Thomas Wolfe at 112

Happy Birthday Thomas Wolfe! The novelist was born in Asheville on this day in 1900. Though he left his native state after graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1920, his work was forever rooted in North Carolina and he remains one of our state’s most celebrated authors.

Wolfe was a proud alumnus of UNC and wrote fondly of his time there in a letter to his classmate Benjamin Cone. The letter was written in July 1929, just before the publication of Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. In an often-quoted passage, Wolfe writes,

“And after all, Ben, back in the days when you and I were beardless striplings — ‘forty or fifty years ago,’ as Eddie Greenlaw used to say — the Hill was (praise God!) ‘a small southern college.’ I think we had almost 1000 students our Freshman year, and were beginning to groan about our size. So far from forgetting the blessed place, I think my picture of it grows clearer every year: it was as close to magic as I’ve ever been, and now I’m afraid to go back and see how it is changed. I haven’t been back since our class graduated. Great God! how time has flown, but I am going back within a year (if they’ll let me).”

It’s a great letter, worth reading in its entirety on the North Carolina Collection website. One of my favorite parts is where Wolfe acknowledges that even after substantial editing his is going to be a very long book and that he hopes Cone will “manage to stick it to the end.”

In closing, Wolfe writes again of his fond memories of the University and his classmates, though with a touch of apprehension as he understands the potential for misunderstanding that lay ahead when so many people from Asheville and Chapel Hill would find thinly-disguised versions of themselves in the novel.

“But this is perhaps the longest letter I shall write to anyone concerning my book, and I do it for this reason: you stand as a symbol of that happy and wonderful life I knew during 1916-1920 (don’t think from this that my present life is wretched — on the contrary, now that I am really beginning to do the work I love, it is fuller and richer than it’s ever been) But I shall never forget the great days at Chapel Hill, and my friends there. Such a time will come no more. I have kept silence for years. I have lived apart from most of those friends, probably most of them have forgotten me. But I think you will believe me when I tell you most earnestly that I value the respect and friendship of some of those people as much as I value anything — with two exceptions, one of which is my work. So, no matter what you think of my book, continue to remember the person who wrote it as you always have.”

Tift Merritt: Her Undergraduate Writing Days

One-time Raleigh resident Tift Merritt is back in the Triangle today for a live performance at Carrboro’s Town Commons. And on October 2nd, she’ll release her fifth studio album. Merritt has already received some press attention in advance of the album’s release. And, in at least one interview, she’s talked about her love of writing.

Merritt earned an undergraduate degree in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2000. During her student days she published several works of prose and poetry in the Cellar Door, the UNC undergraduate literary magazine. In 1997 her short story “The Delicate Sound of the City” won first place in the Cellar Door‘s annual writing contest and was featured in the Winter 1997 issue of the magazine. Merritt also published the short story “Volvo” in the magazine’s Fall 1996 issue. Merritt’s poem “The Mourning” won 2nd place in the writing contest in 1998 and was included, along with two of her other poems, in the Spring 1998 issue.

Merritt, now 37, was in her early 20s when she published in the Cellar Door. She may regard these works as freshman efforts. But we think they show signs of a writer with great promise.

Tift Merritt poem "The Mourning"

Tift Merritt poem "Screen"

Tift Merritt poem "The Last of the Wildcat Oilmen" section 1

Tift Merritt poem "The Last of the Wildcat Oilmen" part 2

Memoirist Dylan was ‘hiding behind a wall of Wolfe’

“Given [Jonah] Lehrer’s offenses, it is interesting that among the trickery in ‘Chronicles’ [Bob Dylan’s 2004 memoir] are misattributions. In one section…  Mr. Dylan appeared to take a phrase from the letters of Thomas Wolfe and put it in the mouth of U2’s Bono.”

— From “Freewheelin’: Bob Dylan, Jonah Lehrer and the Truth,” an op-ed piece by David Kinney in the New York Times (August 2)

Dylan, Wolfe and Bono? Wow!

What follows is cut-and-pasted from the wildly obsessive Dylan fan site

Dylan takes on the voice of Wolfe himself when describing his frame of mind and his interactions with producer Daniel Lanois while recording the album “Oh Mercy” in New Orleans. Here are a few examples.

Chronicles: Volume One, pp. 217 – 218:

There had been a clashing of spirits at times, but nothing that had turned into a bitter or complicated struggle.

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 395

You say nothing of the bitter and complicated struggle which has been going on between two people for two years.

Chronicles: Volume One, p. 221:

I try to use my material in the most effective way. The songs were written to the glory of man and not to his defeat, but all of these songs added together doesn’t even come close to my whole vision of life. Sometimes the things that you liked the best and that have meant the most to you are the things that meant nothing at all to you when you first heard or saw them. Some of these songs fit into that category. I suppose all these things are simple, matter of fact enough.

