While waiting to be drafted in 1918, (1) Ben Wolfe wrote to his brother Tom, (2) inviting him to Winston-Salem to witness the Moravians' Easter morning services. (3) Thomas Wolfe, then a student at the University of North Carolina, accepted Ben's invitation and later used the sojourn as the basis for a brief evocative episode in Look Homeward, Angel:
On Easter morning he arose in the blue light and went with the other pilgrims to the Moravian cemetery. "You ought to see it," Ben said. "It's a famous custom: people come from everywhere." But the older brother did not go. Behind massed bands of horns, the trumpeting blare of trombones, the big crowds moved into the strange burial ground where all the stones lay flat upon the graves--symbol, it was said, of all-levelling Death. But as the horns blared, the old ghoul-fantasy of death returned, the grave slabs made him think of tablecloths: he felt as if he were taking part in some obscene feast. Spring was coming on again across the earth like a light sparkle of water-spray: all of the men who had died were making their strange and lovely return in blossom and flower. (4) Ben walked along the streets of the tobacco town looking like asphodel. It was strange to find a ghost there in that place: his ancient soul prowled wearily by the cheap familiar brick and all the young facades. (507)
Following Tom's departure Ben wrote Julia Wolfe apprising her of his brother's visit. Written during the final eight months of Ben's life, (5) this letter includes a brief mention of "the flowers on the graves," foreshadowing his own grave, as described by Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel:
"This is a nice place," said Eugene, "You get a nice view of the town from here."
"Yes," said Mrs. Pert. "And Old Ben's got the nicest place of all. You get a better view right here than anywhere else. I've been here before in the daytime." In a moment she went on. "Old Ben will turn into lovely flowers. Roses, I think."
"No," said Eugene, "dandelions--and big flowers with a lot of thorns on them." (580)
Ben's letter to Tom provides a biographical glimpse into the relationship of the two brothers that is eventually transmogrified into the close bond between Ben and Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel. Ben's affectionate tone in his letter to Julia may come as a surprise to readers of the novel because their fictional counterparts are always at odds with each other. Most significantly, however, Ben's two letters supply Thomas Wolfe's readers with an authentic sample of Ben Wolfe's actual "voice" rather than a fictionalized characterization.
The letters have been transcribed from the original documents housed in the Thomas Wolfe Collection, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Other than word spacing and line length, no emendations have been made; Ben Wolfe's spelling and grammatical errors have been retained. Both letters, on Winston-Salem Journal letterhead, are typed, with hand corrections. The letters are published here with the kind permission of Dr. R. Dietz Wolfe and permission of the North Carolina Collection at UNC.
March 24th, 1918
Until this afternoon I just woke up to the fact that I had never answered your last letter which I received several weeks ago, and having answered several letters shortly after receiving yours, thought that I had written you at the time, also. I discovered your letter in my pocket today which brought this to my mind and regret that I overlook your answer.
Was so glad to learn that you are doing well in school and enjoying your self, too. I had a letter from Mama stating your progress and she seems well satisfied.
Well Tom, I am still with the Journal here in the Adv. Dept. I have been keeping busy as usual and doing as well as I could expect things to break for me. I am waiting to here some news from the draft before deciding on anything permanent. Was examine over a month ago by the local board here and passed as being qualified for Limited Service in some branch of the Army where my assistence can be of benefit. I feel now from the Associated Press reports of the last two days of the big German offensive that is on that it want be long before I will probably be called. I hope to get in some branch where I will be best fitted and where my past experience will be of help for advancement.
Have you heard anything from Fred (6) lately? I had a letter from him which has been nearly a month now, telling me how he was fairing and about the Navy. Says he was liking it very well. I haven't heard anything from home lately, though suppose everybody is well there. I intended writing the folks tonight if I have time as I owe a few letters there.
Tom, I was thinking whether you could get off for Easter and cared to come up to Winston-Salem for the day. This is a big event here every year as they seem to take more interest in it here, than in any other event of the year, although, I think it is merely a dress-up time mostly. The Maravian Churches attract large crowds for their Early Easter morning services which is held at the bearing grounds of their dead and numbers of people from out of town besides the local people come here especially for this early service. All the graves are beautifully decorated with flowers and during the services several bands playing carols and stationed in different parts of the towns with the echo from one to the other at different intervals, makes this service very impressive. If you can get off for the day or two days and care to come let me know and I will send you money for ticket. You could either come up Saturday afternoon in order to be here for the early service or else, come Sunday. Let me know at once about this.
