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no ,6 

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in 2012 with funding from 

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 

Thomas Wolfe 

North Carolina 


Edited by 

H. G.Jones 



This edition is limited to 

five hundred copies 
of which this is number 


H, G. Jones, Editor 

No. 1. An Evening at Monticello: An Essay in Reflection (1978) 
by Edwin M. Gill 

No. 2. The Paul Green I Know (1978) 
by Elizabeth Lay Green 

No. 3. The Albert Coates I Know (1979) 
by Gladys Hall Coates 

No. 4. The Sam Ervin I Know (1980) 
by Jean Conyers Ervin 

No. 5. Sam Ragan (1981) 
by Neil Morgan 

No. 6. Thomas Wolfe of North Carolina (1982) 
Edited by H. G. Jones 

Thomas Wolfe 

North Carolina 

Papers and Reminiscences Delivered at the Second Annual Meeting of the 
Thomas Wolfe Society, Chapel Hill, 10-11 April 1981 

Edited by 

H. G.Jones 

Chapel Hill 


and the 



Copyright © 1982 by 

North Caroliniana Society, Inc. 

P.O. Box 127 

Chapel Hill North Carolina 27514-0127 

All rights reserved 

Manufactured in the United States of America 


Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

"You Can't Go Home Again: Wolfe's Germany and 

Social Consciousness," by Leslie Field 5 

"Thomas Wolfe at NYU: His Friendship with Vardis 

Fisher," by Joseph M. Flora 21 

"Thomas Wolfe and the Tar Heel," by Phillip Hettleman 31 

"Thomas Wolfe Was Here," by Richard Walser 36 

"The North Carolina Collection and Thomas Wolfe," 

byH G.Jones 40 

"The Thomas Wolfe Collection," 

by Frances A. Weaver 45 

"Memories of Thomas Wolfe," by His Schoolmates 

William H Bobbin 51 

Paul Green 52 

Elizabeth Lay Green 55 

Albert Coates 57 

Gladys Hall Coates 63 

Phillip Hettleman 67 

Nathan Mobley 68 

Benjamin Cone 70 

Ralph D. Williams 71 

William H. Andrews 74 

Katherine Robinson Everett 75 

Vance E. Swift 76 

Corydon P. Spruill 82 

R. Hobart Souther 83 

Moses Rountree 85 



The Thomas Wolfe Society — the genesis of which is traced in Richard 
Walser's "Wolfe on the Move" in The Thomas Wolfe Society Membership 
List, 1981 — held its second annual meeting at the novelist's alma mater, 
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on 10-12 April 1981. 
Members from across the land were joined by thirteen of Thomas Wolfe's 
schoolmates, each of whom recalled memories of the years 1916-1920 
when the tall young man from Asheville shared life on campus with them. 

The meeting was opened Friday afternoon in Greenlaw Hall, a new 
building named for one of Wolfe's teachers. Following a business session 
presided over by Duane Schneider of Ohio University, Leslie Field of Pur- 
due University delivered a paper titled "Vom Can't Go Home Again: 
Wolfe's Germany and Social Consciousness." That evening in Graham 
Memorial — a building named for the president of the University who 
died while Wolfe was at Chapel Hill — graduate students of the Depart- 
ment of Dramatic Art, under direction of Ann Shepherd, performed a por- 
tion of C. Hugh Holman's "37 Octobers." Unfortunately, illness pre- 
vented Dr. Holman from attending, and he died a few months later. 

On Saturday morning the meeting moved to New West Hall, a build- 
ing housing Wolfe's literary society where, he once predicted, his own 
portrait would some day hang. There, on the wall, was indeed the por- 
trait of Thomas Wolfe, painted by Frank Mason in 1979. With Vice-Pres- 
ident John L. Idol, Jr., presiding, Sue Fields Ross of Davidson College 
read a paper titled "Julia E. Wolfe: The Mother and the Memory," and 
Phillip Hettleman of New York spoke informally on "Thomas Wolfe and 
the Tar Heel.'''' Former Chief Justice William H. Bobbitt, who was unable 
to remain for the afternoon session, was persuaded to give a brief im- 
promptu talk; and Richard Walser of Raleigh, author of Thomas Wolfe, 
Undergraduate and other works, described Wolfe's association with places 
to which Mrs. Morton I. Teicher and her associates led the members at 
the conclusion of the session. 

Members in the afternoon viewed an extensive exhibit of Wolfe ma- 
terials in Wilson Library, named for the librarian familiar to Wolfe, and 


then gathered in the North Carolina Collection for papers by H. G. Jones 
on "The North Carolina Collection and Thomas Wolfe" and Frances A. 
Weaver on "The Thomas Wolfe Collection." There, under Douglas 
Gorsline's portrait of Wolfe (given to the Collection by Phillip Hettleman), 
twelve schoolmates and an early friend told of their "Memories of Thomas 
Wolfe": Paul and Elizabeth Green, Albert and Gladys Coates, Phillip 
Hettleman, Nathan Mobley, Benjamin Cone, Ralph D. Williams, Wil- 
liam H. Andrews, Katherine Robinson Everett, Vance E. Swift, Corydon 
P. Spruill, and R. Hobart Souther. It was one of Paul Green's last public 
appearances; he died on 4 May. 

Members gathered that evening in the Morehead Building for a re- 
ception and banquet arranged by a committee under the chairmanship of 
Frances Weaver. The speaker was Joseph M. Flora, the newly elected 
chairman of the University's Department of English. His topic was 
"Thomas Wolfe at NYU: His Friendship with Vardis Fisher." Each 
member in attendance was given a numbered copy of a special edition of 
Michele Chessare's line and wash drawing of Thomas Wolfe — a souvenir 
from the North Carolina Collection — and President Schneider adjourned 
the meeting by announcing that the 1982 sessions would be at Harvard 

The North Caroliniana Society and the North Carolina Collection, 
cosponsors of the meeting, are pleased to publish all but one of the formal 
papers (Professor Ross's was not available) and all of the reminiscences as 
Number 6 in the North Caroliniana Society Imprints series. Included also is a 
paper by Moses Rountree, a classmate, who was unable to attend the 
meeting. Thomas Wolfe of North Carolina is our way of commemorating 
the 1981 meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society and of celebrating the in- 
fluence of Thomas Wolfe in the literature of the state. Like other North 
Caroliniana Society Imprints, this one is published in a numbered edition of 
five hundred copies, none of which is for sale. However, as long as the 
supply lasts, a copy will be presented upon request to each donor of ten 
dollars or more to the North Caroliniana Society, the private non-profit 
corporation that helps support the North Carolina Collection of which 
the Thomas Wolfe Collection is a part. 

The editor expresses appreciation to Chancellor Christopher C. Ford- 
ham III for allocating funds to assist in covering expenses of the meeting; 
the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies for hosting the morning session; 
Ann Shepherd and her students for providing the evening performance; 
Frances Weaver for mounting the fine exhibit of Thomas Wolfe materials; 


the officers of the Thomas Wolfe Society and the staff of the North Caro- 
lina Collection for their support and encouragement; and the speakers 
who consented to have their remarks published. Paul Gitlin, administrator 
of the Estate of Thomas Wolfe, has given this publication his blessings, 
and his permission provides the editor an opportunity for public acknowl- 
edgment of Mr. Gitlin's cordial and helpful cooperation in the administra- 
tion of the Thomas Wolfe Collection in the North Carolina Collection. 


North Carolina Collection 
University of North Carolina Library 
Chapel Hill 27514 




Line and Wash Drawing by Michele Chessare, 1979 

(Original owned by North Carolina Collection) 




You Can't Go Home Again: Wolfe's 
Germany and Social Consciousness 

In his four large novels and two collections of stories, Wolfe dwelled 
on a few themes, which, in The Story of a Novel, 1 he pointed out had been 
central to his writings: his various concepts of time, the "Where Now?" 
motif, and man's search for a spiritual father. In the speech he gave at Pur- 
due University in 1938, 2 he said that these earlier themes were no longer 
crucial. Entries in his notebooks 3 and letters 4 echo this assertion. He noted 
that as a beginning writer he had been too egocentric, too much the sen- 
sitive artist divorced from his environment. Late in his young life he saw 
the need for looking outside of himself, for looking at the political, social, 
and economic world, and for trying to understand it, assimilate it, and 
somehow to bring it into his own writing. This movement away from 
narcissism he attempted in his last novel, You Can't Go Home Again. 5 

In many ways The Web and the Rock is fictionalized autobiography 
with protagonist George Webber playing Thomas Wolfe, as were the first 
two books with the earlier counterpart, Eugene Gant. But in The Web and 
the Rock Wolfe seems to be moving outside himself to a new social aware- 
ness, a new social consciousness of people and institutions that are not sim- 
ply projections of Thomas Wolfe. 

With You Can't Go Home Again, Wolfe goes even farther in this direc- 
tion. Episodically, the novel's protagonist involves himself with a variety 
of people, places, and ideas. Early on George Webber resumes his life with 
Esther in New York. He awaits publication of his first novel. He returns 
home for a visit and has a reunion with a boyhood friend, Nebraska Crane, 
a professional baseball player. He meets Judge Rumford Bland, a usurer 
whom he used to know. He ruminates on all that has gone wrong in the 
town he grew up in. Then he returns to New York. Wolfe has chapters 


on the Jack family in their fashionable New York apartment. A party fea- 
turing Piggy Logan and a fire at the Jacks 's assume symbolic proportions 
as Wolfe contrasts the haves and have nots in depression United States. 

Further episodes involve George's trip to England and Germany. In 
England he has a wildly kaleidoscopic time with Lloyd McHarg, sup- 
posedly fashioned on Sinclair Lewis, and on his last trip to his beloved Ger- 
many George sees the face of evil in the Nazis who lionize him, preen for 
the Olympic Games, and smash in the heads of Jews on the side streets of 
Berlin and Munich. "I have a Thing to Tell You" (which initially ap- 
peared as a separate piece in The New Republic) 6 is a poignant picture of 
man's inhumanity to man, the Nazi persecution of the Jew. Finally we 
have "Ecclesiasticus" and the "Credo," on which the book ends. 

Some of Wolfe's finest expressions of social awareness emerged in You 
Can't Go Home Again. Much of this social awareness or social conscious- 
ness involves Wolfe's attitude toward Germany and the Jews. Was Wolfe 
anti-Semitic? In a very real sense his fiction and especially his letters and 
notes do reveal bigotry and prejudice. Moreover, in his seven trips to Ger- 
many he discovered in himself a strong affinity for Germans and Teutonic 
culture — long before he discovered his America. Yet in "I Have a Thing 
to Tell You," which reappeared as a climactic epiphany in the last part of 
You Can't Go Home Again, Wolfe sees the evil behind the mask of Ger- 
many, and senses at once that anti-Semitism and humanity are incompat- 

George Webber, having returned to his beloved Germany as a famous 
author, is now on a train leaving it once more. At Aachen, the last stop 
before the border, he and other travelers in his compartment are shocked 
that one of their fellow passengers — a nervous little man, whom George 
had privately called Fuss-and-Fidget — had been seized by the authorities. 
The rumor circulates that he is a Jew caught trying to escape with all of his 
money. As the terrified little man tries to persuade the officers to let him 
go, he is led past his traveling companions, his eyes glancing at them for 
just a moment. But he does not betray them by showing in any way that 
he knows them, and they board the train, leaving him behind on the plat- 
form. "He looked once, directly and steadfastly, at his former companions, 
and they at him. And in that gaze there was all the unmeasured weight of 
man's mortal anguish" (YCGHA, p. 699). Wolfe wrote this in the 1930s, 
some time before the rest of the world took seriously the plight of the Jew, 
and well before one heard the terms final solution, collective guilt, and The 
Holocaust. 7 


Wolfe was gaining in knowledge and sensitivity, but his perception 
that "you can't go home again" did not break his spirit; indeed, strangely 
enough, it heartened him. Life is change, he felt, and therefore we can im- 
prove it. His final credo, in the last pages of his novel, is no defeated whine 
or whimper. The loss of false illusions, he said, is only the way to new 
belief. Here is Wolfe's conclusion: 

I believe we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found. 
And this belief . . . is . . . not only our own hope, but America's everlasting, 
living dream. I think the life which we have fashioned in America, and 
which has fashioned us . . . was self-destructive in its nature, and must be 
destroyed. I think these forms are dying, and must die, just as I know that 
America and the people in it are deathless, undiscovered, and immortal, and 
must live. 

I think the true discovery of America is before us. I think the true fulfill- 
ment of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty and immortal land, is yet to 
come. I think the true discovery of our democracy is still before us. And I 
think that all these things are certain as the morning, as inevitable as noon 
.... Our America is Here, is Now, and beckons us, and . . . this glorious 
assurance is not only our living hope, but our dream to be accomplished. 
(YCGHA, p. 741) 

Thus does Wolfe's long, posthumous work end optimistically as a 
celebration of America that he knew and loved. He saw the face of evil all 
around him but he insisted in his fictional letter to Foxhall Edwards/Max- 
well Perkins that "we must deny it all along the way." 

Richard Kennedy in The Window of Memory does a remarkably com- 
prehensive analysis of the ambience for You Can't Go Home Again. In a sec- 
tion called "A Political Awakening: I Have a Thing to Tell You," Ken- 
nedy details a chronological and psychological context for this period of 
Wolfe creativity. Kennedy sums up this way: For most of his life, Wolfe 
was not a politically minded person. Even though he had been to Europe, 
including Germany, a few times, "he knew more about European restau- 
rants than about European social problems." 8 In short, Wolfe's attitudes 
toward Germany and his knowledge of the German political system had 
been superficial up to about 1935. He had had "casual contacts" with 
Germans, resented some of the arrogance he observed among them, and 
dismissed samples of German materialism as vulgar Babbittism. But still 
Wolfe "had come to love Munich and the southern Germanic people of 
Austria. In his writing he began to identify his father's country in southern 
Pennsylvania with a Germanic cleanliness, generosity, and vitality." 9 


But when Wolfe went to Germany in 1935, he saw a change: Nazism 
and evil had begun to seep into the very fibre of the German soul. 10 Ken- 
nedy goes on to acknowledge that ' T Have a Thing to Tell You is a well- 
defined mark in Wolfe's career in both thought and composition. In order 
to purge himself of guilt for having been deceived by the veneer of 
Nazism, Wolfe acknowledges the claim of human brotherhood with a 
strength that his self-centered individualism had not allowed to emerge be- 
fore." 11 

That which now appears as Wolfe's last publications is significant 
ideologically, aesthetically, and bibliographically. Over the years much has 
been made of the posthumous Wolfe works. Most recently John Halber- 
stadt, writing in the New York Review of Books and the Yale Review, 12 
raises the big question once again: Who put together Thomas Wolfe's 
posthumous books? He argues that what we have today in The Web and 
the Rock, You Can't Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond is as much the 
creation of Aswell, Wolfe's last editor, as it is of Wolfe. Maybe more. 
Perhaps. I don't wish to explore that controversy now. Suffice it to say 
that before Halberstadt, Kennedy, Holman, Field, Reeves, Rubin and 
others pointed out in one way or another that the Wolfe in these post- 
humous books is not the Wolfe who wrote Look Homeward, Angel Crea- 
tive and perhaps even freewheeling editing have given us twice as much 
Wolfe fiction as we would have had had we relied solely on the material 
Wolfe saw into print before he died. Some of this editing may be akin to 
what we now associate with Billy Budd or The Mysterious Stranger. That is, 
a well-meaning attempt by editors, in this instance Edward Aswell, to 
give us a text that we otherwise would not have had. Or it may be a shod- 
dy bit of editorial commercialese. Time will tell. 