On the record, I had to make spur of the moment decisions which might not have had anything to do with the real situation.

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 343:

You mention the fact that I have worked hard in an effort to learn how to use my material in the most effective way.

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 341:

…that the story has been written to the glory of man and not to his defeat.

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 343:

That is that I should like my work to be of one piece with all my life, and that to me the labor of writing does seem to be united to a man’s whole vision of life

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 368:

To me it is and always has been the most difficult kind of reading, just as it is the most difficult of writing, and the poems that I have liked the best and that have meant the most to me are those that meant nothing at all to me when I first read them.

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 389:

All these things I suppose are simple and matter-of-fact enough, but all the strangeness and mystery of time and chance and of the human destiny is in them for me and they seem wonderful.

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 395:

What you did not say in your story, however, and what you know to be true, is that the Guggenheim fellowship and this sudden spur-of-the-moment decision had nothing to do with the real situation.

Chronicles: Volume One, p. 221:

That being said, I had wholehearted admiration for what Lanois did. A lot of it was unique and permanent. Danny and I would see each other again in ten years and we’d work together once more in a rootin’ tootin’ way.

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 315:

…I’d like to say to you that he has the most genuine and whole-hearted admiration for your genius and power as a novelist – he feels, as I do, that your talent is unique and permanent, that there is no one like you, and that if they read any of our books in the future they will have to take account of you.

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 226:

rootin’, tootin’, shootin’, son-of-a-gun…

The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, p. 644:

rootin, tootin, shootin, son of a gun…

Much of Chronicles: Volume One is constructed in this rootin’, tootin’ manner, from dozens of different sources. In this particular stretch Dylan appears to be warmly letting you in, but he’s not doing that at all. It’s a freeze-out. He’s hiding behind a wall of Wolfe.

The Grand Library of Ephesus: Not Celsus. But Wilson?

Below lay the library, eight Greek columns with Doric capitals, great graceful glass doors like reflective eyes.

‘The library is the focal point of the university,’ he said.

They walked step by step toward it. It was the shape of the Parthenon. The smell that came out the swinging doors toward them was cool, bookish, and echoey.

‘Let’s go in!’ he whispered.

‘Are we supposed to?’

‘Of course!’ Actually he did not know whether they were allowed or not, but because she questioned, he bade, his authority staked on it.

Step by step they mounted the stairs. They stopped under the columns, looking upward. Isn’t beautiful?’ he asked, reveling….

They entered through the glass doors. Once in the elegant foyer, they were awed by the tallness of the high green dome, the marble floor, the chiseled staircase, the cold draft, and the whispers. They clung near each other, inching toward the carved banisters that led to the second floor, the Main Library.

‘Are you a bookworm?’ she whispered.
‘I am too.’

There was a naked statue of a Woman of Learning with nothing on and a book in her hand. She stood at the bottom of the stairway near a glass display case showing pictures of textile machinery.

‘I am going to this university too,’ Urie suddenly announced.

Her words felt momentous. These were the first words since the Bishops had arrived in Ephesus that gave a definite direction to her future. Yet the minute she had spoken them, it seemed settled and lost all importance. On the way upstairs they passed a drinking fountain. They bent down and drank out of it….

At the top of the stairs there was another statue. It was of a naked boy faun taking a splinter out of his foot. He had a wicked look on his face, and his big toe pointed to the card catalogue.

‘Urie,’ said Zebul.
‘Let’s take out a book!’
‘Can we?’
‘But what if it’s just for college students?’
‘All they can say is No, isn’t it? We’ll say we are students. They’ll never know whether college or high school.’
‘How old are you?’ she asked.
‘Thirteen, but my birthday is in sixty-four days.’
‘I am one month older than you,’ she said.
‘Be very nonchalant,’ ordered Zebul.
He headed for the card catalogue. She followed him. He opened a drawer. It was like a mouth opening. They stared at the names, thousands of them slipping before them.

–From Entering Ephesus, the 1971 novel by Chapel Hill writer Daphne Athas. The passage is part of a larger excerpt from Athas’s novel that’s featured in the recently-published compilation 27 Views of Chapel Hill.

Entering Ephesus is a coming of age novel centered around the Bishop family–parents and three daughters–living an impoverished, and somewhat bohemian, life in the towns of Haw and Ephesus. Haw, a working class town with an old mill, resembles Carrboro. And Ephesus, a college town, appears modeled after Chapel Hill.

The ancient city of Ephesus featured a grand library that also served as the tomb for the Roman governor Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus. But the library described in the passage above bears a remarkable resemblance to a place closer to home and near to the hearts of North Carolina Collection staffers, the Louis Round Wilson Library. Wilson was the main library at UNC for more than 50 years.

