Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

That "Mother-Spoiled Glut of Oily Fat": John Skally Terry in Thomas Wolfe's Life and Work

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

That "Mother-Spoiled Glut of Oily Fat": John Skally Terry in Thomas Wolfe's Life and Work

Article excerpt

In addition to reading and studying the literary works of Thomas Wolfe, both scholars and fans enjoy discovering more about Wolfe's relationships with others, especially his mother and other family members, his lovers, his editors, his literary agent, and some colleagues and friends. One friend who has been known about casually and condemned roundly is John Skally Terry. Some facts about Terry are generally known: Terry and Wolfe were both students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), they both later lived and taught in New York and spent time together socially, Terry edited the 1943 edition of Thomas Wolfe's Letters to His Mother, and he is the model for the character Jerry Alsop in Wolfe's posthumous novel The Web and the Rock. But perhaps the best-known fact about Terry is that after Wolfe's untimely death in 1938 Terry was expected to write a biography of Wolfe but did not.

This last fact inspired Edward Aswell to write--in a letter to Elizabeth Nowell dated 29 October 1953--his colorful characterization of John Terry, alias Jerry Alsop, as

   that mother-pampered and mother-spoiled glut of oily 
   fat, that psychopathically emasculated male nothing, 
   that human sponge that took all and gave nothing, that 
   embittered hater of Thomas Wolfe who made a mediocre 
   academic career of posing as Tom's best friend and 
   "authorized biographer." (143) 

This paper examines parts of Terry's life and Wolfe's use of Terry as a character in his writing and suggests possible reasons for Terry's failure to write a biography of the friend he once idolized.

John Skally Terry was born 19 November 1894 in Rockingham, the county seat of Richmond County, North Carolina. His parents were Jennie Lind Skally Terry and Edgar Burton Terry. The brick building that once housed E. B. Terry's dry goods store, now unoccupied, still stands on Washington Street in the historic district of Rockingham. Terry had an older sister and three younger brothers. At that time the public schools in Richmond County had only nine grades; Terry, wanting more education, went to live with relatives in Laurens, South Carolina, so that he could attend an additional year of high school. Though neither of his parents had attended college, Terry worked as a cashier and clerk in the Seaboard Air Line Railway freight offices in Rockingham and nearby Hamlet to earn money to go to UNC. (1)

Terry entered the University of North Carolina in September 1914, less than a month after the death of his mother; he remained in Chapel Hill until 1921. Wolfe was there during the period 1916-20. During his undergraduate years, Terry immersed himself in campus activities such as the Magazine, a literary publication for which he solicited Wolfe's first published poems; the campus newspaper, the Tar Heel; the Dialectic Society, one of the two high-profile campus debating clubs; and the Richmond County Club. He was a charter member of Epsilon Phi Delta fraternity, whose members included Albert Coates, later founder of the Institute of Government at UNC, and Luther Hodges, future North Carolina governor. Terry was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He was the secretary-treasurer of his sophomore class, vice president of his senior class, and "permanent president" of the class of 1918. He was, in many ways, a big man on campus.


Thomas Wolfe met John Terry through the Dialectic Society; Terry was vice president his junior year. Wolfe soon became a member of the group of students for whom Terry acted as mother and confessor, and from whom he expected strict adherence to his ideals of a noble and righteous life. Terry was often seen teaching the boys to dance at the YMCA; a drawing in the 1920 Yackety Yack (the school yearbook) portrays the large man, then in medical school, dancing with a much smaller male student and exclaiming, "I'm the belle of the Y" (177). …

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