Brother Tom and the Moravians: Two Letters from Ben Wolfe
Mitchell, Ted, Thomas Wolfe Review
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. …