However, a central fact does remain: Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel 
was written in a subjective, romantic vein. As a beginning writer he 
worked introspectively and egotistically — very much from within. Later, 
in the 1930s, like Whitman, he used autobiography to move from the / to 
America, Europe, and the cosmos. His letters, notebook jottings and 
statements, plans for his forthcoming books in the 1930s were often repe- 
titious, fuzzy, ill-defined. But a common denominator does emerge: In 
this period Wolfe was conscious that he wanted to move away from his 
earlier subjective mode of writing typified by Look Homeward, Angel. He 
was moving on to something else. And that something else was a sense of 
social consciousness, objectivity, and a belief in "you can't go home 
again" in all of its ramifications. 13 


In Wolfe's Notebooks we have ample evidence that he had been wor- 
rying about his new direction for some time. For example, in a section 
called "Political and Social Notes: 1937-1938," Wolfe darts back and forth 
as he considers dictatorship, socialism, democracy, and other forms of 
government. In a piece called "A Spanish Letter," which he never mailed, 
Wolfe wrestled with many forms of government, including Fascism. In a 
somewhat revised form this material was included in Chapter 38 of You 
Can't Go Home Again (Notebooks, pp. 901-14). 

In typically rambling fashion Wolfe covers much ground in his 
"Spanish Letter." First he goes back to his roots, North Carolina, and his 
hard-working stone-cutter father, the solid conservative outlook of his 
family, then to his own lyrical writing and juvenile conflicts with his en- 
vironment, his early limited view of the artist and his society, his breaking 
away from his romantic egocentric artistic view of life, his ultimate break 
with his locale: 

You can't go home again — back to your childhood, back to the father you 
have lost, back to the solacements of time and memory — yes, even back to 
art and beauty and to love. For me, at any rate, it is now manifest that they 
are not enough. And I do not think that this be treason .... (Notebooks, p. 
904) 1 ' 

Wolfe went on to say in this long letter that he had left his home in 
North Carolina, had wandered the streets of Brooklyn, had written 
much, had visited Germany, for which he felt a special love, had gone 
back to New York, and then had returned to Germany. Finally, he said, 
he discovered that Germany had changed. Germany was still golden, and 
he was embarking upon a glorious career, but something was wrong. He 
met friends, saw signs, felt something. And ultimately he saw a picture of 
Germany that he had never seen before: He began to see and feel and ex- 
perience "the full horror" of that which had never before been part of life. 

This was the picture of a great people who were spiritually sick, psy- 
chically wounded: who had been poisoned by the contagion of an ever-pres- 
ent fear, the pressure of a constant and infamous compulsion, who had been 
silenced into a sweltering and malignant secrecy, until spiritually they were 
literally drowning in their own secretions, dying from the distillations of 
their own self poison, for which now there was no medicine or release. 
(Notebooks, 907) 

Wolfe still felt in 1935 that the German people had a noble heritage. 
As difficult as life was then, they still reached out in order to share cultures 


of the past and those around them in the present. He saw that the Ger- 
mans were still immersed in literature and the arts. But Wolfe also sensed 
that even this semblance of the old Germany was rapidly disappearing. 

Everywhere about me, as time went on during that spring and summer 
of 1935, I saw the evidence of this dissolution, this shipwreck of a great 
spirit, this miasmic poison that sank like a pestilential fog through the very 
air, tainting, sickening, blighting with its corrosive touch, through fear, 
pressure, suppression, insane distrust and spiritual disease, the lives of every- 
one I met. It was, and was everywhere, as invisible as a plague, and as unmis- 
takable as death; it sank in on me through all the golden singing of that May, 
until at last I felt it, breathed it, lived it, and knew it for the thing it was. 
(Notebooks, p. 909). 

Wolfe returned to Germany one last time, in 1936, and he noted that 
"the pestilence of the year before had spread and deepened" (Notebooks, p. 
909). It was the time of the Olympic Games in Germany, and Wolfe de- 
scribed in great detail the magnificence and pagentry of the games, which 
signified the power and preeminence of Germany. And then he contrasted 
this with the other spectacle — 

. . . great displays of marching men, sometimes ungunned but rhythmic, 
great regiments of brown shirts swinging through the streets; again, at ease, 
young men and laughing, talking with each other, long lines of Hitler's 
bodyguards, black-uniformed and leather-booted, the Schutz-Staffel men, 
stretching in unbroken lines from Leader's residence in the Wilhemstrasse up 
to the arches of the Brandenburger Tor; then suddenly the sharp command, 
and instantly, unforgettably, the liquid smack of ten thousand boots as they 
came together, with the sound of war. (Notebooks, p. 913) 

Thus did Wolfe see the complete corruption of his beloved Germany, his 
second home. And it sickened him as he realized with a sorrowful heart 
that he could not go home again. 

By February, 1938, Wolfe had apparently roughed out the contents 
of what was to be the novel we know as You Can't Go Home Again. The 
long synopsis or statement of purpose, although designed for Edward 
Aswell's eyes, was not seen by Aswell until after Wolfe's death. As we 
know, much controversy still exists concerning whether Wolfe's post- 
humous publications were well-served by his editors at Harper's. 15 

At any rate, Wolfe's "Statement" talks of a book which he plans to 
be a "process of discovery." He says: 


... the whole book might almost be called "You Can't Go Home Again" 
— which means back home to the father one has lost, back home to romantic 
love, to a young man's dream of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to 
escape to "Europe" and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, singing 
just for singing's sake. ... — back home to the escapes of Time and 
Memory. (Notebooks, p. 939) 

Wolfe goes on to say that he is planning a "hopeful" book, an opti- 
mistic view of life. Moreover, he intends this to be "the most objective 
book that he has ever written, and he also intends . . . [paradoxically] for 
it to be the most autobiographical" (Notebooks, p. 939). In this long state- 
ment Wolfe speaks of himself as author in the third person. It gives him a 
chance to stand at some distance from himself as he describes the self he 
once was, the self who wrote the earlier fiction such as Look Homeward, 
Angel It gives him an opportunity to expound once more on his use of 

Autobiographically, therefore, he [the protagonist] should bear perhaps 
about the same relationship to the life of the author, as Wilhelm Meister 
bears to the life of Goethe, or as Copperfield bears to the life of Dickens: as to 
the story itself — the legend — it should bear about the same relation to the 
life of the author . . . even perhaps as Don Quixote bears to the life of Cer- 
vantes — although this book is perhaps more in the vein of satiric legendry 
than the book the author has in mind. (Notebooks, p. 942) 

Leo Gurko points out that "the subject matter [of YCGHA] is aggres- 
sively sociological, at times grimly so. The two great experiences of the 
1930s — the depression and the rise of the Fascist empires — are more 
vividly present than were earlier contemporary events in the preceding 
novels." 16 Gurko says this book may very well be Wolfe's "depression 
novel." Moreover, he goes on, "An instructive view of Wolfe in his last 
stage can be gained by comparing You Can't Go Home Again with The 
Grapes of Wrath, another depression novel. . . ," 17 Although Gurko sees 
great differences between the two books, he does posit some striking par- 
allels that are intriguing: 

The two novels wonderfully reflect the two movements of the thirties: 
the contraction at the start and the expansion at the end. One can say that 
Rose of Sharon offering her milky breast to the starving man on the last page 
of The Grapes of Wrath is a metaphor of the sentiments expressed in Wolfe's 
credo on the last pages of You Can't Go Home Again. 18 


Wolfe's experiences, his life in the South and the city, his observation 
of aesthetes and the wealthy, and the vivid impressions he had of the de- 
pression, progressively molded and enlarged his critical awareness of life 
outside himself. He gained a new insight into American society and into 
man himself; but he needed further experiences for the maturation of his 
social consciousness: Germany conveniently provided him with these. 
Wolfe himself recognized that the way to find America was to leave it. 19 
Oddly enough, his sojourns in Europe — especially in Germany — led 
him by a straight path to an augmented awareness of America. 

Wolfe's feeling about Germany up to perhaps 1936, or even 1937, 
parallels his expression in "Dark in the Forest, Strange as Time" (in his 
From Death to Morning collection): that is, an almost mystical feeling of 
kinship for Germany and the Germans, to which the Germans seemed in- 
stinctively to respond. Wolfe's novels were popular in Germany both 
with the critics and the reading public. 20 In 1935 German cultural life was 
highly controlled by the Nazis, and Wolfe's appeal was not to the Nazis, 
"but in spite of them." 21 In the mid-thirties there existed a potent and 
dangerous underground current, "Die Stillen im Lande," generated by 
people of all classes and professions who, in disgust with the party princi- 
ples of National Socialism and the inclusion of these values in contempo- 
rary German letters, quietly and unobtrusively rebelled by turning to 
American and British literature. 22 It was to this responsive and sensitive 
group that Wolfe appealed. Wolfe became a legendary figure in Germany 
during his 1935 visit. His appeal lay, by and large, in the "implicit roman- 
ticism" of his early works. 23 To the Germans he symbolized an era "when 
great writers were great men. Something of the angel and the demon in 
him . . . gave back to the intellectual and creative people of Berlin a sense 
of their past, of the dignity and power and freedom of a mind not under 
stress." 24 Wolfe, quite naturally, was influenced by this German enthu- 
siasm, and his final awareness of the sickness of Germany hurt all the more 
because of the warmth and love the Germans had bestowed upon him and 
because he had so loved his dark Helen. 25 

Those who knew Wolfe seem to agree that in 1935 he did not or 
could not recognize what was happening to Germany. Ledig-Rowohlt 
(depicted as Franz Heilig in YCGHA) recalls that, during Wolfe's 1935 
trip to Germany, their conversations were primarily unpolitical. And, says 
Rowohlt, Wolfe was carried away by the adulation of his German friends 
to the extent that "his political skepticism was still glossed over by joy at 
his literary success; and besides, he loved Berlin more than any other Euro- 


pean capital." 26 Wolfe in 1935 was so bewitched by his German fame that 
he was not then overly critical of the Nazis, accepting "surface impres- 
sions" of Hitler's Germany. 27 Wolfe's 1935 mood has been explained as a 
"state of delirium" induced by personal experiences. Of Time and theRiver 
had just been published and proclaimed a success. Wolfe's exuberance over 
this good fortune released months and years of pent-up anxiety, and 
"everything . . . [took on] the proportions of a gigantic and infinitely 
beautiful dream." His trips to Germany heightened this euphoria. He left 
this land of magical dark beauty "with many of his illusions intact, 
though some were wavering." 28 In a letter to Maxwell Perkins, in which 
he describes his impressions of Germany in 1935, Wolfe tells of the changes 
he has witnessed in the Germans. He is hurt, puzzled, and somewhat 
mystified by the metamorphosis which he recognizes connotes only evil. 
But, Wolfe warns, this evil is not isolated: it affects the entire world: 
"But more and more I feel that we are all of us bound up and tainted by 
whatever guilt and evil there may be in this whole world and that we can- 
not accuse and condemn others without in the end coming back to an ac- 
cusal of ourselves." 29 He describes with heartfelt pain the German towns 
overrun with marching soldiers, contrasting this image with a picture of 
the sun "shining all day long and the fields the greenest. . . Z' 30 Thus, 
there were creeping in on Wolfe in 1935 incipient doubts about Germany, 
and the next year he returned there, soberer, "eager to learn what lay be- 
neath the surface of Nazi success and effectiveness." 31 

Publicity of international events and figures was permitted in Germany 
in 1936 because of the Olympic Games being held there that year. Wolfe's 
German publisher shrewdly used this opportunity to publicize Wolfe and 
his novels, although Wolfe "made no secret of what he thought of 
Hitler's activities." The aura of secrecy and intrigue in Germany that year 
engulfed even Wolfe. He became attracted to a blonde artist who later 
made an unflattering drawing of him, which Wolfe indignantly berated as 
giving him a "Schweingesicht." Then, according to Rowohlt, Wolfe in 
all seriousness suspected that the blonde had been bribed by the Gestapo to 
caricature him. Rowohlt explains this ludicrous situation: "Lately he 
[Wolfe] had come across so many frightening details about the National 
Socialist regime that he, too, began to suffer under the weight of personal 
mistrust and political suspicion." 32 And Wolfe even suspected his pub- 
lishers of machinations against him because in 1936 his novels were not 
selling as well in Germany as they had earlier. 33 

Actually, Wolfe was quite concerned that year with the "Dark 
Messiah," Hitler. He had seen Hitler at the games, and from Martha 


Dodd, the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany, he had re- 
ceived information about Hitler which made him more informed about 
Hitler's deeds than the Germans were. Wolfe, says Rowohlt, had no opti- 
mistic illusions in 1936 about Germany and feared more mischief was in- 
evitable; and "he realized bitterly that everywhere the men of good will 
were being oppressed by the men of power, and that Hitler was unleash- 
ing nothing but evil in the world." 34 Wolfe learned much from Rowohlt. 
With the American, Rowohlt discussed personal troubles and pressing 
social problems, such as the infringement of civil liberties by the Nazis. 
"Through my own example," Rowohlt tells, "it became particularly 
clear to him how much the tyranny of National Socialism forced us to 
abandon our individual rights," how much the German people were be- 
ing pushed into the position where communication among them was dif- 
ficult. 35 

Rowohlt encouraged Wolfe to write a novel, not as a propagandist 
but as a novelist appealing "to the conscience of mankind." However, re- 
calls Rowohlt, Wolfe merely smiled, and indicated that because he loved 
mankind above all else "he would be obliged to be political in such a 
book," 36 the "book" being the story/essay he called "I Have a Thing to 
Tell You." At least one thing is certain about his story: it showed that 
Wolfe had resolved his emotional and intellectual difficulties about Fas- 
cism by 1937, for "I Have a Thing to Tell You" is a categorical repudia- 
tion of Nazism; and Wolfe, writing to a friend, claimed that the story 
showed his break with the Reich. 37 

Though the story was a worthwhile, timely, and necessary revelation 
of the ills of Nazism, Wolfe endangered his friends, particularly Rowohlt, 
whom he depicted as Franz Heilig. Few readers of Rowohlt's American 
Scholar article on Wolfe's last stay in Germany will be unmoved by 
Rowohlt's description of his emotions in 1937 when Martha Dodd sug- 
gested that he read The New Republic. Reading "I Have a Thing to Tell 
You," he was instantly aware that Wolfe had transcribed their conversa- 
tions "with phonographic exactness," and had rendered Heilig 's bio- 
graphical data correctly as Rowohlt's. The rending thing for Rowohlt 
was that Wolfe had pictured Heilig "with all the inner contradictions that 
the tactical juggling of those years involved and that he, as an American, 
simply could not understand." Wolfe, though, probably understood that 
he was endangering the lives of his friends as well as his own position in 
Germany, but felt that he must place truth and integrity foremost. 
Rowohlt describes the situation as follows: "Here indeed, a writer had 


seized on an outstanding political situation, had 'written what he had to 
write,' and had made his appeal to the conscience of mankind." 38 

Rowohlt had warned Wolfe that the Nazis would blacklist his books 
if he wrote anything politically tinged against Nazism. As predicted, his 
books were banned by the Nazis until it was decided "that the circulation 
of The New Republic was not such as to foment any considerable anti-Nazi 
sentiment." 39 It is ironic that Wolfe, whose appeal to the Germans for so 
long lay in the "implicit romanticism and unpolitical humanism" of his 
earlier works, whose novels, the Germans felt, "stood apart from national 
and international issues of the day and operated in a non-political frame of 
reference that was neither Nazi or anti-Nazi," 40 should have his books 
blacklisted for several months because he offended the sensibilities of the 
Nazis by finally writing a story with unguarded and intentional political 
overtones which hardly sanction National Socialism. 

