Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Tribute to Ted Mitchell

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Tribute to Ted Mitchell

Article excerpt

(This is an edited version of a tribute read at the 11 December 2008 memorial service at Deerfield's St. Giles Chapel, Asheville.)

I've struggled over the past few days trying to locate an appropriate quotation from the works of Thomas Wolfe--something that would serve as a fitting tribute to Ted; a passage that would sum up not only Ted's life but the feelings that I--we, collectively--share for Ted. But as I continued to comb through Wolfe's works and search the Web for just the right phrase, I kept coming up empty-handed and frustrated. I knew that, for Ted, Wolfe's words were the only fitting tribute for a man who had devoted so much of his life to knowing Thomas Wolfe more fully, to understanding and appreciating him more completely, and to helping us know Wolfe as he had come to know him.

It suddenly occurred to me that it had always been at a time such as this--searching for a particular line or phrase from Wolfe's writings in order to address a particular situation or answer a visitor's inquiry--that I would pick up the phone and call Ted. I knew that he would have the perfect Wolfe quotation at hand to respond to the need. And it was then that I realized just how completely I was going to miss Ted.

My association with Ted Mitchell began in 1996 when I joined the staff of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. I already knew of Ted's gargantuan admiration for Wolfe, and, in those early days of my employment, he shepherded me through the world of Wolfe's lyrical prose and the complex story of his turbulent life. I came to know more about Wolfe in those first few weeks than I had thought imaginable. Ted was unmistakably passionate about this novelist who'd contributed so much to American letters in such a brief lifetime. Unlike Ted, my interest in working at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial hadn't stemmed from any deep-seated admiration for Wolfe. I was, and remain, a historian--and Wolfe's story held meaning for me only from the standpoint of its place in the larger historical narrative. I mean, after all, I had once dropped an American literature course in college because Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel had been included in the list of required readings. (I ultimately read it years later of my own accord and came to appreciate it far more than I believe I would have had I been forced to read it in the confines of a college American lit course.) But I came quickly to appreciate Ted's unwavering dedication to Wolfe's story, not simply as one who admires or idolizes an iconic individual, but because Ted was always in pursuit of the historical truth. The substance of the story of Wolfe and his family, he insisted, must be based on the facts--not myth. He fought against the mythologizing of Wolfe. And in that, I knew that Ted and I shared the same convictions. Ted always rejected the title "Wolfe scholar" that many attempted to bestow upon him. Instead he described himself as a "Wolfe researcher," which didn't always seem to make sense to those around him. But I think I understood what he meant in a way that perhaps others didn't. As a true researcher, he was perpetually in pursuit of the truth, and his voluminous books, papers, and essays attest to his questing to know, and to have us know, the real story of Wolfe more fully.

Ted's transplantation to Asheville in the late 1980s came about largely because he wanted to live in the town where Thomas Wolfe had lived--the town he had written so passionately about. Several years ago, Ted described the sequence of events for me. His first trip here was just to visit Asheville--to see the sights and landmarks associated with Wolfe and his writings. It was a short visit, and, upon his return to his hometown, Oak Park, Michigan, he went back to a mundane job at a local print and graphics design shop. But that initial visit had such an impact on him that he couldn't shake it from his mind. During lunch one afternoon, he sat on a park bench across the street, and he was so full of melancholy and had such a longing to return to Asheville--knowing that it was where he belonged--that, without thinking it through, he put the rest of his sandwich in his lunch bag, walked abruptly back into the print shop, and announced to the owner that he quit! …

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