Wolfe, Thomas Clayton

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Wolfe, Thomas Clayton

Thomas Clayton Wolfe, 1900–1938, American novelist, b. Asheville, N.C., grad. Univ. of North Carolina, 1920, M.A. Harvard, 1922. An important 20th-century American novelist, Wolfe wrote four mammoth novels, which, while highly autobiographical, present a sweeping picture of American life. He was the son of William Oliver Wolfe, a stonecutter, and Julia Westall Wolfe, a boardinghouse keeper and speculator in real estate. Wolfe's early, insistent efforts to become a playwright met with frustration and failure. In 1924 he became an instructor at New York Univ., teaching there until 1930; thereafter he wrote mostly in New York City or abroad. During the late 1920s he was closely associated with Aline Bernstein (the "Esther Jack" of his novels), a noted theatrical designer, who was a major influence in his adult life.

In 1929, under the rigorous editorial guidance of Maxwell Perkins, he published his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. After the appearance of its sequel, Of Time and the River (1935), he broke with Perkins and signed a contract with Harper & Brothers, with Edward Aswell as his editor. After Wolfe died at 38 from complications following pneumonia, Aswell arranged from the material left at Wolfe's death two novels—The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940)—and a volume of stories and fragments, The Hills Beyond (1941). Wolfe's other publications include From Death to Morning (1935), a collection of short stories; and The Story of a Novel (1936), a record of how he wrote his second book.

Wolfe's works compose a picture, left somewhat incomplete by his premature death. They describe the life of a youth from the rural South through his education to his career in New York City as a teacher and writer. Wolfe's major theme was almost always himself—his own inner and outer existence—his gropings, his pain, his self-discovery, and his endless search for an enduring faith. He was obsessed by memory, time, and location, and his novels convey a brilliant sense of place. His writing is characterized by a lyrical and dramatic intensity, by the weaving and reweaving of a web of sensuous images, and by rhapsodic incantations.

See his letters, ed. by E. Nowell (1956); his letters to A. Bernstein, ed. by S. Stutman (1983); To Loot My Life Clean: The Thomas Wolfe–Maxwell Perkins Correspondence (2000), ed. by M. J. Bruccoli and P. Bucker; O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life (2000), a restored version of Look Homeward Angel, ed. by A. and M. J. Bruccoli; biographies by A. Turnbull (1967), N. F. Austin (1968), and D. H. Donald (1987); studies by R. S. Kennedy (1962), L. Field (1988), and J. L. Idol, Jr. (1987).

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