The change which 1936 Germany wrought in Wolfe is reflected in the 
basic attitudes he held late in life and subsequently espoused in the fiction 
published posthumously. You Can't Go Home Again is Wolfe's most po- 
litically minded work. A convincing argument has been made that the 
basis of his earlier works was "vitalism" 41 — that is, an attitude which 
does not "express itself in social or political terms," an attitude which em- 
phasizes life as "an all-pervasive force," which expresses itself through 
feeling rather than "theoretical application." It is a type of Nietzschean 
will to power, "a wish to overpower, a wish to overthrow," to expand, 
absorb, dominate everything. Compare, for instance, Eugene Gant's Faus- 
tian desire to know and have everything with George Webber's later view 
to see the similarity between Nietzsche's and Wolfe's "vitalism." The 
young Wolfe, also like Nietzsche, has contempt for the masses or 
"mans warm." Wolfe had considered himself an individual superior to 
and above the masses, who lack vitality; but he admired the Munich beer- 
hall crowd, for to him they were a vital collective entity; and the Olympic 
Games, with their "collective vitality" impressed him. But when Wolfe 
became aware of the evils in Germany — racism, worship of force, anti- 
intellectual suppression of truth — he related these evils to the qualities he 
found in himself and his own work. Realizing that Nazism is atavistic, he 
rejects similar primitivistic, vitalistic tendencies, concluding that man can- 
not return to sub-rationality; and therefore he must repudiate his own in- 
dividualism. This repudiation of vitalism must bring about a recasting of 
personality. Wolfe must now give his brain complete control; his "critical 
intelligence" must constantly be in the fore. That is, he must now become 


a thoroughgoing socially conscious thinker and writer. Wolfe had indeed 
assumed a heavy artistic role. For the remainder of his short life he would 
faithfully adhere to this stance in his fiction. But he refused to sacrifice his 
imagination on the altar of fact. Thus did he become obsessed with the 
translation of "fact" into the "substance of poetic truth." 42 

Wolfe's social criticism may seem naive, superficial, and emotional, 
but Wolfe was attempting to mature, to develop a social consciousness, 
and to temper the emotional extravagance, the prejudices of his earlier 
works with "critical intelligence." The lack of "movement and color, in- 
dividuality and magnificence" in You Can't Go Home Again and The Hills 
Beyond compared with his earlier writing is perhaps a result of Wolfe's in- 
hibition of vitalism in these later works in favor of a cooler and more criti- 
cal objectivity. 43 Before 1937, for example, he could write in his notebook 
a vindication of Hitler's government because in Germany "you are free to 
speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are 
bad, corrupt, and unpleasant people. In America you are not free to say 
this" (Notebooks, p. 829). But in 1937 he could write in "I Have a Thing 
to Tell You" a tragic, sympathetic story of the German-Jew, "Fuss-and- 
Fidget." 44 This objective treatment of a Jew — who is not characterized 
as a Jew or described with stereotyped adjectives which (barring a few 
special exceptions) Wolfe normally attributes to Jews — is remarkable in 
comparison with Wolfe's earlier depiction of Jews. 45 And it does not seem 
too farfetched to say that Wolfe seems to have grown in stature, tempera- 
mentally and artistically, because he was able in this story to depict a Jew 
sympathetically and objectively. The border incident, then, is for Wolfe 
the final piece of the puzzle which he needed to formulate a creed and a 
positive attitude. 

Wolfe was now unflinchingly aware of the evil in man: Hitler was a 
"recrudescence of an old barbarism," the atavistic propensities in man 
springing out. Racism, worship of brute force, suppression of truth, re- 
sort to lies, myths, contempt for the individual, anti-intellectualism, belief 
in blind faiths and obedience — "each of these fundamental elements of 
Hitlerism was a throwback to that fierce and ancient tribalism" which 
made the Teutons destory the Roman civilization. "That primitive spirit 
of greed and lust and force had always been the true enemy of mankind" 
and still is, Wolfe concludes, not only in Germany, but in America, 
wherever the ruthless "dog-eat-dog" philosophy is sanctioned. Recog- 
nizing the evil atavistic tendencies in mankind and in himself, he firmly 
believes that man, if he is to be saved, cannot go home again — and this 


summation of his experiences was the most difficult value judgment he 
had ever made or had to face (YCGHA, pp. 705-706). 46 And at the pin- 
nacle of his development of social consciousness, he finds — significantly 
enough — that he must reject Fox's credo: 

All of this makes the paradox of our great difference as hard and strange 
as the paradox of our polarity. And in this lies the root of trouble and the seed 
of severance. Your own philosophy has led you to accept the order of things 
as they are because you have no hope of changing them; and if you could 
change them, you feel that any other order would be just as bad. In ever- 
lasting terms — those of eternity — you and the Preacher may be right; for 
there is no greater wisdom than the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, no acceptance 
finally so true as the stern fatalism of the rock. Man was born to live, to suf- 
fer, and to die, and what befalls him is a tragic lot. There is no denying this in 
the final end. But we must, dear Fox, deny it all along the way. (YCGHA, p. 737) 

His final credo, expressing a belief in man's ultimate ability to con- 
quer the enemies of greed, lust, atavism, is genuine philosophy and faith, 
even though many insist that Wolfe reaches an impossible conclusion. It is 
a culminating faith, its pinnacle based on critical evaluation of the town, 
the metropolis, the wealthy, the masses; on a critical observation of the 
consequences of the depression and Nazism; and a value judgment arrived 
at by a man striving for and finally reaching a social consciousness. 


'Thomas Wolfe, The Story of a Novel (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936). 

2 William Braswell and Leslie A. Field, eds., Thomas Wolfe's Purdue Speech: "Writing and 
Living" (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Studies, 1964). 

3 P>ichard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves, eds., The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe, 2 vols. 
(Chapel Hill; The University of North Carolina Press, 1970). All subsequent references will 
be to volume 2 of this edition and will be indicated by Notebooks parenthetically in the text. 

4 Elizabeth Nowell, ed., The Letters of Thomas Wolfe (New York: Charles Scribner's 
Sons, 1956). 

5 Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940). 
All subsequent references will be indicated by YCGHA parenthetically in the text. 

6 See YCGHA, pp. 691-99, which is a modification but substantially the same material 
as "I Have a Thing to Tell You," The New Republic, 10, 17, 24 March 1937, pp. 132-36, 
159-64, 202-07. See also C. Hugh Holman, ed., The Short Novels of Thomas Wolfe (New 
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961), pp. 235-78. 


7 To capture the same time frame and the factual context Wolfe alludes to fictionally, see 
especially Arthur D. Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New 
York: Random House, 1968), and Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of The 
Truth about Hitler's Final Solution (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980). 

8 Richard S. Kennedy, The Window of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe 
(Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962), p. 325. 

'Kennedy, p. 326. See also YCGHA, p. 728 and Purdue Speech, p. 69. Significant ma- 
terial concerning Wolfe's German experiences and his attitudes toward Germany appears fic- 
tionally throughout books VI and VII of YCGHA. The factual source for this material in a 
variety of forms appears in the following: Notebooks, pp. 901-19; Purdue Speech, pp. 67-78; 
and in Nowell's Letters, pp. 459-63 ff. See also Elizabeth Nowell, Thomas Wolfe: A Biography 
(Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1960), pp. 120-27ff. 

,0 Kennedy, pp. 328-32. 

"Kennedy, p. 332. 

"See John Halberstadt, "Who Wrote Thomas Wolfe's Last Novels?" The New York 
Review of Books, XXVIII (March 19, 1981), 51-52; see also John Halberstadt, "The Making 
of Thomas Wolfe's Posthumous Novels," The Yale Review, 70 (Autumn 1980), 79-99; Eliot 
Fremont-Smith, "Wolfegate: Of Time, the River, and Fraud." The Village Voice, February 
25-March 3, 1981, pp. 35, 37; Edwin McDowell, "Paper on Thomas Wolfe Stirs Debate on 
Scholarship VS Privacy," The New York Times (Mon., April 6, 1981), p. 17; Richard S. 
Kennedy, "The 'Wolfegate' Affair," Harvard Magazine, 84 (September-October 1981), 
48-53, 62. 

"See especially Purdue Speech, pp. 89ff. 

,4 In various forms this material and other Notebooks entries dealing with Wolfe's con- 
cepts of "you can't go home again" appear in YCGHA, pp. 704-43, and in Purdue Speech, 
Appendix I, pp. 89-116. 

15 See Halberstadt, note 12. Halberstadt claims that his dissertation on Wolfe "may not 
leave the library at Yale in either its book or microfilm form," but if it were permitted to see 
the light of day, he might prove that Wolfe's posthumous novels were "not really written 
by Wolfe in the usual sense but were predominantly the work of . . . Edward Aswell." 

16 Leo Gurko, Thomas Wolfe: Beyond the Romantic Ego (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell 
Company, 1975), p. 137. 

"Gurko, p. 154. 

18 Gurko, pp. 154-55. 

19 See The Story of a Novel, p. 30. 

20 See William W. Pusey, III, "The German Vogue of Thomas Wolfe," The Germanic 
Review, XXIII (April 1948), 13748; Kurt Pinthus, "Culture Inside Nazi Germany," The 
American Scholar, LX (Autumn 1940), 490; and Martha Dodd, Through Embassy Eyes (New 
York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1940), pp. 89-91. 

"Pusey, p. 140. 

"Pinthus, p. 490. 


"Pusey, p. 141. It is interesting to note that the quality for which the Germans admired 
Wolfe — Romanticism — is the same for which many American critics have rejected him. 
Years ago Edmund Wilson succinctly summed up the attitude of American critics: "I have 
never written about Thomas Wolfe, because I find him completely unreadable. I know that 
he has talent, but his writing is too verbose for me — I admire compactness and terseness — 
and his swollen imagination is very uncongenial to me. I found last year in Germany that he 
was enormously popular over there — he is, I suppose, writing in the tradition of German 
romanticism, but this does not endear him to me." — Edmund Wilson, letter to the present 
writer, 19 April 1955. 

^Dodd, pp. 90-91. 

"See C. Hugh Holman, The Loneliness at the Core: Studies in Thomas Wolfe (Baton 
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975), p. 151. 

"Henrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, "Thomas Wolfe in Berlin," The American Scholar, 
XXH (Spring 1953), 189-91. 

"Pusey, p. 142. 

"Dodd, pp. 91-94. 

w Roger Burlingame, Of Making Many Books: A Hundred Years oj Reading, Writing, and 
Publishing (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946), p. 325. Although in his book he does 
not mention to whom and on what date this letter was written, Mr. Burlingame informed 
me that Wolfe wrote the letter to Maxwell Perkins on 23 May 1935. To my knowledge, 
this letter does not appear in any collection of Wolfe or Perkins letters. — Roger Burlingame, 
letter to the present writer, 18 July 1955. 

^Burlingame, pp. 325-26. 

31 Dodd, p. 94. 

32 The material in this paragraph comes from Rowohlt, pp. 194-95. 

33 Rowohlt, p. 198. 

^Rowohlt, p. 196. 

"Rowohlt, p. 197. 

"Rowohlt, pp. 196, 199. 

37 Thomas Wolfe, letter to Dixon Wecter, 5 March 1937. See Letters, p. 614. 

"Rowohlt, pp. 200-01. 

39 See George R. Preston, Jr. Thomas Wolfe, A Bibliography (New York: Charles S. 
Boesen, 1943), p. 71. 

^Pusey, p. 141. 

41 See Bella Kussy [Milmed], "The Vitalist Trend and Thomas Wolfe," Sewanee Review, 
L (July-September, 1942), 306-24. Note that here and elsewhere in this paper Kussy's defi- 
nition of "Vitalism" is employed; this paragraph is in effect a summary of Kussy's most 
helpful study. 

42 See especially the Letters, p. 751, and the Purdue Speech, pp. 54ff. 

«Kussy, p. 323. 


^See note 6. 

45 See Paschal Reeves, Thomas Wolfe's Albatross: Race and Nationality in America (Athens: 
The University of Georgia Press, 1968), pp. 39-85. Reeves analyzes Wolfe's "Jews" in five 
categories: "student, businessman, elite society, lover, and symbol." 

^See also John Miller Maclachlan, "Folk Concepts in the Novels of Thomas Wolfe," 
Southern Folklore Quarterly, IX (December 1945), 175-86. Maclachlan evaluates Wolfe's ob- 
servations and conclusions in the light of kulturgeisL 

'Leslie Field is associate professor of English at Purdue University. He edited Thomas 
Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism (1968) and Thomas Wolfe's Purdue Speech: "Writing and Liv- 
ing" (1964), and has published other books and several articles on American literature. His 
paper was read at the opening session on Friday afternoon. 





Thomas Wolfe at NYU: His Friendship 
with Vardis Fisher 

Thomas Wolfe's four years at the University of North Carolina were 
very important in the formation of the writer that was to be. Wolfe re- 
sponded enthusiastically to much of the college life of "The Hill," as the 
reader of Look Homeward, Angel — not to mention Richard Walser's re- 
cent study Thomas Wolfe, Undergraduate — can tell. Chapel Hill, Wolfe 
once said, beat all other towns hollow. 

When Wolfe left Chapel Hill after his graduation in 1920 for Harvard, 
he was intent on becoming a playwright, following an interest he had 
found at Chapel Hill. But his talent needed a larger scope than the drama, 
and Harvard M.A. in hand, he next left for New York City, where he 
started writing what came to be Look Homeward, Angel To help meet ex- 
penses, he became an instructor in English at New York University in 
1924 and taught there intermittently until 1930. He was not a teacher at 
NYU in the way that Doris Betts or Max Steele is at Chapel Hill. For 
most of his stint at NYU, Wolfe was not a known writer, and he was not 
teaching creative writing: he was in the trenches teaching freshman com- 
position. NYU was not the charming place that Wolfe had found Chapel 
Hill to be, and he was not seeking to find an alternate or dual career. 
Writing was always his true mistress. 

Fairly late in Wolfe's career at NYU, Vardis Fisher, another aspiring 
writer, joined the Department of English. He and Wolfe were attracted to 
each other; as events proved, they had much in common. Both made sub- 
stantial reputations for themselves in the 1930s as writers of autobio- 
graphical fiction, and critics and readers often compared their work. 
Wolfe's Eugene Gant and Fisher's Vridar Hunter bore some striking simi- 
larities. Wolfe, of course, won the greater fame, and his critical reputation 


has fared better. He, not Fisher, was included in Jackson R. Bryer's Fifteen 
Modem American Authors (1969), a survey of research and criticism of the 
top fifteen of the century, so to speak. Yet at the end of the 1930s not 
everyone would have expected Wolfe to outdistance Fisher as much as he 
did. Fisher had won much of his reputation in the 1930s with his autobio- 
graphical tetralogy: In Tragic Life (1932), Passions Spin the Plot (1934), We 
Are betrayed (1935), and No Villain Need Be (1936). Shortly after Wolfe's 
death, Fisher achieved his greatest national approval with the publication 
of his novel Children of God, winner of the 1939 Harper Prize. Thereafter, 
Fisher's stock began to fall. He started work on a series of twelve novels 
that would trace western man's religious sense from prehistoric times to 
modern times, a series to be called the Testament of Man. Interest in Fisher 
declined as the series progressed. In the final volume of his Testament, Or- 
phans in Gethsemane (1960), Fisher modified and expanded his early auto- 
biographical tetralogy, defining a large part of his artistic creed by ref- 
erence to and portrayal of Thomas Wolfe in fictional guise even as he had 
appeared fictionally in the earlier No Villain Need Be. Although Wolfe's 
friendship with Fisher at NYU came late in Wolfe's career there, it was 
very important, and it is worth our time to consider this brief but remark- 
able exchange. It can tell us much about Wolfe's years at NYU, a great 
deal about Wolfe — and also a great deal about Vardis Fisher. 

