I’m not sure how many times I’ve toured the childhood home of Thomas Wolfe in Asheville, North Carolina, but my most memorable visit to the rambling old boarding house, called, oddly enough, Old Kentucky Home, is a time when I could not enter it, could not even see inside through a porch window, though, as memory serves, the house should have been open for tours on the afternoon I arrived in the fall of ’95 with a dark-haired lady friend (yes, I know, an old-fashioned term, “lady friend,” that is, not “dark-haired,” but one that best fits, or so it seemed then and still does now-also the title of a great song by the Byrds that you might want to seek out, really). She’d never seen the house, and so we were both disappointed, and a little frustrated, at not being able to enter, plus it was beginning to turn cold, and I’d harbored the hope that it might be warmer inside, though old rambling houses with 90-foot ceilings don’t always deliver on heat. I’m sure Thomas Wolfe could have testified to that, if he’d been home. He wasn’t. But someone was.
We moved from window to window, trying to peek around drawn blinds, and then I heard voices inside and saw very bright lights shining through the narrow slits on either side of one particular blind. I crouched down a little lower to try to see in, and maybe felt a little like a peeping tom in the process, but managed to see why those lights were so bright. They were the kind used by television crews, and I then realized a man, whose face I couldn’t see, only the back of his head, was being interviewed. I heard the name Wolfe, and maybe a few other names of Wolfe’s family members, Julia, Fred, Ben, but that was about it, and I couldn’t place the voice.
My lady friend and I sat down in two of the rocking chairs on the front porch, which were original to the house (and were later stolen by some sorry person, to put it politely, though I’m thinking other words), and waited to see if the interview might wind up so we could either go inside or see them come out and discover just who it was that I couldn’t quiet see or hear very well. I remember guessing, for some reason, that it might be Reynolds Price, the well-known novelist who was from North Carolina. It wasn’t, and in a little while I’ll tell you how I know it wasn’t. The interview kept going on and on, and my friend, well, lady friend, and I finally gave up. We headed to a great rare books store a few blocks away called The Captain’s Bookshelf where I remember seeing a first edition of Moby-Dick for $7,000. If it had only been signed I would have bought it. (Okay, maybe my instructorship salary at Clemson University couldn’t quite afford me that. Hell, I could barely eat.)
The first time I saw Wolfe’s house was in 1971, when I was ten years old-before the towering hotel was built that now sits directly in front of the house and blocks the beautiful view of the mountains that I admired even at ten. What I most remember seeing in the house that day was the old black, standing phone with the receiver hanging off the side of it. You know, the kind of phone you see in the black and white re-runs of The Andy Griffith Show when Barney’s talking to Juanita. What ten-year-old wouldn’t have been amazed by such a seemingly ancient relic?
It was my mother who’d wanted to see the house, and my father certainly didn’t mind, but my mother was the Wolfe fan. She’d read and reread his books, just as her mother had. In fact, I can still hear my maternal grandmother reading to me Wolfe’s short story “Chickamauga,” about the Civil War battle, in her wonderful, Wisconsin-Yankee voice. And I can hear my mother reading aloud to me certain passages from the novel Look Homeward, Angel, particularly the opening, the death of Ben (spoiler alert, Ben dies) and the ending where stone angles-okay, I won’t say more. These are beautiful, lyrical passages, Wolfe at his best, and for me, and many Wolfe fans, they are worth overlooking Wolfe’s faults as a writer, when he sometimes losses control of his language and the narrative lacks a traditional plot. What Wolfe most succeeds in doing is taking you deep into the inner lives and longings of his characters, particularly Eugene Gant and George Webber from the four major novels, Angel, Of Time and the River, The Web and the Rock, and You Can’t Go Home Again. It was his ability to do this that I think most spoke to my mother and grandmother (for reasons I don’t need to go into here, but will say that sometimes we come across certain books or writers when we need them), and they managed to pass along that same appreciation to me.
Wolfe is most famous for this big, sprawling novels, of course. But, ironically enough, his short stories are often beautifully controlled and sometimes absolutely masterful and prove his harshest critics wrong when they say Wolfe simply vomited words onto the page. So maybe the place to being reading Wolfe is with such stories as “Chickamauga,” “The Lost Boy,” “The Far and the Near,” “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” “Circus at Dawn,” all from the collections From Death to Morning and The Hills Beyond, and there’s also the powerful story “Child by Tiger,” often excerpted from The Web and the Rock, that may be the first account in American literature of a mass shooting of the kind we are far too familiar with now. If you’re of a mind, start with a few of these stories, then maybe venture into Look Homeward, Angel.
So, we, my lady friend and I, never did see the inside of Wolfe’s home together. Though that late afternoon in The Captain’s Bookshelf, I’m sure I picked up and showed her some first editions of Wolfe’s novels, but what I remember most clearly is my surprise at seeing who entered the door as night approached: Pat Conroy. It was he, of course, who was being interviewed in the Wolfe home as we vainly attempted to peek into windows. Conroy always made known his love of Wolfe and what an influence Wolfe had on his work. So it made sense that ABC News interviewed him there.
That night at the bookstore, he spoke with everyone, at length, being the gregarious person he was. At one point he asked if I was a writer. I’d published a few short stories in literary journals by then and so admitted that I was, and that I’d had a story included in the annual O. Henry collection. He congratulated me and said he would read it. I didn’t really believe he would, but later learned how supportive he was of other writers. So who knows, maybe he did. I met him several more times over the years at various literary functions but did not bring up that first meeting in Asheville. He usually spoke more with my wife Rhonda than with me. I’d have done the same.
I’ve since returned to the Wolfe house, of course. Rhonda and I enjoyed our tour very much. The photo you see is hers.