By the way, about those old clothes you wanted to wear in the training. (7) I have several suits that are in very good shape for the purpose that you want them, altho, I sold some of them shortly after Christmas that were much better shape. If you can use them now will send them to you. Well Tom, I will ring off now as I haven't much news to write. Hope you are well. Write me soone if you can come. Better do it at once.
Best wishes, Ben
Apr. 4th. 1918.
How are you by this time? Heard you have been sick but hope it was nothing serious and that you have completely recovered by now. Have intended answering your letter for the past week or so, but have been unable to do so.
Tom came to Winston-Salem on Saturday the day before Easter and returned to School on last Tuesday afternoon. He was looking well and seemed to enjoyed his visit while here. I was very glad to have had him here and tried to see that he enjoyed himself, altho, he had to put in his time to some extent, either by him self, or with some boy that he was acquainted with, as I was working and couldn't very well be out with him all the time. He attended the early morning Easter service and was impress with the custom the Maravians have in carrying out this service over their dead and the unusual crowds that attended this early service, which was estimated about 18.000 people. I didn't go as I have seen it before and needed the sleep more. I did go over to the cemetary Sunday afternoon to see the flowers on the graves, and on all, very beautiful.
Tell papa that I received his message in regards to the dress suit for Tom, and which I would have gladly arranged for here, but Tom insisted that he could get one that would do just as well and more convenient for him at Durham, as he says there are places that rent them there to the college boys in that vicinity and make a business of this kind. He also says that he could borrow one from a friend of his at school who he knew if it become necessary. I had an old dress shirt, collar and white gloves in my trunk which I gave him to use as he would necessary need these articles in wearing a dress suit and would save him the expense of having to buy them. I notice he will soon be needing shoes as the ones he is now wearing are about gone to pieces and worn out on the bottoms, and tried to get him to get a new pair of low black shoes while here, as he would certainly need new ones in order to wear a dress suit to any advantage, but he said he would probably buy them later. I gave him one of my old suits which he wanted to wear while drilling, track training, baseball etc. to protect his present suit.
I haven't bought any new clothes for Spring and hardly think I shall, for awhile, until I learn something definite in regards to being drafted. I have a couple of suits that are in very good condition and will probably tide me over for a few months, and not being flushed at the present with too much money, don't feel that I can afford to take the chance on new ones until I am called, if ever. I will probably have to buy a new pair of shoes and also a new hat in self protection, or else go to the woods.
We have had some beautiful weather for Easter and couldn't hope for better. I suppose it has been very pleasant in Asheville, also. We have had a good many visitors here for Easter. All the hotels have been unable to accommodate everybody who came. Have you planted your garden?
Well Mama, I haven't much to say this time. I am feeling well and working every day. Suppose you are as busy as ever. Write me the news about your self and the others. Let me hear from you soon.
Love and best wishes,
Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. New York: Scribner's, 1929.
(1.) In February 1918 military medical examiners passed Ben for limited service behind battle lines. Over six feet tall, Ben weighed only 129 lbs. He was plagued with fevers and a high pulse rate. Reexamination would continue over the spring and summer. Eventually Ben was rejected for military service because of weak lungs (possibly dormant tuberculosis).
(2.) In Look Homeward, Angel Wolfe writes: "The boy had two short awkward letters from Ben, who was now stationed one hundred miles away, in the tobacco town. At Easter, Eugene visited him, staying at his lodgings ..." (506).
(3.) Moravians first arrived in North Carolina in 1753 and within a dozen years settled in Salem. The Moravians are spiritual descendants of Czech priest Jan Hus. His followers founded a church body consecrated to following Christ in simplicity and a life dedicated to God.
(4.) Later in the novel Ben himself is counted among the men who will return:
And the strange and buried men will come again, in flower and leaf the strange and buried men will come again, and death and the dust will never come again, for death and the dust will die. And Ben will come again, he will not die again, in flower and leaf, in wind and music far, he will come back again. (582-83)
(5.) Ben Wolfe died October 19, 1918, of pneumonia contracted during the Spanish influenza epidemic.
(6.) Frederick William Wolfe (1894-1980).
(7.) As the United States entered World War I, Thomas Wolfe, although too young at 17 to be subject to the draft, drilled for military training, along with the other students at UNC, five evenings a week.…