Fisher first met Wolfe in early 1929; Fisher, a recent University of 
Chicago Ph.D., had joined the English faculty of the Washington Square 
College of New York University during the preceding fall. As an assistant 
professor Fisher shared an "office" with twenty-five or so others. Al- 
though Wolfe was on that faculty, he was in Europe for a fourth visit 
when the year began but returned for the second semester. Fisher describes 
Wolfe's return to his New York University office this way: 

My back was to the hall doorway and I did not see him when he came in. I 
did not see him until he strode past me and dropping a pile of books on a desk 
across the aisle sank sprawling to a chair. He was so huge, his stride was so 
long and loose, his dark hair so uncombed, his dark eyes so unhappy and sus- 
picious, and his whole bearing so obviously that of one who felt himself call- 
ed to an uncommon destiny that I stared at him, fascinated. I felt in him then 
what he had confessed or was to confess in his books and letters: "By God, I 
have genius and I shall yet force the inescapable fact down the throats of the 
rats and vermin who wait for the proof." 1 

Wolfe was not the typical college faculty member, but demonstrated the 
aloofness of the writer not much interested in being a colleague. Accord- 


ing to Fisher, both he and Wolfe detested teaching. Fisher remembers that 
Wolfe was not often at his desk in the big office where the more tradi- 
tional academics read papers, prepared classes, and consulted with 
students. Whenever Wolfe came to his desk, he was, Fisher reports, 
"restless, impatient, suspicious, eager to be off" (p. 26). Neither spoke to 
the other on that memorable day. Fisher continued to scrutinize Wolfe, 
but Fisher tells us that Wolfe never once met his gaze and never said hello. 
Apparently the silent scrutinizing went on for some time — and not just 
on that day. Many years later, in writing of their meeting, Fisher describes 
Wolfe in terms that echo not only the analytical Vridar Hunter of Fisher's 
tetralogy but the major metaphor of the Testament of Man that Fisher 
was then in the midst of: 

Well, I knew, of course, that here was an extraordinary person, an extraor- 
dinary child, lonely, lost, obsessed, embittered, in the great hulking form of a 
man. Before I ever exchanged a word with Wolfe I thought I knew a great 
deal about him. For I was another child, lonely and lost, and I recognized my 
kin. I also sensed that Wolfe suspected that I was looking deeper into him 
than he wanted anyone to look. (pp. 26-27) 

It is not surprising to me that Fisher made Wolfe break the silence. 
Fisher reports, "It was inevitable that he should have come to me at last" 
(p. 27). That sentence tells us more about Vardis Fisher — or at least as 
much — as it tells us about Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe was the Southerner 
and came from an expansive, emotion-showing family. Fisher had grown 
up in an isolated Idaho frontier community. Fisher distrusted emotion — 
although he was very emotional. His family was not demonstrative. In 
any event, Wolfe approached Fisher to tell him that he had read Toilers of 
the Hills, Fisher's first novel recently published, and that he liked it. There 
is probably no better way to start a friendship with a writer who has just 
published his first book than to praise the book. 

Thus, Fisher and Wolfe became good friends. Even in 1951 Fisher 
could write: "I had indeed more in common with him than I have had 
with any other friend" (p. 27). Fisher does not say that Wolfe was his best 
friend, and if we may judge from Orphans in Gethsemane, where Fisher pre- 
sents Wolfe as David Hawke, Wolfe was not his best friend. Indeed, it 
must be owned that not every reader would judge Fisher's two essays on 
Wolfe as acts of friendship. One Wolfe critic confided to me that he wish- 
ed that Fisher's essays on Wolfe had stayed buried in the pages of Tomor- 
row magazine, where they were first published, rather than being reprint- 


ed as the name article of Fisher's collected essays, thus becoming a staple in 
academic libraries throughout the country. Fisher's pieces on Wolfe are 
moderately famous, but Wolfe scholars seldom quote from them and 
usually do not list them in their selected bibliographies. By their silence, 
Wolfe's critics seem to say that Vardis Fisher did not have the key to 
Thomas Wolfe. Fisher would not be suprised at their silence. He had met 
such silences often during his lifetime; probably the critics' neglect of his 
essays would tend to convince him the more of his judgment. 

Let us look more carefully at Fisher's portrait of Wolfe, always keep- 
ing in mind that it is in ways that Fisher admitted — and perhaps in other 
ways that he was not aware of — also a portrait of himself. First the ad- 
mitted part. Fisher notes that both he and Wolfe had childhoods that tor- 
tured them and drove them almost to lunacy. He enumerates other simi- 

. . . the same lonely introversion of spirit; the same fantastically over-developed 
idealism all tangled up with deep distrust of human motives; the same mon- 
strous self-pity; the same fright and anxieties; the same kind of identification 
with the opposite sex and hatred of father; the same hatred of mother; the 
same problem with women; the same contempt for pretentiousness and 
sham, that came largely from an unhappy recognition of sham in ourselves; 
the same contempt for most human beings, that was only displaced contempt 
for self — though this I did not know then and I think Wolfe never learned; 
the same frenzied desire to prove our worth and leave our name on the page 
of history, though aware that fame was a bauble, and personal immortality 
the hope of a ravaged soul; the same gross, offensive and sometimes insuffer- 
able egoism that was less egoism than a defense against our overdeveloped 
submissive tendencies, which in both of us were very strong; the same naked 
need of spiritual shelters but scorn of formalized religions; and the same ten- 
dency to psychic impotence. We were making the same kind of struggle to 
come out of childhood darkness, but I had at that time recognized that the 
"door" was only a deeper darkness, (pp. 27-28) 

That is quite a catalogue, and there is a lot of truth in it, although often it 
seems more accurate of Fisher than of Wolfe. We note that Fisher clearly 
sets himself ahead of Wolfe on the search for self-discovery. 

Fisher most faults Wolfe for not getting close enough to Vridar's (that 
is, his own) position on life — obviously the psychic reason for Wolfe's 
failure to structure his books, to create novels unaided. Fisher says flatly: 
"Wolfe simply refused to face up to his repressions and went off half- 
cocked into ancient superstition-symbols" (p. 29). At the same time, 
Fisher is not without appreciation for Wolfe's art. He maintains: "The 


lyrical overplay was the essence of Wolfe, and far from destroying form 
gave to his tales a kind of lyrical continuity. All his work lies in the pat- 
tern of the lineal flow of time and the river" (p. 38). Wolfe, Fisher thinks, 
can see others, but not himself: "Wolfe had to write about his friends, 
and he had to write about them, for the most part, in terms that were not 
flattering." 2 Fisher can admire some of the caricature. 

Fisher identifies Wolfe's major problem as his relationship with his 
mother. In his essay on Wolfe's relationship with Maxwell Perkins, 
Wolfe's editor at Scribner's, Fisher presents Perkins as a mother-substitute 
for Wolfe and presents Wolfe as a son-substitute for Perkins. He explains 
Wolfe's restlessness very clinically: 

He fled continuously from his mother. He fled from his friends. He had 
to flee as long as he could not explore, determine, and face his problem. He 
had to leave Perkins. He had to leave him because, for Wolfe, who carried 
his heart in his throat and his childhood in his eyes, the relationship had be- 
come too intimate and suffocating. He used exactly the right word when he 
said he felt that he was being controlled. His mother had controlled him as a 
child, idolized him, fussed and fretted over him, with the result that he de- 
veloped abnormal dependence on her. His problem was to realize himself as 
an adult standing free and alone in his own strength. Until he could under- 
stand that problem — he had to rebel against every mothering person, lest, 
loathing himself, he abjectly surrender, and return, defeated, as a child to 
Asheville. (p. 54) 

Fisher concludes that Wolfe's personality was bigger than his art. He says: 
"Self-pity was a disease in him. There is self-pity in any artist but in Wolfe 
it was a tyrant" (p. 34). 

Thomas Wolfe died young, in 1938, a few weeks before his thirty- 
eighth birthday. The early death has heightened the romantic aura sur- 
rounding Wolfe's personality; it has also, inevitably, caused speculation 
about what shape his career would have taken had he lived. The year after 
Wolfe's death, Edward C. Aswell, who became Wolfe's editor after 
Wolfe abandoned Perkins, visited Fisher in Idaho. During the visit 
Aswell 's wife asked Fisher what he thought would have happened to 
Wolfe if he had lived. Fisher said he thought that Wolfe would have gone 
insane: "I thought so because to the day of his death, so far as I know, he 
was not able to understand those tyrannical emotions that made him a 
wanderer among men" (p. 30). Somewhat paradoxically, Fisher held that 
emotional maturity would have been the artistic death of Wolfe, judging 
Wolfe "essentially a poet" (p. 34). 


After he left New York University in 1931, Fisher never saw Wolfe 
again, so their friendship was indeed brief. But it was intense — although 
probably it was more important to Fisher than to Wolfe, at least for lit- 
erary purposes. Fisher never ceased to talk about Wolfe, and he used him 
throughout his career — in his fiction and his non-fiction — to define 
both what the artist often is and — in reverse — what he should try to be- 
come. Fisher felt it incumbent upon himself to place a note before the 
Table of Contents of his collected essays apologizing to the reader for the 
abundant references to Wolfe in them: "The author deplores as much as 
any reader possibly can repetitions of the Wolfe . . . and the Sammy- 
Eugene- Vridar theme and hopes the reader will bear in mind that these 
appeared in essays or talks in different years and places. They are so ger- 
mane to the author's point of view that it has been thought that to delete 
them would weaken the arguments which they support." 

As Fisher reconstructed events, the last time he saw Wolfe was as 
Wolfe was about to depart for another trip abroad. As he took his leave of 
Fisher, Wolfe held out his hand and said, "Vardis, don't let the sons of 
bitches lick you. Keep fighting. . ." (p. 40). Fisher says that as Wolfe turn- 
ed away there were tears in Wolfe's eyes. But probably Fisher's chronol- 
ogy is a bit remiss here. Wolfe left for Europe again on May 10, 1930, but 
he was back in New York in February of 1931, Fisher's last term at 
NYU. It would seem strange if Wolfe and Fisher did not renew their ac- 
quaintance. Nevertheless, Fisher's account makes a good point, and it 
stresses what Fisher felt that the friendship meant to Wolfe. 

Was there only admiration for Fisher on Wolfe's part? We can be as- 
sured that such was not the case; nor did Fisher think so. Fisher says that 
he was mainly a listener for Wolfe, a consoler, a receptacle ("Wolfe talked 
incessantly and I listened" p. 31), but there must have been moments 
when Fisher leveled with Wolfe. That was his way. Indeed^ Fisher admits 
"there were times — I knew this well — when he hated me" (p. 36). 
And before he died, Wolfe most certainly had a fair assessment of what 
Fisher thought of him and his book, for Fisher put Wolfe, under the name 
Robert Clark, into No Villain Need Be, a book that appeared two years be- 
fore Wolfe's death. Incidents that Fisher described in 1951 as having hap- 
pened to Wolfe are presented in the novel as happening to Clark, although 
the picture of Clark is kinder than the picture of David Hawke, the revi- 
sion of Clark in Orphans ofGethsemane. 3 Vridar sees that he and Clark have 
much in common, and Clark is obviously very childlike. Vridar thinks 
Clark's first novel "one of the greatest novels that had come out of 


American life" and he tells Athene, his second wife, that Clark "has 
enough power and drive for a dozen writers. If he'll only outgrow the 
wish of self-glorification; if he'll only learn that stupendous assumptions of 
zest, overwhelming apostrophes, and heaped and multiplied eulogisms, 
spring not from zest but are only hunger for it and a disguise of emotional 
emptiness or a huge emotional conflict. . . ." 4 Is there any doubt about 
why Wolfe sometimes hated Fisher? 

The relationship did not consist wholly of Fisher's meeting Wolfe's 
needs. As the portrait in No Villain suggests, Wolfe tried to encourage 
Fisher too. In the novel Clark tells Vridar, who is having difficulty getting 
a publisher for his book, that he should take it to Travis, whose counter- 
part in life is Maxwell Perkins. Vridar 's novel gets from Travis the same 
disregard that Fisher tells us Perkins gave his manuscript after Wolfe tried 
to steer Fisher to his editor. We can assume that there was conversation 
between Fisher and Wolfe about Fisher's work and problems as well as 
about Wolfe's. Obviously, too, Wolfe talked with Perkins about Fisher. 
If, as Scott Berg argues, Maxwell Perkins had a parent-son relationship 
with his three Scribner's giants — Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway — Per- 
kins found no "son" in Vardis Fisher, nothing to serve his emotional 
needs. It must be said, of course, that Perkins was looking for talent, and 
he may simply have found Fisher's insufficient. 

Both Fisher and Wolfe could be excellent correspondents. It seems 
strange, then, that they did not correspond after their last meeting. If 
Fisher were a mother-figure for Wolfe, as Fisher came to feel, we can only 
assume there were other persons more important to Wolfe on whom he 
could unburden himself. If Wolfe had lived, one of the things he might 
well have done is to give us a caricature of Fisher. Doubtless what Fisher 
came to write about Wolfe would have made Wolfe gargantuanly angry. 

Still we know that Wolfe did not forget Fisher. He tried to locate 
Fisher on his trip West before that fatal illness, but he was unsuccessful. 
On June 7, 1938, he wrote from Boise to Elizabeth Nowell, his literary 
agent even as she was Fisher's (because of Wolfe's intervention), describ- 
ing to her Fisher's country: 

What I saw ... is the abomination of desolation: an enormous desert bound- 
ed by infinitely-far-away mountains that you never got to, and little pitiful 
blistered towns huddled down in the most abject loneliness underneath the 
huge light and scale and weather and the astounding brightness and dimen- 
sions of everything — all given a kind of tremendousness and terror and maj- 
esty. And this? — their pride and joy, I guess, set in a cup of utterly naked 


hills, a clean little town but with sparseness, a lack of the color, openness, 
richness of Cheyenne. I've tried to find Fisher: people know him here but 
he's not in the telephone book. Anyway, what I've seen today explains a lot 
about him. 5 

Wolfe's last words on Fisher indicate that Wolfe had done a lot of think- 
ing about Fisher's personality too. If Fisher saw Wolfe as plagued and 
misshapen, Wolfe's mind was also at work and he repaid the compliment. 

Secluded in Idaho much of the time after 1931, Fisher did not have 
much opportunity to meet other writers. In his brief career, Wolfe had 
had important exchanges with James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitz- 
gerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and countless other 
writers of lesser stature. And Wolfe gained from the experiences both 
sources for writing material and also for the development of his own art. 
One of the reasons for Wolfe's friendships with many of these writers was 
his editor Maxwell Perkins — who wanted his Scribner's writers to know 
each other and to help each other. 

The closest counterpart to a Maxwell Perkins in Fisher's career would 
be Alan Swallow, to whom Fisher came late in his career and somewhat in 
despair midway through the Testament of Man series. Fisher, then in his 
sixties, had had all kinds of troubles with many publishers. He wondered 
if Swallow's small Denver firm would be interested in publishing the 
volumes of his Testament of Man that no one else wanted. Swallow not 
only agreed to publish the rest of the Testament, but he began to bring 
back other of Fisher's titles. Swallow was not an editor in the sense that 
Perkins had been Wolfe's, but he gave an extraordinary amount of support 
to Fisher's then languishing career. He made Fisher available in cloth and 
paper. He wrote about Fisher; he helped bring Fisher back into the public 
eye. And Swallow was active in the development of the Western Litera- 
ture Association, which would be one means of promoting Fisher's career 
and of getting Western writers to know each other. If Perkins brought 
Wolfe into contact with other writers, Swallow did the same for Fisher. 
But, eventually, Fisher's friendship with Swallow faltered, and its demise 
proved to be as dramatic as Wolfe's had been with Perkins. Had Wolfe 
lived, he might have seen some interesting patterns, too; he might have 
framed another interesting presentation of life among the literary using 
Vardis Fisher as his example. 

But that is another story. The point is that from first to last there are 
great similarities in the careers of these two NYU teachers. Comparisons 
between Wolfe and Fisher are germane on many counts; certainly Fisher 


was aware of many of the affinities. The late events in Fisher's life — espe- 
cially his final unhappiness with Alan Swallow — suggest how right he 
was in seeing Wolfe as very like himself. Fisher's later unhappiness with 
Swallow reminds us of Wolfe's turning from Maxwell Perkins and of his 
various attacks on Perkins and others. Fisher was himself often consumed 
with doing battle; he saw the Eastern publishing establishment as a force 
aligned against the Western writer, and decidedly against himself. He at- 
tacked the press as vigorously as Wolfe had, and he often quoted Wolfe's 
saying that some of the critics were so little that they smelled little. Ulti- 
mately, Vardis Fisher shared much of the temperament that he gave to his 
fictional representations of Wolfe. We still have no definitive account of 
Fisher's troubles with Alan Swallow, but certainly Fisher's last line in his 
essay on Wolfe and Perkins is every bit as appropriate for Fisher and 
Swallow: "But what a pity that it all had to end that way!" (p. 55) 

Writers make curious friends sometimes. In his short story "The De- 
nunciation" Hemingway has his writer-narrator confess to an unworthy 
action and tendency: "But I had given him the shortest cut to having 
Delgado arrested in one of those excesses of impartiality, righteousness 
and Pontius Pilatry, and the always-dirty desire to see how people act 
under an emotional conflict, that makes writers such attractive friends." 6 
We may take the fictional moment of the story as Hemingway's recogni- 
tion of an instinct not always pleasing to him. His contemporaries at 
Scribner's might agree with Hemingway's narrator. Writers are not al- 
ways "attractive friends." They often caricature each other, their friends, 
and their editors. Thomas Wolfe made famous portraits of Sinclair Lewis 
and Maxwell Perkins, even as his colleagues at NYU had some interesting 
things to say about him, and one made him a character in his novels. And 
how pastoral and innocent those rough games make Wolfe's days at 
Chapel Hill seem! New York was another world. 


