Stories of a Not-So-Buried Life

Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Sept. 1958

Though this admission may cause some to question my Tar Heel credentials, I will confess that I am currently reading Thomas Wolfe‘s Look Homeward, Angel for the very first time. It’s a moving and incredibly rich book, though, okay, occasionally long-winded. As I read, I am struck again and again by the vibrant imagery of Wolfe’s language — his descriptions of nature and food, in particular, truly engage the senses.
Thus it would come as no surprise that someone as visually-minded as Hugh Morton would feel some affinity to Wolfe — not to mention that both were “big men on campus” at UNC-Chapel Hill in times of war (Wolfe during WWI and Morton during WWII). In 1941 (only a few years after Wolfe’s untimely death) Morton had his own first-person encounter with Angel‘s milieu. As he recounts on page 7 of Sixty Years with a Camera:

While I was a student at Chapel Hill, the CAROLINA MAGAZINE sent me to Asheville to interview Julia Wolfe, the mother of novelist Thomas Wolfe, at the Old Kentucky Home. You remember that Tom wasn’t very kind to his mother in his book….and for a while I wasn’t sure that I was going to be kind to her. But after I’d been there for a day, she warmed up, became very friendly, and took me out to the cemetery to see his grave.

Ed Rankin describes this same event on page 249 of Making a Difference in NC, quoting Morton as saying that “[Mrs. Wolfe] was obviously proud of her son, proud of the success his works enjoyed…but she had mixed feelings about what he had written about her. Perhaps she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

I have to say that these Morton images certainly conform to my mental picture of Angel‘s Eliza Gant, the white-faced, pursed-lipped penny-pincher who endlessly tormented her youngest son Eugene.
The North Carolina Collection here in Wilson Library holds several Wolfe-related collections, including a photograph collection. Library staff are currently working on an overhaul of the online access to these collections, so keep your eye out for some nice new finding aids!
And speaking of Wolfe-related imagery, UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South is currently exhibiting artist Douglas Gorsline’s rarely-shown original drawings for the first illustrated edition of Angel, loaned from the North Carolina Collection. The drawings are on display through September 30, with a public reception next Thursday (8/27) featuring live music and dramatic readings from the novel.

7 thoughts on “Stories of a Not-So-Buried Life”

  1. The Thomas Wolfe article and photographs were featured in “The New Carolina Magazine” issue for March, 1942. The rather lengthy article appears on pages 28-29 and continues on pages 35, 47-48.
    An interesting quote from page 29:
    “Visiting photographer was Hugh Morton, especially sent to Asheville on this assignment for the New-Mag. Returning with more photographs than could fill these pages, our staff-photographer confirmed the amazing similarity between parts of ‘Look Homeward’ and parts of Asheville itself.”
    Morton also relates the Asheville assignment on pages 156-157 of his 2003 book “Hugh Morton’s North Carolina.”

  2. A friend pointed out an interesting article from the most recent OXFORD AMERICAN, titled “Fading From View: Was Thomas Wolfe a Genius? And Should We Care?” The title should give you an idea of some of the latest thinking on Wolfe. It presents a rather bleak picture of the current state of the Wolfe Memorial, too.

  3. I found this excerpt from “Look homeward, Angel”. It’s a gripping example of Wolfe’s imagery:
    “There was a sharp bite and sparkle in the mountain air: the range soared above him, close, immense, clean, and barren. The trees rose gaunt and stark: they were almost leafless. The sky was full of windy white rags of cloud; a thick blade of mist washed slowly around the rampart of a mountain.”
    It has a kind of photographic clarity about it.
    Thanks for the posting this – I had never read any Wolfe.

  4. Although several attempts to make “Look Homeward Angel” into a movie have failed, it looks like it will be returning to Broadway again this fall. (One of those movie attempts is recounted in the 1945 UNC Yackety Yack on pages 22 and 23).

  5. Thanks again. Look Homeward, Angel had rave reviews in both the North and the South. Even its few critics, who were disparaging to romantic novels in general, acknowledged a degree of brilliance and power in the novel. I really love it!

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