, penning and acting in several one-act plays. Wolfe also edited The Tar Heel, UNC's student newspaper, and won the Worth Prize for Philosophy for his essay "The Crisis in Industry." Wolfe graduated in 1920, and in the fall he entered the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, where he set his sights on becoming a professional playwright as a part of Harvard's 47 Workshop.

In 1923, Wolfe left Boston for New York, the city he called home for the rest of his life. He taught at Washington Square College of New York University and continued to write. Three years later, while abroad, he began work on what eventually became the novel Look Homeward, Angel.

'Look Homeward, Angel'

In early 1928, Wolfe completed the manuscript for Look Homeward, Angel, and by summer he learned that Scribner was interested in the work. The book was officially accepted for publication in January 1929, and Wolfe began his long, close and tumultuous relationship with editor Maxwell Perkins (who was also famously the editor of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Perkins edited the manuscript down into a more manageable form (a process that would eventually mark the beginning of the end of the pair's working relationship), and it was published in October 1929 to great critical reception, placing Wolfe on the literary map as one of America's most promising young novelists.

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Another consequence of publication was the furor caused in Wolfe's hometown of Asheville, as the cast of characters in the autobiographical book hit close to home for many of Asheville's residents.

The Road to Success

The following year, Wolfe received a Guggenheim Fellowship and published a second short novel, Web of Earth, and soon began preparations for several other works: K-19, No Door (a short novel) and a collection of three short novels. Wolfe's publication plan conflicted with that of Perkins, who wanted Wolfe to write a follow-up to the story of Eugene Gant, the protagonist of Look Homeward, Angel. Perkins began working with Wolfe daily in 1933 on this proposed book, and in the summer of 1934, ignoring Wolfe's objections, Perkins sent the manuscript of Of Time and the River to Scribner. The book was generally well-received upon publication, but Wolfe was bitterly displeased with it, blaming Perkins for the unsatisfactory form of the final product.

An Early Death

In 1936, Wolfe's dissatisfaction with Perkins led to a larger conflict with Scribner, and Wolfe left Scribner for Harper & Brothers. Two years after leaving Scribner, Wolfe left New York to travel to the American West. In July 1938, he became sick in Seattle, and two months later he was sent to the Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Wolfe could not recover his health, and he died at Johns Hopkins of tuberculosis of the brain shortly before his 38th birthday.

After Wolfe's death, Edward Aswell, Wolfe's Harper editor, assembled from the manuscripts left behind the novels The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940). Several other collections and uncompleted works also appeared posthumously, and Wolfe's legacy is that of one of America's strongest writers whose potential was cut tragically short.

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