'Vardis Fisher, "Thomas Wolfe as I Knew Him," Thomas Wolfe as I Knew Him and 
Other Essays (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1963), 25. Other page references to this essay will be 
cited parenthetically in the text. 

2 Vardis Fisher, "Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins," Thomas Wolfe as I Knew Him 
and Other Essays (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1963), 50. Other page references to this essay will 
be cited parenthetically in the text. 


3 The portrait of Wolfe as Robert Clark is in Chapter XII, Part Three, of No Villain 
Need Be; the portrait of Wolfe as David Hawke is in Chapter XVIII of Book II, Part I, of 
Orphans in Gethsemane. 

"Vardis Fisher, No Villain Need Be (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, and Garden 
City: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1936), 301. 

5 Elizabeth Nowell, ed., The Letters of Thomas Wolfe (New York: Charles Scribner's 
Sons, 1956), 768. 

6 Ernest Hemingway, "The Denunciation," in The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the 
Spanish Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969), 97. 

"Joseph M. Flora is chairman of the Department of English at the University of North 
Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published Vardis Fisher (1965), William Ernest Henley (1970), 
Frederick Manfred (1974), and other works in American literature. His paper was read at the 
banquet on Saturday evening. 



Thomas Wolfe and the Tar Heel 

Tom Wolfe once made this statement: "When you're a genius, you 
do not have to be immaculate." This was his response when he was in- 
vited to the dean's house for dinner, and one of his friends told him he 
should get dressed up, which Tom seldom did. 

I got to know Tom quite well in my junior year. His class was 1920, 
and mine was 1921. When Tom was the editor of the Tar Heel, I was one 
of the associate editors, and I hoped to become business manager the fol- 
lowing year. (I did.) I saw a great deal of Tom, for I wrote for the Tar Heel 
and I had breakfast with him once in a while — as a matter of fact, as 
often as twice a week. Tom was then staying at Swain Hall, and I think it 
was a great treat for him to go down to Gooch's for breakfast. Of course, 
if you had breakfast, lunch, or anything else with Tom, you always paid 
the bill! I don't want you to think that I was all that altruistic, for there 
was a most important reason for my having breakfast with Tom: I was 
critical of the Tar Heel — not critical of his work, because a lot of it did 
bring out the genius in Tom, but critical of his attitude toward Nat 
Gooding who was the business manager. 

One of the troubles with the Tar Heel at that time was that Tom sel- 
dom got the news in on time and almost never finished his writings on 
time. He would go over to the Seeman Printery in Durham and at the last 
hour or two finish the paper up. As a result, the Tar Heel very often came 
out on Sunday instead of Saturday. Another difficulty was that Tom 
wanted to put a great deal of his own writings in the paper, and to make 
space he would simply throw out some of the ads. That was something 
that Nat Gooding didn't like at all, and I would tell Tom that a news- 
paper was a business enterprise, published under the aegis of the athletic 
association. "It's not just for artists and geniuses like you, and if this paper 
keeps on losing money, they might drop the paper entirely," I warned 


him. Gooding's life with Tom was absolutely miserable. In addition to 
that, Gooding ran up personal debts of about five hundred dollars. I talked 
with Charlie Woollen a couple of times in connection with my conversa- 
tions with Tom, and I told him what the trouble was with the paper. 
Woollen was in complete agreement and, of course, I wanted to get every 
angle of the paper because my altruism went to the point that I hoped to 
be business manger the following year — which I did become. Woollen 
said that every year the Tar Heel had lost for the athletic association thou- 
sands of dollars. I told him that if I became business manager, the athletic 
association would have no liability at all, and if any money was made by 
the paper it was going to be mine. Woollen was delighted with that. 

Dan Grant, the editor, and Jonathan Daniels, the managing editor, 
were perfectly willing to put in more advertising, and I sold advertising 
for the paper at about four times the rate that Nat Gooding had been get- 
ting. We went on the theory that the paper would always come out on 
time, and if an ad had been sold, it was going to be in the paper. That for 
me became a most successful enterprise. 

During our breakfasts Tom told me many of his great stories, and he 
also told me of the things that were most disconcerting to him. 

Seeing Frank Mason's portrait on Wolfe there on the wall reminds 
me of the oft-told story of Tom's election to the Society. Tom confided to 
me on a couple of occasions how mortified he was that he had talked for 
thirty-five minutes. Well, he also had a great habit of exaggeration. I 
don't think he wanted to lie, but it wasn't thirty-five minutes but in fact 
only twenty-two minutes. Of course his speech ended with the hope and 
expectation that his portrait would one day hang in this hall, and I am de- 
lighted that his prophecy has been fulfilled. 

I had quite a few things in common with Tom Wolfe. Tom was a 
debater; I became a member of the Intercollegiate Debating Team. At one 
of our practices Tom said to me, "You know, I am a much better debater 
than you are. How did you become a member of the Intercollegiate De- 
bating Team?" I answered, "You might be a better debater, but I had 
Albert Coates as my coach!" In many ways Tom could be very critical. 
While writing on the Tar Heel, I won the Burdick prize in journalism, 
supposedly for doing the best writing on the paper. Tom said to me, 
"How did you happen to win that prize? You know that I'm a much 
better writer than you." Well, I was smarter then than I am now, and I 
responded, "You bet your life you're a much better writer, but they 
couldn't give it to you because you were Edmund Burdick's roommate." 


Young Burdick had heart trouble and had to leave the University; he went 
home and died, and his father established the medal in his son's memory. 

I also had a class in journalism with Tom under Mr. Clarence Hibbard, 
who was a wonderful professor. He was very fond of Tom and forgave all 
of Tom's idiosyncracies. When Tom began reading an essay to the class, 
he would pull out four or five pieces of crumpled paper from different pock- 
ets and read them. For many of his compositions, he used the backs of ad- 
vertising bills that he picked up downtown. I will always remember one 
occasion when Professor Hibbard asked us to write a two-hundred-word 
composition on a certain subject. As usual, he planned to read some of the 
best ones to the class. On this occasion Tom turned in an essay of about 
twenty thousand words, and the professor said, "I would love to read it, 
but it would take this session and the next one too." So we never heard 
Tom's essay. 

I spoke earlier about Tom's being a genius — and to me in many re- 
spects he was. He told me more than once that he expected to write the 
greatest play ever produced in America and that he would become a rich 
man writing plays. Well, I think we know him better for his books than 
for his plays. But last night we had the pleasure of seeing in Graham 
Memorial the performance based on the words of Thomas Wolfe [Hugh 
Holman's 37 Octobers], and it was really a great production. 

There is a portrait of Tom Wolfe [by artist Douglas Gorsline] hang- 
ing in the North Carolina Collection, which is run by Dr. Jones, and I 
would like to tell you how it got there. Some years ago I saw a reproduc- 
tion of the picture in the New York Times, and I went up to the gallery 
that owned the original oil painting and offered to buy it so I could give it 
to the University of North Carolina. The owner of the gallery told me 
that the picture had been sold and that the purchaser would pick it up that 
afternoon. I requested that he tell the purchaser that if he wanted to resell 
the portrait to me for a profit, I would be interested in buying it. That 
afternoon the gallery owner called me and reported that the buyer had 
said, "Well, if he is going to give it to the University of North Carolina, 
he can have it at the price I paid for it." That painting now hangs in the 
North Carolina Collection, for it was a great pleasure for me to present it 
to the Collection in 1975, the year in which Thomas Wolfe, had he lived, 
would have been seventy-five years old. 


*Phillip Hettleman, a member of the UNC Class of 1921, was on the staff of the Tar 
Heel when Wolfe was editor. He is now an investment broker in New York City. This text 
is an edited transcript of a tape recording of his remarks made at the Saturday morning ses- 







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Thomas Wolfe Was Here 

Remarks before Taking a Walking Tour of Wolfe's Chapel Hill 

To tell the truth, I feel considerably embarrassed. Here I stand on this 
platform dressed in a Thomas Wolfe T-shirt. To left and right are busts of 
Justice William H. Bobbitt and Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr., and over there 
on the wall is that handsome oil portrait of Wolfe. Yes, indeed, I feel con- 
siderably less than properly attired to be in such company. 

Be that as it may, I must get on with the assignment given me. This 
morning we find ourselves having a meeting in New West, a building well 
known to Wolfe when he was a student on this campus from 1916 to 
1920. In those days the campus was not very large, nor were there many 
students walking the paths from dormitory to classroom. It won't take us 
long to stroll about the grounds of the University of North Carolina and 
the nearby streets of the town, looking at the sites he knew. Except for 
the commercial buildings on Franklin Street, most of those structures 
which are still standing and with which he was familiar are today, at least 
on the exterior, unchanged. 

That's true of New West: the outside is the same, though the hall of 
the Dialectic Literary Society was on the second floor in Wolfe's day, not 
on the third floor where we are at the moment. 

Let me tell you how I happen to know about Wolfe's comings and 
goings on this old campus. Twenty years ago I decided to write a little 
book about Wolfe's four undergraduate years here at the university. I 
thought insufficient attention had been given to that formative period in 
the life of the novelist. I sympathized with every one of Wolfe's excellent 
biographers who, having to deal with the author's entire career, could de- 
vote only fifteen or twenty pages to his Chapel Hill days before moving 
on to Harvard, New York, Europe, and Brooklyn. 


A personal reason for wanting to do the book was that I arrived at the 
university as a student in 1926, only six years after Wolfe had left. Thus, 
in spite of some new construction and some changes here and there, the 
place was not very different from the place Wolfe had known. A lot of the 
same professors were around still teaching the same courses — doubtless 
lecturing from the same notecards. You see, I didn't have to familiarize 
myself with a strange geography or an unknown set of people. It was 
quite thrifty, I thought, to let my vivid memory substitute for long hours 
of library research. 

And so I began to gather material for the little book I intended to 
write. One afternoon in the North Carolina Collection in the library here, 
I was interrupted in my perusal of some Wolfe family papers by a library 
assistant who came over and said he hoped I would discover all the places 
Wolfe resided during his Chapel Hill days. "Of course," I said; but why 
did he want to know? "Oh," he said, "students come in here all the time 
and ask me where he stayed so that they can go and look at the rooms; 
but I don't think that anybody has written down where he lived on this 
campus, and I can't answer their questions." I told him I hoped I would 
find out, and "write it down." 

As a matter of fact, I eventually discovered about ten locations where 
Wolfe roomed — some five different places during that restless freshman 
year, and five others later on. As a sophomore, he started out living in 
Battle #4. I have a story about that. 

In one of Aldo P. Magi's early forays into North Carolina, he asked 
me to drive him from Raleigh over to Chapel Hill so that he might com- 
mune with Wolfe's spirit. Ambling along Franklin Street, we were pass- 
ing Battle Hall and I mentioned Wolfe's connection with it. "Which 
room?" inquired Aldo. Well, I knew Battle #4 was on the first-floor, left- 
hand rear. "Let's go and get inside that room," said Aldo. Now, Battle is 
no longer a student dormitory; it houses university offices of some sort or 

We moved into the building, angled left-hand rear, and entered a neat, 
bright office. A polite young gentleman arose from his desk and asked 
what he could do for us. By this time, Aldo had positioned himself in the 
center of the room, completely anesthetized, his eyes toward the ceiling. I 
explained to the young gentleman that we wished nothing but to stand 
there for a moment or so. "Why?" he wanted to know. I tried to explain 
to him that Thomas Wolfe had once roomed there. "Thomas — who?" 


It was useless to pursue the matter. At that moment, Aldo was in a 
catatonic state, a half smile on his lips, his gaze reaching far beyond the 
limits of reality. Obviously, I could get no help from him. From the cor- 
ner of my eye, I saw the young gentleman move toward his desk and the 
telephone. O my God, I thought, he's going to call the emergency mental clinic 
at the university hospital to come get us and throw us into a paddy wagon. Vio- 
lently I shook Aldo, who reentered the world gradually as if from some 
beatific region. I thanked the young gentleman while dragging my com- 
panion through the door. Outside in the bright sunshine Aldo wanted to 
know what all the hurry was about. 

Let me say right here that I have no plans to return to Battle #4 in 
order to commune with Wolfe's spirit. We can all of us commune with 
Wolfe's spirit right here in New West building where he spent many hap- 
py hours at Di Society meetings. And I do hope Wolfe's spirit is present 
this morning in this chamber to see his portrait hanging on the wall beside 
that of Governor Zeb Vance, another mountain man from Buncombe 
County. I need not recount the oft-told story of freshman Wolfe's proph- 
esying that one day his portrait would be up there on the wall beside Zeb 
Vance's. And so it is. 

But let's get on with the walking tour. We'll descend the stairs, leave 
New West at the north entrance. In front of us will be the old library 
(now Hill Music Hall), where Wolfe attended Professor Koch's play- 
writing classes. On our left will be Swain Hall, where Wolfe ate most of 
his meals. A few steps away on the other side of Cameron Avenue, the 
main street through the old campus, is Gerrard Hall, where Wolfe was 
restive under the "inspirational" talks at morning chapel exercises; and 
several steps farther is the YMCA, where Wolfe passed many a night 
asleep on a sofa after studying or participating in "bull sessions." The Old 
Well is on this side of the street, looking exactly the same now as in 
Wolfe's day, when it was the center of the campus and the place for stu- 
dent gatherings between classes. Wolfe was almost always there. Beyond 
the Old Well is Old East, oldest state university building (1793) in 
America, and there Wolfe attended Edwin Greenlaw's English classes. A 
bit to the southeast is Bynum Gymnasium, where Wolfe went to dances 
held on the basketball court. 

Back across Cameron Avenue at the northeast corner of New East, 
we'll have a look at a bronze relief sculpture on a concrete slab designed by 
Richard W. Kinnaird and erected in 1969 in memory of Thomas Wolfe. 
Be sure to have your cameras ready. 


Nearby is Alumni Hall, in one of whose classrooms Wolfe studied 
philosophy under his favorite teacher, Horace Williams. At the University 
Inn (site now of Graham Memorial), Wolfe roomed during his senior year. 
Across Franklin Street from the Inn were the Pickard Hotel and the Pi 
Kappa Phi Fraternity House, other locations where Wolfe roomed. Battle 
Dormitory faced Franklin Street, on which were a number of Wolfe's 
familiar haunts, including the Post Office, Gooch's Cafe, the Pickwick 
Theater (movies), and Eubanks Drugstore. Around the corner on College 
Street (Columbia Street) was the home of Mrs. Eric A. Abernethy, where 
Wolfe and Edmund Burdick roomed during the winter of his sophomore 
year; and on around the next corner down west Cameron Avenue was the 
boarding house of Mrs. Mattie Hardee (now site of Hillel House), where 
Wolfe first stayed as a freshman. 

You'll soon be seeing all the places I've mentioned. Mrs. Morton 
Teicher and her tour guides have campus maps for each of you. As soon as 
we're outside New West, she'll divide us into small groups, and we'll be 
on our way. 

'Richard Walser is professor emeritus at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. 
He has published Thomas Wolfe: An Introduction and Interpretation (1961), Thomas Wolfe, Un- 
dergraduate (1977), Thomas Wolfe's Pennsylvania (1978), and numerous other works about 
North Carolina's literary figures. He was one of the founders of the Thomas Wolfe Society. 
This is an edited version of the remarks he made at the Saturday morning session preceding a 
tour of Wolfe-related sites. 




