Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

The Thomas Wolfe Collection in the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

The Thomas Wolfe Collection in the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Article excerpt

The North Carolina Collection, located in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), is home to one of the most comprehensive Thomas Wolfe collections in the world. Beginning with a gift of manuscripts and photographs from the Wolfe family in 1950, the Wolfe Collection at UNC has grown to include a rich array of materials documenting all aspects of Wolfe's life and work. This article will introduce the collection to readers who have never used it and will reacquaint frequent visitors with the growing number of research opportunities available.

How the Thomas Wolfe Collection Came to Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina was the first choice for a permanent home for Thomas Wolfe's literary manuscripts. In the now well-known story that is still told by development officers and lamented by loyal alums, the university failed to raise the relatively small amount of money that Maxwell Perkins asked in exchange for the papers. This collection, which included drafts of all of Wolfe's literary works, was sold to William B. Wisdom, a collector from New Orleans, and deposited in Harvard University's Houghton Library.

UNC officials remained embarrassed by their failure to purchase the Wolfe literary manuscripts; in 1948, eight years after the papers went to Harvard, Olin Cook, assistant librarian at the university, wrote: "many of us were and still are bitter about the whole deal." However, interest in Wolfe at the school continued to grow. Cook wrote that in the university library, "almost daily we have calls for his early writings, biographical essays and facts about his life in Chapel Hill as well as current demands for his later works." (1) When university officials learned that there remained a significant collection of Wolfe letters, books, and writings in the possession of his family, they decided to take another shot at acquiring important research materials from the school's most famous literary alumnus.

Not long after Julia Wolfe died in 1945, her remaining children began to look for a permanent home for the Thomas Wolfe materials that their mother had saved, and for those that they themselves had collected. These included more than 400 letters from Wolfe to family members, Wolfe family correspondence going back as far as an 1895 note from W. O. Wolfe to Julia Wolfe, presentation copies of Wolfe novels, photographs, and a few drafts of writings and speeches. The collection as a whole would be an impressive complement to the Wolfe papers at Harvard, and would illuminate for researchers the early life of Thomas Wolfe and the always complicated relationship between the author and his family.

Charles Rush, director of the library at UNC, began correspondence in 1948 with Mabel Wolfe Wheaton, who had possession of the family papers. After Wheaton visited the university in the fall of 1948, Rush wrote enthusiastically to her of his plans for a Wolfe section in the expanded university library:

   In one of the new wings we shall devote a large area to
   the North Carolina Collection, which will include several
   unusual features and special collections. You know
   how sincerely I would like to prepare a special section
   devoted to Tom Wolfe, where under lock and key we can
   preserve for reference and exhibition use choice examples
   of his work. (2)

As Rush goes on, he shows a bit of a Wolfean influence in his own writing: "This is [Wolfe's] soil, from which came his product, and those of us who do care so much must see to it that a prophet in his own country has everlasting opportunity to be honored to the nth degree, here as elsewhere." (3)

Rush touched upon a subject on which both Mabel Wolfe Wheaton and Fred Wolfe were particularly sensitive. The Wolfe siblings were immensely proud of their brother's work, and they wanted the Thomas Wolfe Collection--whether it went to UNC or elsewhere--to be more than a stagnant archive; they wanted to create a living memorial to their brother and to their mother. …

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