I hate to ruin the beauty of Athas’s writing by planting a real image in your heads. But here’s a photograph of The Boy With a Thorn, a statue that rests at the end of the main hallway on the second floor of Wilson. It’s a late 19th-century Italian marble copy of the original Greek bronze titled The Spinario, which dates to 500-400 B.C. The sculptor of the statue in Wilson was P. Bazzanti of Florence. Bazzanti’s work furnished the home of George Watts Hill of Durham until he gave it to Wilson Library in 1952.

Photo of marble statue of Boy with Thorn in Foot

Lost Colony Opens 75th Season Tonight. We’ve got prompts

Title page of Lost Colony "prompt" book
As the sun drops below the horizon tonight, more than 100 actors, singers, dancers and stage technicians will mount the opening night show for the 75th season of Paul Green’s award-winning drama The Lost Colony. The play premiered on Roanoke Island in the summer of 1937. The images featured here are from a prompt book used for productions during the outdoor drama’s first season. Although the name of the play’s director, Samuel Selden, is on the cover, our records do not indicate whether the prompt book belonged to Selden or another member of the cast or crew.

W. J. Cash apologizes to Margaret Mitchell

On this day in 1941:  W.J. Cash writes Margaret Mitchell to explain a reference to her “Gone With the Wind” in his “The Mind of the South”:

“About that ‘sentimental’ crack: thinking it over, I have an idea that what inspired that carelessly thrown-off judgment was the feeling that your ‘good’ characters were shadowy.

“On reflection, I think the feeling may have proceeded less from themselves than from the fact that they were set beside that flamboyant wench, Scarlett. There were good women all over the place in the South, of course. But Scarlett is a female to go along with Becky Sharp [in “Vanity Fair”], wholly vivid and convincing. Beside her everybody else in the book, including even Butler, seems almost an abstraction.

“I hope you don’t mind my saying it; I know how stupid the judgments of others on his creation sometimes seem to a writer. Indeed, I am often madder at the critics who are trying to be kind than at those obviously out to do me dirt.”

Alice Adams, come on down! The canon awaits

“With 36 million manuscripts and a million rare books, the Harry Ransom Center, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, is a standout in the exclusive club of the world’s great museum-quality collections….

“The Ransom Center is on a buying binge, but not with the long-dead titans of literature in mind. Instead, the library is pursuing the private papers of contemporary authors [and] is out to play a role in literary-canon formation….

Alice Adams, the [Chapel Hill-reared] novelist and short-story writer, was a major acquisition in 2000 and now seems to be the subject of a subtle awareness campaign…. En route to the [David Foster] Wallace archive, one staffer pointed out the 27 boxes comprising the Adams collection. Later, another employee, while showing me [Don] DeLillo’s letters, offhandedly mentioned her love for Adams’s stories. ‘She really should be better-known,’ the woman said, looking up at me hopefully.”

— From “Canon Fodder” by Anne Trubek in The Atlantic


Ralph Ellison to Greensboro blacks: Get moving

“…I was lecturing in North Carolina when your letter arrived  — which reminds me that some of the Negro leaders in Greensboro… are so timid that they are not accepting as fast the new responsibilities of freedom as they might, which of course they rationalize as the sole fault of white people. Fortunately, this is not true of all…. ”

— From a letter to a reader by Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” on March 31, 1953. Quoted in “Letters from Black America” by Pamela Newkirk (2009)

Phillips Russell, advocate of roads less robotically traveled

“Not everyone was so enamored of the [Interstate highway] system’s unrelenting predictability. Critics had decried the sterile nature of high-speed roads since long before limited-access became a reality….

“Phillips Russell of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill Weekly wrote in 1930 that ‘as fast as improvements are perfected, highways constantly tend to become dull and uninteresting to travel over,’ lulling travelers into ‘a state of silent torpor, with no more animation than a box of hibernating terrapins.’ ”

— From “Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways” by Earl Swift (2011)

Phillips Russell was a year away from joining the faculty at UNC, where he first taught English, then journalism. I hadn’t realized — thank you, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography — that Russell helped popularize this still-useful  admonition to writers of slow-to-launch stories: “Bring on the bear.”

Chapel Hill nightclub takes turn in literary spotlight

“It was maybe an hour before midnight at the Avalon Nightclub in Chapel Hill, and the Miz [a player on the MTV reality show “The Real World”] was feeling nervous. I didn’t pick up on this at the time — I mean, I couldn’t tell. To me he looked like he’s always looked, like he’s looked since his debut season, back when I first fell in love with his antics: all bright-eyed and symmetrical-faced, fed on genetically modified corn, with the swollen, hairless torso of the aspiring professional wrestler he happened to be and a smile you could spot as Midwestern American in a blimp shot of a soccer stadium.”

— From “Pulphead” (2011), a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan reviewed in The New Yorker (December 19)