The North Carolina Collection 
and Thomas Wolfe 

I am neither a Wolfe scholar nor a Wolfe collector. On the tenant farm 
where I grew up there were no books, so I am perhaps the only member 
of the Thomas Wolfe Society who grew up without reading a book by 
Thomas Wolfe. A more self-conscious person would not have the nerve to 
show up at one of these meetings. 

But I justify my interest in the Society on two grounds: First, Tom 
Wolfe was a North Carolinian, and my career has been devoted to com- 
memorating North Carolinians. For instance, about ten years ago when I 
was Director of the State Department of Archives and History, I observed 
that we did not administer a single state historic site dealing with the his- 
tory of tobacco, the state's leading economic product; the history of gold, 
in the production of which North Carolina led the nation until the gold 
strike in California in 1848; or the career of a literary figure. I set out to 
remedy those deficiencies, and today we have Duke Homestead State His- 
toric Site, the Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site, and the Thomas Wolfe 

"The Old Kentucky Home" — "Dixieland" in Tom's writings — 
was then operated on a part-time summer schedule by the City of Ashe- 
ville, so upon studying the potential of the place, I wrote Fred Wolfe to 
suggest that the house should be restored to its original appearance, staffed 
with sufficient personnel, and opened on a regular schedule year-round. I 
offered to attempt to persuade the legislature to appropriate funds for that 
purpose if he, the last surviving sibling, thought well of the idea. 

A prompt reply came from the dining room table of Fred W. Wolfe, 
713 Otis Boulevard, Spartanburg. He thought not much at all of the idea. 


In fact, wasn't this a ploy typical of Raleigh bureaucrats — to try to stick 
their noses into matters that were being handled quite satisfactorily locally? 

I took a gamble. In my response I ate humble pie, withdrew the sug- 
gestion, and said that we certainly would not want to take over anything 
that adequately was being cared for locally. But I did go ahead and explain 
why I had been so "forward" in making the suggestion in the first place. 

Fred's next letter had an entirely different tone. Maybe you've got 
something there, he seemed to say. Through further correspondence we 
agreed to meet in Asheville and spend a day together. At the appointed 
time I met Fred and Mary, let him talk all day long, and by the time we 
went to see the city manager in the afternoon it was Fred's idea, not mine, 
that we were discussing. In fact, I had to keep reminding him that the 
suggestion that the Thomas Wolfe Memorial become a state historic site 
was only a proposal — one that would require legislative action and the 
working out of many details. Nothing I said diminished his enthusiasm. 

It was a perfect delight for me to work with Fred over the following 
months and to guide the bill through the legislature. We became fast 
friends, and I have a bunch of letters and postcards scrawled on both sides 
and up and down, always with the specific information that they had been 
written on either his dining room or his kitchen table. 

The second reason for my devotion to the Thomas Wolfe Society re- 
sults from the fact that I preside over the great "Thomas Wolfe Collection 
Established by His Brothers and Sisters in Honor of Their Father and 
Mother, W. O. and Julia E. Wolfe." To this splendid body of family 
manuscripts have been added over the years the collection of John Skally 
Terry and items contributed by other kinsmen and friends of Thomas 
Wolfe or collectors of Wolfeana. I shall leave to Frances Weaver the de- 
scription of the Wolfe Collection, but I wish to comment on several mat- 

The Wolfe Collection grows annually. Not only do we acquire all 
printed matter by or about Wolfe; we also continue to add to the manu- 
scripts. These additions may be a single item, such as the letter accom- 
panying the autographed copy of Look Homeward, Angel that Tom sent to 
his old fraternity at UNC in 1929, given by classmate Beverly C. Moore; 
or a large accession such as the papers of Fred Wolfe, which I unloaded in 
the wee hours of a Sunday morning two weeks ago. I want at this time to 
express our thanks to the heirs of Thomas Wolfe and especially to the ex- 
ecutor of the estate of Fred Wolfe for the care with which they have fol- 
lowed the wishes of the family in regard to the papers of Thomas Wolfe 


and of his parents and brothers and sisters. I had never met Fred's execu- 
tor, Edward C. Gambrell, until two weeks ago when, upon his invitation, 
I spent two days in Spartanburg with him and his wife Mid, his sons Ed, 
Greg, and Richard, and daughter Jan. They made me feel right at home in 
Fred's house, and we worked hard both days in going through a mass of 
materials. Fred was there with us in spirit, for some of those cigarette 
burns on the table and floor appeared to have been made during the night, 
and there were other signs that Fred was keeping his eye on us. You re- 
member, of course, that Fred selected the day of his death so that he could 
be buried during your annual meeting in Asheville last year. He wouldn't 
have had it any other way. 

With us today from Anderson, S.C., are Effie's son, Ed Gambrell; 
his wife Mid (a great cook); and his daughter Jan. Would you join me in 
welcoming and thanking them. 

The North Carolina Collection, of which the Thomas Wolfe Collec- 
tion is a part, is a unique department of the University. We acquire, pre- 
serve, and make available, in addition to the Thomas Wolfe Collection, all 
kinds of printed North Caroliniana — anything published by a North 
Carolinian regardless of subject, and anything about North Carolina or a 
North Carolinian regardless of author. You are in the reading room. To 
your back are the Sir Walter Raleigh Rooms consisting of the interior of 
an early English house that stood not far from Hayes Barton, Raleigh's 
birthplace in Devonshire. The rooms are filled with English furniture of 
the seventeenth century, and in the rooms is housed a portion of the finest 
Sir Walter Raleigh Collection outside England. In contrast, to my rear are 
the Early Carolina Rooms, consisting of the interior of an eighteenth- 
century Quaker-plan house that once stood in Pasquotank County, North 
Carolina. In the Early Carolina Rooms are housed books from the Uni- 
versity's first library — you know of course that this is the oldest state 
university in America to open its doors to students — and books owned 
by early North Carolinians. I should add that Paul Green is partially re- 
sponsible for our having both of these suites. What you see, however, is 
only the tip of the iceberg, for the North Carolina Collection is a huge 
library that extends into the stacks on two levels. More than 150,000 
volumes in all, and they have been received as gifts or purchased through 
endowment funds established by people who loved North Carolina. Not a 
cent of tax money goes to purchase materials for this Collection, but our 
"room and board" are furnished from the University's budget. The por- 
traits of two of our saints hang behind me: to my right, John Sprunt Hill, 


and to my left, Bruce Cotten. In the rear of the room hangs the large por- 
trait of Stephen B. Weeks, the first "professional" historian in North 
Carolina, whose son and daughter-in-law have left us their great collection 
of rare books and prints. Mrs. Weeks died last week, and I leave next 
Wednesday for Alexandria to make arrangements for the transfer of the 

A few hundred feet from this building a mammoth new structure is 
going up — the $22 million Central Library. Next year the main collec- 
tion of the Library will move from Wilson Library to the new building. 
Then, for two years, the front portion of this structure will be renovated, 
after which the North Carolina Collection will expand over the entire first 
floor plus several levels of stacks. The room in which you are sitting will 
become the North Caroliniana Gallery, and our main reading room will 
move to the west wing. In that large reading room will be a smaller room 
— the Thomas Wolfe Room — which will house many of Wolfe's books 
and memorabilia. Our architect has already visited the Old Kentucky 
Home and picked out some touches to be included in the new room, such 
as a mantel and window to match those at the Memorial. When your 
meeting rotates back to Chapel Hill, the Thomas Wolfe Room will be 
ready for you to see. 

I want to explain that the Thomas Wolfe Collection was placed at 
Tom's alma mater under an agreement to which the Library strictly ad- 
heres. All literary rights to the manuscripts, which are kept in the vault, 
are retained by the Estate of Thomas Wolfe — a living, legal entity that 
governs the use of the literary production of Tom Wolfe. Individual access 
to the family papers is authorized by the administrator of the Estate of 
Thomas Wolfe, Paul Gitlin, the noted copyright attorney in New York. 
Mr. Gitlin, who has always been most cooperative with us, had planned 
to be here to discuss this point as only an attorney can, but he had to can- 
cel due to his wife's illness. He has a dean's-list nephew here in the Uni- 
versity, and he still expects to visit before long. Anyone wishing access to 
the unpublished materials contacts Mr. Gitlin, whose address we can sup- 
ply, explaining his or her research needs. Upon approval of the request, 
Mr. Gitlin writes the researcher who sends or brings the letter to the Col- 
lection. Because the Collection is serviced only by professional members of 
our staff, a researcher should contact us in advance to make sure that the 
manuscripts are accessible on the date of the proposed visit. Access for 
reading purposes does not automatically authorize copying; researchers 
planning to request copies should ask Mr. Gitlin specifically for that per- 


mission also. We always have on display or otherwise available a represen- 
tative sampling of Wolfe materials to satisfy the interest of casual visitors. 

Printed works in the Wolfe Collection are almost invariably duplicated 
in the main North Carolina Collection catalog, and a reader will normally 
use the duplicate copies. Photographs and audio visuals are housed sep- 
arately, and appointment is made in advance with our photographic 
librarian for access to them. 

There is one person in the whole world who has handled every man- 
uscript in the Thomas Wolfe Collection. She knows the Collection, and it 
is she who will describe it to you. It may be confusing to you when I tell 
you that Frances Weaver is really the assistant university archivist and 
works in the Southern Historical Collection. Her interest in Wolfe, how- 
ever, leads her to share her talents with us from time to time, and I look 
forward to the summer when she will again serve us part-time in arrang- 
ing and describing the Fred Wolfe Collection which, for a period of ten 
years, will be accessible only with the permission of Ed Gambrell. 

The most visible expressions of Frances Weaver's interest in Wolfe are 
(1) the splendid archival finding aid that she has produced on the Thomas 
Wolfe Collection and (2) the fine exhibition on display in the lobby, in the 
hallway, and in this room. For those who have not yet had time to view 
the exhibits, I should explain that each exhibit case covers a particular ex- 
perience or series of experiences during Wolfe's life, so you can start any- 
where, though one might be advised to begin with the lobby case, then 
go to the far end of the hall and work down into the reading room. 

*H. G. Jones is curator of the North Carolina Collection, of which the Thomas Wolfe 
Collection is a part. He is author of For History's Sake (1966), The Records of a Nation (1969), 
and other historical works. When he was director of the North Carolina Department of Ar- 
chives and History, he arranged for the establishment of Thomas Wolfe's home in Asheville 
as a state historic site. His paper was given at the Saturday afternoon session. 



The Thomas Wolfe Collection 

I'm delighted to be with you today. I don't often have a chance to 
share my enthusiasm for Thomas Wolfe, but when I'm with this particu- 
lar group of people I know I'm with friendly folk and can be enthusiastic 
with impunity. 

I'm going to talk to you about the Thomas Wolfe Collection of the 
University of North Carolina. I have tried to put items in the exhibits 
which illustrate not only Wolfe's life but which also express the diversity 
of the Collection. The exhibits are in the main lobby of the library. There 
is also one case here in the North Carolina Collection which is devoted to 
the final journey west in 1938 and to Wolfe's illness and death. 

I think you probably all know what we here in North Carolina con- 
sider the "sad story" of the Wisdom Collection at Harvard. It was a very 
sad loss indeed when the University was unable to raise the $5,000 neces- 
sary to buy the manuscripts and letters offered for sale by the Thomas 
Wolfe Estate. Maxwell Perkins then sold them to William Wisdom, who 
later gave the entire collection to Harvard. 

Wolfe's family was not very happy about that transaction. In our 
Thomas Wolfe Collection we have an exchange of letters among Julia 
Wolfe and Fred and Mabel, in which they all express their dismay that 
Tom's papers had gone to Harvard. Julia said that though Tom did love 
Harvard, he loved Carolina more, and she was sorry that his papers did 
not come to this University. 

In the 1940s, Mabel, Fred, Effie, and Frank Wolfe decided that they 
would like to give the family collection of Wolfe material to the Univer- 
sity in honor of their parents. That was accomplished in 1950 when the 
papers were transferred to the University. That family group of papers is 
the real core of the Wolfe Collection. It includes the correspondence of 
Thomas Wolfe with his mother and his brothers and sisters. There are al- 


so correspondence between members of the family, scrapbooks, clippings, 
printed materials by and about Thomas Wolfe, and photographs. I'll 
come back to the photographs later, as they are a most important part of 
the Collection. 

In addition to the family gift we have received a number of others. 
The largest addition, and a very important one, was the gift of the family 
of John Skally Terry. 

Terry, as you all know, was working on a biography of Wolfe for fif- 
teen years, and he collected an assortment of material. It came to us in 
very poor order and very poor condition. It is a spotty group of papers and 
far from an inclusive research tool for a biography, but there are some very 
interesting items in the Terry papers. Among the most interesting are 
Terry's interviews with Julia Wolfe. We have those on old dictaphone 
cylinders which are now so worn and scratchy that it is difficult to retrieve 
the sound. But fortunately Terry transcribed most of those interviews so 
we have Julia Wolfe on paper as interviewed by John Terry. If you read 
those interviews straight through you would think you were reading "The 
Web of Earth." They have the same flow of language that Wolfe used 
when he was writing about his mother. They are anecdotal, some of them 
are very funny, and they constitute a remarkable addition to the Terry 
group of papers. We are now engaged in trying to find a way to retrieve 
the sound so that we will have Julia's voice as well as Julia's transcriptions. 

We have had gifts frpm a number of other people as well. Albert and 
Gladys Coates, Ben Cone, Mrs. Archibald Henderson, James Holly Han- 
ford — (I'm sure to leave someone out) — and others gave us their letters 
from Wolfe. Dick Walser donated two very interesting letters from 
William Faulkner on the subject of Thomas Wolfe. 

We have also purchased material, notably from the Julian Meade 
Estate. In the early 1930s Julian Meade wrote to Thomas Wolfe and in- 
quired about his approach to writing. In essence, he asked Wolfe how he 
wrote, and Wolfe responded in six long letters. Those letters were printed 
in Scribner's Magazine in November 1950. We later purchased the original 
letters from Wolfe to Meade, and they now form part of the Thomas 
Wolfe Collection. 

Edward Aswell gave his correspondence with the brothers and sisters 
of Thomas Wolfe. The Aswell Series of papers (series is an archival word 
used to denote a specific segment in a group of papers; in this case we used 
it to denote the origin of each group in the Wolfe Collection) has no 
original Wolfe material. It is simply the correspondence of Edward Aswell 


with Mabel Wolfe Wheaton and Fred Wolfe. There is also a little corres- 
pondence with Effie Gambrell and Frank Wolfe. 

This correspondence with the Wolfe family is extensive. There must 
be over three hundred letters from Aswell to Fred Wolfe and more than 
that to Mabel, as well as their responses to him. Aswell was a meticulous 
and careful executor, scrupulous about the details of the financial estate 
and a jealous guardian of the literary rights. More than that, he was a kind 
and loving friend to the Wolfe family. He took on the whole task as part 
of his obligation to Tom, and it is clear from the papers that he was dili- 
gent in the performance of his duties. 

Aswell material is open to the public. It was closed until the death of 
Fred Wolfe, but now it is available to researchers. It does not come under 
the restrictions imposed on us by the Wolfe Estate. Any material that is 
copied and used for publication, however, must be cleared through the 
estates of the people involved. But, while the Aswell papers are still subject 
to the copyright laws, we are free to grant access. 

We have another series in the Wolfe papers which is open to the public 
under the same guidelines as the Aswell series. That is the gift material. I 
have mentioned some of those items to you, and I brought a box of those 
papers out here to show you. Here is a letter from Thomas Wolfe to Ben 
Cone, written on October 27, 1929, just after the publication of Look 
Homeward, Angel. I see one here from Thomas Wolfe to Corydon Spruill. 
We have photocopies of Mr. Coates's correspondence from Thomas 
Wolfe in this box. 

We have a number of other kinds of things in the Collection, the most 
important of which are the photographs. These are really the photograph 
collection of the Wolfe family. The photographs came to us largely in 
photograph albums, like this one, and others so large I couldn't bring 
them out. Jerry Cotten, the photographic archivist of the North Carolina 
Collection, has taken all the photographs of Thomas Wolfe, and many of 
those of his family, and had a film negative made from the originals. Then 
he made prints which he has mounted on these acid-free envelopes. The 
envelope is labeled and dated and has a call number. These copies are the 
photographs with which researchers work. The albums are far too fragile 
to permit handling. The envelopes, however, are available for researchers 
by appointment with Jerry. 

It is an astonishing collection of photographs and in itself documents 
the life of a family in Asheville from about 1883 until about 1958, when 
Mabel, who had been the custodian of such family material, died. It is an 


authentic American documentary and would be so if Thomas Wolfe had 
never written a word. 

Every now and then we have a wonderful surprise. About two years 
ago a lady who lives in Orange County came in and said that she had been 
taking down an old picture that hung in her family home. She wanted to 
remount and reframe it. In doing so she found that the picture had this old 
poster for backing and she wondered if we would be interested in it. 

The poster is the original one announcing the Carolina Playmakers 
production of "When Witches Ride," a play of Carolina folk supersti- 
tion by Elizabeth Lay (now Mrs. Paul Green), and "The Return of Buck 
Gavin," a tragedy of mountain people, by Thomas Wolfe. We said we'd 
like to have it very much! We have had it cleaned, had the tape removed; 
and it has taken its place in the Thomas Wolfe Collection as one of our 
great treasures. 

Not too long before Mabel Wheaton died she heard that Leila Nance 
Moffett, who lived in Virginia, owned some of the costumes that were us- 
ed in that production of "Buck Gavin." Mrs. Wheaton bought them and 
gave them to us. This is the belt that Thomas Wolfe wore in the play. We 
have the shoes that Leila wore and some knitting she must have been re- 
quired to do as part of her role. We have her dress and other ephemeral 
items used in "The Return of Buck Gavin." 

We also have Mabel Wheaton's scrapbooks. Most of these scrapbooks 
contain clippings. Mabel, however, had the annoying habit (to an archi- 
vist) of occasionally pasting a letter or telegram in among the clippings. 
These deal mostly with Tom's illness and death. They are very moving 
and very important for researchers. We have many other letters and tele- 
grams from that fateful summer, but these in this scrapbook fill in the gaps 
and provide more information about the events in Seattle and Baltimore. 
The scrapbooks are very fragile and difficult to handle. Consequently we 
have had them filmed, and researchers use the film rather than the actual 
scrapbooks. We did, however, have copyflo copies of the letters and tele- 
grams made and they have been interfiled chronologically with the corres- 

There is one interesting item which Mabel pasted into one of the scrap- 
books. This is a program from the Olympics of 1936. Those of you who 
have worked with Wolfe manuscripts know that Wolfe wrote on every- 
thing. At the top of this program is a little bit of genuine Wolfe material. 
It is related to the Olympics and says, "Two weeks, two weeks of 
games. . . ," and then it becomes difficult to read. It is taped into the 


scrapbook and we have been unable to remove the tape without tearing 
the paper and pulling off the writing, so we don't know whether or not 
there is any writing on the back. 

We also have recordings in the Thomas Wolfe Collection — cassettes, 
reel-to-reel tapes, and 33 RPM discs. They are artistic recordings for the 
most part — such items as "A Spoken Anthology of American Litera- 
ture," with a segment from Look Homeward, Angel. But we also have a 
number of recorded interviews with members of the Wolfe family. Those 
are available to researchers upon request and with the permission of the 
curator or assistant curator of the North Carolina Collection. 

I haven't mentioned the clippings. We maintain a clipping file of any- 
thing related to Thomas Wolfe. And I haven't mentioned the printed 
material. We make a valiant effort to acquire all printed material by and 
about Thomas Wolfe. We order two copies. One is shelved in those cages 
along the wall of this room which houses the Wolfe Collection, and the 
other is placed in the stacks and is available in this room to general readers. 

And there is more in this constantly growing and ever-changing col- 
lection. Though we were unable to purchase the wonderful collection that 
went to Harvard, we have a truly unique and significant collection here. 
Because of the autobiographical nature of Wolfe's work, the family 
material is extremely important; and we at the University are honored 
that the Wolfe family chose to place it in Wolfe's first and much-loved 
alma mater. 

* Frances A. Weaver is assistant university archivist at the University of North Carolina 
Library, Chapel Hill. She arranged and described the Thomas Wolfe Collection and prepared 
the unpublished "Guide to the Thomas Wolfe Collection in the North Carolina Collection" 
(1980). She also mounted the special exhibits for the meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society. 
Her paper was given at the Saturday afternoon session. 





Except for the impromptu remarks made by William H. Bobbitt at the 
Saturday morning session and the paper of Moses Rountree who could not attend, 
the reminiscences in the following pages were given at a special Saturday afternoon 
session presided over by Bobbie E. Purser, secretary of the Society. All but those of 
Albert and Gladys Coates, Ralph D. Williams, and Vance E. Swift are edited 
transcriptions from tape. 

Pictured below are all of the schoolmates present for the meeting except former 
Chief Justice Bobbitt, who had to leave at noon. They are, left to right: Paul 
Green, Albert Coates, Corydon P. Spruill, Phillip Hettleman, Elizabeth Lay 
Green, Ralph D. Williams, R. H. Souther, William H. Andrews, Nathan 
Mobley, Vance E. Swift, Benjamin Cone, and Katherine Robinson Everett. 
(Photograph by H. G. Jones.) 




I didn't know Tom Wolfe after he left the University. But this Dia- 
lectic Society was a matter of major interest to me, and I remember a few 
things that might be of interest. 

I was not here when Tom made his famous introductory freshman 
speech; I came in one year later. My association with him was to a large 
extent here in the Dialectic Society during my freshman year and his 
sophomore year. Afterward he became more interested in other things — 
including Dr. Greenlaw's English class, the Playmakers, the Tar Heel, and 
various literary pursuits — with which I had no particular connection. 
But I do remember a couple of instances in the Dialectic Society Hall 
when he was imbued with the fascination of Elizabethan speech. He liked 
to paraphrase some of it, and one of his paraphrased reminiscences went 
something like this: "My lord, a lady awaits without." "Without 
what?" "Without food and clothing." "Feed her and show her in." 

I remember another instance when a friend of ours was making a talk 
to the Society. He had an unfortunate habit of spitting, but not really spit- 
ting anything — just going through the motion, a nervous habit alto- 
gether. Finally Tom couldn't stand it any longer. He gained recognition 
and said, "Mr. Chairman, we came here tonight expecting an oration, 
but instead we are having an expectoration." 

I might remark upon Tom's genius. He and I were in the same logic 
class under Dr. Horace Williams. Tom was a little careless in his dress and 
his attendance and took very few notes, if any. When it came time for ex- 
amination, however, he got excited. I had taken care to make some notes 
as we went along in the class, and I had a reasonably legible set of notes. 
Tom borrowed that set of notes and read all night, and the next morning 
we took the examination. He made an "A" on the course and I made a 
"B." He handled words better than I did! And I think Horace — as he 
usually did — had already picked Wolfe to be the genius that he later be- 
came, acknowledged by all. 


Tom had a rather unusual sense of humor. He liked stories involving 
George Bernard Shaw. For instance, one night Shaw appeared on the stage 
of a theatre and was given a tumultuous ovation. Tumultuous, that is, ex- 
cept for one fellow in the balcony who, when things reasonably subsided, 
called out, "Aw, Pshaw." Whereupon Shaw responded, "I agree with 
you, my friend, but what are so few against so many?" Finally, this is not 
an elegant tale, but we'll survive. Tom told of Shaw's sitting in the 
theatre, studying his program. A fellow in the row behind kept sticking 
his head over Shaw's shoulder to read his program. Finally, Shaw just 
pulled out his handkerchief, reached around, and wiped the fellow's nose. 
"Pardon me, my friend, I thought it was my own," he said. 



You know, I hardly know how to get started here. Tom and I entered 
here in 1916. He was 6 '10" tall and weighed 110 pounds. We took Latin 
and English together, and Tom had a wonderful way. He was dramatic by 
instinct: he would always come into class a little bit late, make quite a stir, 
and go to the rear of the room. The other boys would stick their feet out 
and try to trip him up. 

I knew Tom pretty well, but I was much older. I had been teaching 
school and pitching baseball to make some money so I could come to the 
University, so I was twenty and he was approaching sixteen. So we were 
quite different in age, but I guess elderly and youth took to each other, 
and I got to know Tom very well. Then, during the war I got fired up to 
help save the country and the world for democracy, so I went away to 
war; and when I came back Tom was king of the campus. He was the 
boss man around here, and from 110 pounds he had gained weight as he 
grew greater in intellectual power. 

Tom was interested in writing very early, and we used to talk about 
writing; and when I came back from the war he was the head man of 


Sigma Upsilon writing club. He asked me if I would like to join, and I said 
yes. Then he said, "We'll vote on you and maybe nobody will blackball 
you." Well, they voted and I received a letter from Tom inscribed: "O 
thou penitent and bowed-down neophyte, you have from the great cyclops 
at the top the following message: 'Thou wilt get a package of Zoo-Zoo 
crackers, go to the post office at 7:00, kneel down and pray for one-half 
hour; then thou wilt leave and go to the Methodist Church and extend 
thy form on a hard bench and spend the night in solitude and 
meditation.' " Well, the next day I met Tom at class and he asked, 
"Where were you last night?" I said, "Hell, I've been in the war; do you 
think I would follow this sort of stuff?" "Well," he said. "I don't think 
we can pass you." I replied, "That's all right with me, Tom." Later I 
had a message from him: "O thou rebellious one, we have decided to take 
thee in." I'm telling this because there's another side of Tom — human 
enough. He told me that we would be initiated in the old graveyard the 
following night at 7:00. So I went to the graveyard, and there were all 
these Ku Klux Klan characters with hoods with big eyes cut out. The 
tallest — in fact, each one — had a hidden club. They read my name and 
took me into the great order. A writing group indulging in this! They 
made me kneel, and the next thing I knew somebody hit me back here 
with a board and let out a high hyena laugh. I looked up and it was Tom 
in his costume. He beat the hell out of me. I had never been so beaten, and 
I grew full of hate for Tom Wolfe at that moment. Well, you would have 
too! So next day I told Tom, "I hate your guts!" He just laughed and 
said, "Wonderful, wonderful!" Nevertheless, after that we got to be very 
good friends. I saw him many times in New York and elsewhere and ad- 
mired his greatness, but I still remember that hyena laugh of triumph as 
he subjected this pitiful character to corporal punishment. Well, he was 
human, all right. 

The last time I saw Tom alive was here in Chapel Hill when he came 
out to the house and talked, talked, talked. What if we'd had a tape re- 
corder then! I guess about 9:30 I had to take him to Raleigh, and riding 
along — the rain was pouring — I said, "Tom, what are you going to do 
next?" He replied that he was going out to the northwest. I asked if he 
had thought of just going the "whole hog" and writing the epic of 
America in a poetic extravaganza — let it roll, don't worry about charac- 
terization or plot, but a hymn to America. He said, "Well, that's maybe 
something to think about." 


We went over to see Jonathan Daniels and had a party, Tom talking 
all the time. We had a bottle of liquor, and I guess they drank about half 
of it when Tom made a wonderful proposition: "Jonathan, there's so 
much liquor left, why don't you save it and we'll make a pledge among 
the three of us that when one of us dies, the survivors will drink a toast to 
the deceased." Jonathan said "Good." Well, Tom went away, and the 
next we heard was of his death. Jonathan, Professor Koch, Elizabeth, and 
I drove up to Asheville, and on the way Professor Koch said, ' 'We've got 
to have some violets for Tom's funeral out of Buck Gavin." In Asheville he 
searched everywhere and called everybody. He wouldn't give up, and late 
in the afternoon he found a bunch of violets for Tom's funeral. So 
Elizabeth, Jonathan, Professor Koch, and I went around to the house, and 
there we looked at Tom. It was just the way he would have described it. 
Mrs. Wolfe would say, "You see here where they cut him," and Mabel 
would say, "No, Mama, that's not the way it was." We had quite an ex- 
perience, and the next day the funeral was a moving experience, also. It 
was a trying moment — well, more than a moment — when the minister 
tried to work Tom into heaven. He had a tough time. Then we started 
carrying Tom to the cemetery. Either Albert Coates or Phillips Russell or 
somebody wasn't lifting his part, because it almost broke my back. So in 
Riverside Cemetery we put Tom away. 

What makes greatness, how does it grow? He became such a sen- 
sitive Aeolian heart that the winds of life blew across and made this 
celestial beauty, music that we listen to. Jonathan Daniels was so moved 
that he wrote a piece about Tom for the Saturday Review, and since 
Jonathan is not here I'd like to read just a few words from it: 

I saw Tom last just a little more than a month later. He lay against the 
crinkly undertaker's satin in the oversized coffin they had had to build for 
him. After his operation a wig-maker had had to make a wig for him to be 
dead in. He lay in his mother's Dixieland tourist home in a room with long 
cracks in the yellow plaster ceiling above him. That was the house, as Tom 
had written of it, in which an evangelist had turned to drink, one boarder 
had hanged himself, a turbercular had stained the floor in hemorrhage, an old 
man had cut his throat. It was the house in which his youth, he said, had 
been crowded about with a diverse company of boarding women and men, 
girls with "nigger-drawling desire from South Carolina," a secretly cough- 
ing tubercular Jew, Negresses quartered in the dank, windowless rooms in 
the basement. And that day Tom's mother stood at the head of the coffin, 
tearless and strong, talking calmly and apparently unshaken. 


We need to look not backward to Tom but forward with him. He 
spoke for us now, when he wrote not long before he died, 

I think the true discovery of America is before us. 

I think the true fulfillment of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty 
and immortal land, is yet to come. 

I think I speak for most men living when I say that our America is here, 
is now, and beckons on before us and that the great assurance is not our living 
hope, but our dream yet to be accomplished. 

So in those words we take off our hat to Thomas Wolfe not only for 
his lyric voice but for his soaring philosophy of hope, endeavor, and ulti- 
mate accomplishment, or else we perish. 



I have been so impressed with all that I've heard that the few little re- 
marks that I am going to make about women in the early days at the Uni- 
versity here seem rather mediocre. When I came here there were fifteen 
girls in the student body in the first year, and the second year there were 
only twenty-five. Some of the boys sided with us women and tried to give 
us a little push. One of the things that Tom did was to place me on the 
board of the Tar Heel, of which he was editor. Every week we met 
upstairs in the old Gerrard Hall. In those days it was not considered proper 
for a girl to be on the campus at night by herself, so Tom — I don't know 
how he worked it — appointed certain members of the board who were 
to escort me to and from the meetings. I remember Dougald MacMillan 
was one of them. He was very serious and later was a noted professor for 
so many years. But as he walked with me across the campus, he remarked 
to me one night, "Don't you get any ideas from this now." Actually, I 
really didn't have much to do, for the Tar Heel was mainly concerned 
with athletics; and I didn't have much news to contribute from the fifteen 


girls. So I didn't really work much, but nobody else on the board did 
either except Tom. He would wait until the last minute, and then he 
would gather all his notes and take them over to the Seeman Printery in 
Durham; and there he would construct the current issue of the Tar Heel, 
which came out just once a week in those days. That was one of the first 
things the women started doing; I think ever since then we have had 
women on the Tar Heel. 

Tom was a personal friend of our family. My brother roomed with 
Tom and, I'm sorry to say, he didn't come out very well in Tom's 
writing of him; nobody did, really. I think Horace Williams was the only 
person whose portrait really bloomed under Tom's ministration. Every- 
body was presented satirically and my brother came out very poorly; but it 
was an amusing portrait. Tom had the skill to bring people to life. My 
father was rector of St. Mary's School in Raleigh, and Tom would come 
over with my brother; and I think he spent the night in the rectory some- 
times. Also, I have a distinct impression that he went to the school dining 
room with all these girls. He didn't seem to be bothered by it at all. He 
took everything in his stride; he was on top of most everything. I had 
classes with Tom, and I thought of him as most everybody on campus did 
— as a distinguished figure and a very amusing one. Everybody knew him; 
he was very tall, and he had a peculiar gait when he walked across the 
campus. You knew that was Tom Wolfe! 

We heard he was going to Harvard. We didn't know how Harvard 
was going to react, but we thought he'd live through it. We'd hoped he 
would write a play, but he never wrote one that could be produced here at 
the university; and he didn't succeed in playwriting when he went to 
New York either. A play was what he wanted to write, but of course 
what he did write was so much more wonderful than a play could have 

I didn't see him for years and years after that. My husband would see 
him in New York, but I was busy raising a family and I didn't see Tom 
until he came back years later. He had written You Can't Go Home Again, 
but he did come home; he came back to Asheville, and he rented a little 
place there. I think he stayed there one summer, and he came to Chapel 
Hill and renewed some of his old relationships. He had changed in a great 
many ways. He was a real person then, just the same height; but he 
weighed a good deal more, and he was very impressive to anybody who 
met him. I think that's about all I've got to say about Tom, unless any- 
body has a question about him. [Paul Green asked Mrs. Green if she re- 


membered Wolfe's stuttering.] I don't remember his stuttering. [Mr. 
Green commented, "He stuttered very badly as a freshman, but he got 
over that. ' '] I didn't know him until he was a junior, I think. But he seem- 
ed always to know what he was going to say and just how he was going 
to say it. He was a very interesting person to be with, but he didn't waste 
much time on us women. 


I shall use the time allotted to me by relating several recollections 
from my association with Tom Wolfe and telling you of the impression he 
made on me. 


There was the night before the Carolina- VMI football game in 
Chapel Hill, while he was editor-in-chief on the Tar Heel. He came to my 
room with this complaint: 

Albert, we have had a sorry team this year, the students have had no en- 
thusiasm for it, and now at the end of the season they are becoming ashamed 
of themselves, and putting the blame on me and the Tar Heel for lack of 
whipping up the Carolina spirit and supporting the team. I am going out to 
cover the game tomorrow myself and write the news story, and see that the 
Tar Heel supports the team. 

VMI beat Carolina 29 to nothing and Jimmy Leach on the VMI 
team was the hero of the day. Tom's description of the game was a burst 
of journalistic satire written in this vein: "Leach ran around Carolina's 
right end for forty-five yards, only to be downed in his tracks." You will 
find it in the Tar Heel on the day after the game in the fall of 1919. Here it 


First, Mr. Leach, who attends school at VMI would grab the ball and 
race 40 yards up the field where Carolina's impregnable defense would stiffen 
and throw him for a loss. Then, Mr. Leach would go around Carolina's 
right end for 15 yards only to be downed in his tracks. Before defense such as 
this VMI was helpless and was held to a niggardly 29 points. 

The game was replete with thrilling plays and first class football. Trouble 
was VMI held a monopoly. 

The fast . . . and powerful Carolina backfield ripped through the VMI 
line and tore around the ends with the speed of the agile steam tractor as it 
leaps nimbly over the hillside. 

The game was friendly fought and the size of score was at all times in 

The Tar Heel had supported the team at last! 

There was the afternoon in Cambridge in the spring of 1921, while 
Tom was in Professor Baker's Playwriting 47 course at Harvard, writing 
plays that would run four to five hours, and friendly critics were urging 
him to cut them down to a shorter length. Tom resented this criticism, 
and in a long walk together along the banks of Charles River, he said to 
me with articulate fervor and rising passion: "Albert, cutting out a sen- 
tence would be like cutting off a finger. Cutting out a scene would be like 
cutting off an arm. Cutting it to two hours in length would be cutting 
the heart out of it." He told me of his dreams of himself "sitting in the 
balcony of some great theatre while my plays are being performed — my 
words are being spoken by the actors, my scenes living in action, and me 
thrilling to the applause of the audience after audience, night after night." 
His imagination was so vivid that I was satisfied he got almost as much out 
of the anticipation as he would have got out of the reality. And so did I! 


There was the incident involving Colonel Pendergraft who ran a bus 
service from Chapel Hill to Durham during my college days in Chapel 
Hill. He was a colorful character and a great friend. One day, in the mid- 
dle 1920s, he stopped me in front of his bus stand on the street and told 
me a trouble on his mind: "Albert, the doctor tells me I have got a row of 
cancers up and down my chest, and he gives me six months to live. But I 
don't feel anything — look at this," and he struck his chest vigorous 


blows with his fist, saying "It don't hurt a bit." He led me over to a tree 
on the sidewalk which had been badly scarred, with healthy growth now 
covering the scar. "That tree has got a new lease on life and has got a long 
time to live. Why can't I live on like that tree?" 

I told Tom this story. Years later he told me that he had used it in his 
latest novel. I found that his imagination had transformed this incident in- 
to something uniquely his own, put it in Eliza's mouth in the family con- 
versation going on around his father's deathbed, and transformed it into 
pages of magic prose without a word of padding. You will find it on pages 
239-241 in Of Time and The River: 

"... I got to studyin' it over tonight and it's just occurred to me — now 
I'll tell you what my theory is! I believe that that old growth — that awful 
old thing — that — well, I suppose, now, you might say — that cancer," she 
said, making a gesture of explanation with her broad hand — "whatever it 
is, that awful old thing that has been eating away inside him there for years 
— " here she pursed her lips powerfully and shook her head in a short con- 
vulsive tremor of disgust — "well, now, I give it as my theory that the 
whole thing tore loose in him yesterday — when he had that attack — and, ' ' 
she paused deliberately, looked her daughter straight in the eyes, and went on 
with a slow and telling force — "and that he has simply gone and got that 
rotten old thing out of his system." 

"Now, child — " Eliza pursued her subject deliberately, with a rumi- 
nant relish of her strong pursed lips — "I was born and brought up in the 
country — close to the lap of Mother Earth, as the sayin' goes — and when 
it comes to trees — why, I reckon there's mighty little about 'em that I don't 
know. . . . Now here, ' ' she said abruptly, coming to the centre of her argu- 
ment — "did you ever see a tree that had a big hollow gash down one side 
— that looked like it had all been eaten an' rotted out by some disease that 
had been destroyin' it?" 

"Why, yes," Helen said, in a puzzled voice. "But I don't see yet — " 
"Well, child, I'll tell you, then," said Eliza, both voice and worn 
brown eyes united in their portents of a grave and quiet earnestness — "that 
tree doesn't always die! You'll see trees that have had that happen to them — 
and they cure themselves! You can see where ... the tree has got the best of 
it — and grown up again — as sound and healthy as it ever was — around that 
old rotten growth. And that," she said triumphandy, "that is just exacdy 
what has happened to that maple in the yard. Oh, you can see it!" she cried 
positively, at the same time making an easy descriptive gesture with her wide 
hand — "you can see where it has lapped right around that old growth — 
made a sort of fold, you know — and here it is just as sound and healthy as it 
ever was!" 


"Then you mean? — " 

"I mean," said Eliza in her straight and deadly fashion — "I mean that 
if a tree can do it, a man can do it — and I mean that if any man alive could 
do it your daddy is that man — for he's had as much strength and vitality as 
any man I ever saw — and more than a tree!" she cried. "Lord! I've seen him 
do enough to kill a hundred trees — the things he's done and managed to get 
over would kill the strongest tree that ever lived!" 

There was the evening in the early 1930s — shortly after Look Home- 
ward, Angel had come off the press — when George Wright, a noted prop- 
erty lawyer in Asheville, came to Chapel Hill to talk to my Law School 
class on land titles and spent the night in my home. While talking after 
dinner, I asked him if he knew the Wolfe family. "Yes," he said, 

I know them all, and I know Mrs. Wolfe particularly well. I was her lawyer 
for nineteen years and handled all her real estate transactions. Tom didn't 
make up things about her in his book. He described her as she was and she 
knew it and took it as the truth he meant it to be and she was fascinated with 
his description. She was at the ironing board when the first copy of Look 
Homeward, Angel was brought to her; she put down the iron and started go- 
ing through the book, and five hours later when she came back to finish her 
work she found that the hot iron had burned through the ironing board. 

Mr. Wright added this story about Tom's book: 

I am the attorney for a firm of real estate men in Asheville. Not long after 
Look Homeward, Angel was published, I took some land title abstracts to their 
office at mid-morning on a brisk day. The door was locked, I looked at my 
watch. It was not a holiday, and these men were the sort of men who would 
not be taking a day off from business. I kept on knocking. Soon I heard 
someone tiptoeing to the door. "Oh, it's you. Come on in." He took me to 
the inner office where four partners in the real estate firm were sitting around 
a table, reading passages from Tom's book, and writing down in the margin 
the names of the persons described. These down-to-earth business traders 
were marvelling at the fact that they had been acquainted all their lives with 
the men Tom had described and had not really known what made them tick 
until they read Tom's descriptions. 

It was the businessman's tribute to the poetic insight which cut 
deeper than their own personal observation. 


There was the day in the late 1960s when Andrew Turnbull came to 
Chapel Hill to gather information for his biography on Thomas Wolfe. 
Part of his conversation within footnote 15 of his book: 

Was he on the threshold of an artistic breakthrough when he died? Had he 
been allowed his three score years and ten, would he have cut a substantially 
greater figure? 

I am inclined to say "No." . . . Wolfe died young, it is true — three 
weeks before his thirty-eighth birthday — but there had been time to show 
what he had. At this age, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald had done 
most of the work on which their reputation rests. 

Viewed with the hindsight of three decades, Wolfe's life completes a 
circle, returns on itself. He had uttered his cry, which was also the cry of a 
continent. . . . 

Wolfe's life ends with the enormous question, "What if he had lived?" 

I differ with this appraisal. I think that Tom had just begun to write, 
and let me tell you why. 

In the year before he died he wrote a friend: 

Your own idea, evidently, is that life is unchangeable, that the abuses I 
protest against — the greed, the waste, the poverty, the filth, the suffering 
— are inherent in humanity, and that any other system than the one we have 
would be just as bad as this one. In this I find myself in profound and pas- 
sionate conflict. . . . 

As I have grown older, as I have seen life in manifold phases all over the 
earth, I have become more passionately convinced than ever before . . . that 
this system of living must be changed, that men must have a new faith, a 
new heroism, a new belief, if life is to be made better, is the heart and core of 
my own faith and my own conviction, the end toward which I believe I must 
henceforth direct every energy of my life and talent. . . . 

I have at last discovered my own America. I believe I have found my 
language, I think I know my way. And I shall work out my vision of this 
life, this way, this world and this America, to the top of my bent, to the 
height of my ability, but with an unswerving devotion, integrity and purity 
of purpose that shall not be menaced, altered, or weakened by anyone. 

I am afraid of nothing now. I have nothing more to lose except my life 
and health. And that I pray and hope to God will stay with me till my work 
is done. That, it seems to me, is the only tragedy that can now stay with me. 

But life and health did not stay with him till his work was done. 


On a day in September, 1938, I got a telegram from Tom's sister, 
Mabel, asking me to be a pallbearer at Tom's funeral. I wept. 

My wife and I drove to Asheville the evening before. Next morning 
we went around to the Old Kentucky Home and saw Tom in the flesh for 
the last time. As I looked at him, I thought to myself: 

Tom has been too tall for the ordinary rooms he had entered, too heavy 
for ordinary chairs he had sat in, too big for the ordinary suits of clothes 
he had worn, and it was only natural that a coffin for him could not be 
found in stock and had to be made to order and that eight pallbearers in- 
stead of the usual six had carried him to his grave. He was out of this 
world, and in it. He lived and died at the mercy of his own genius. 

Tom Wolfe was the most vivid man that I have ever known in flesh 
and blood. He had the most far-reaching imagination of any man I have 
ever known. He had a mind of the most penetrating quality and rock- 
crushing power of any man I have ever known. He was the most articulate 
and expressive man I have ever known. He could beguile me into believing 
I had witnessed scenes he described — as in his description of his giant 
father throwing a can of kerosene on an already roaring fire in a great fire- 
place. I had been a guest of Tom's home for a week and got in the habit of 
telling my friends that I saw him do it — until my wife gently observed: 
"I thought you were there in August." And so it was! He was all there, 
all at once, and all the time. 

He gave up half a dozen possible careers to achieve one. What if he 
had followed his father's ambition for him to become a lawyer and go into 
politics? He showed fully as much aptitude for politics and public life in 
his college days as he showed for writing. What an orator he would have 
made! What an advocate he would have made — at the bar, in political 
campaigns, in public forums anywhere! And what a writer the world 
would have lost! 

A year or two ago Pamela Hansford Johnson, on a visit to Chapel Hill, 
wondered why Tom had given himself so grotesque a description as the 
person of Monk Webber, when "he looked more like the figure of Adam 
in Michelangelo's Creation where God was touching his finger." That 
God had touched Tom's finger I had no doubt. 



[Mrs. Coates was not a schoolmate of Wolfe's but she came to know 
him well through her husband and through their visits.] 

Some wit observed at the time man was launched into space that the 
only persons really prepared for such a momentous event were the children 
acquainted with the feats of Superman. That was my state of mind when 
Thomas Wolfe's first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, was published and 
became a success. I was prepared for that event, for I had often heard of 
Thomas Wolfe from a friend in my hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, 
who had known Tom at Harvard and spoke of him in glowing terms. 

Then I met Albert Coates who had known Tom at Chapel Hill and 
for a time had shared an apartment with him while attending Harvard 
Law School. Albert had much to say about Thomas Wolfe and what a re- 
markable person he was. 

Shortly after, while visiting in Warrenton, North Carolina, I met 
William Polk, who was then practicing law there and later became an 
editor of the Greensboro Daily News. He, too, had been with Thomas 
Wolfe at Harvard, shared an apartment, and spoke warmly of him. 

In a year or so, Albert and I were married, and when we had settled 
in our new home he turned over to me his old army trunk containing nu- 
merous bachelor effects and mementoes, and suggested that I look them 
over to see what should be kept and what discarded — an amazing vote of 
confidence at which I have never ceased to marvel! In the course of sorting 
out the contents of the trunk I came upon several letters from Thomas 
Wolfe — not in a carefully tied-up package but scattered throughout in 
flotsam, jetsam fashion. I did not need to be told that these letters must be 
saved, for like the children and Superman I was certain they were written 
by a genius! I carefully separated them from the rest of the material and 
have happily preserved them to this day. 

They are delightful letters, written by a young man to a good friend 
— extravagant in praise of his friend's high grade in a law course and 
generous in prophecy of his future in the law, laughter at the antics of 
other friends, longing for recognition in the plays he was writing and 
struggling so hard to have produced, and nostalgic in their references to 
North Carolina and Chapel Hill. There are passages in one letter as lyrical 
as any in his novels: 


I am twenty-three years old, and the Spring comes north already; soon 
tar will be spongy on the streets, and the promise of adventure is abroad. 
There are girls about — girls with rose-lipped mouths, and a seductive 
rhythm in their walk. Some night soon, when there are stars, I shall slip like 
Lippo Lippi from my cloister and go forth in quest of these silver voices! I'm 
young, I'm young, — and at least a bit of a poet. 

And there was prophecy about himself: 

And really, Albert, there are signs and tokens of a growing power 
within me. Don't laugh — I know you won't — and don't repeat this, but a 
conviction is upon me that I shall one day do a great and secret thing — only 
when I do it, it shall no longer be a secret thing. 

I did not meet Thomas Wolfe until several years after these events. 
Look Homeward, Angel had been published and Of Time and the River was 
about to be. We were in New York and Albert got in touch with Tom 
through the Harvard Club, which seems to have been his medium of ex- 
change; and he invited us to meet him at the Chatham Bar one afternoon. 
Maxwell Perkins came with him and we must have sat for two or more 
hours talking. We were certainly entertaining angels unaware, for neither 
of us then knew who Maxwell Perkins was. Tom brought us a copy of Of 
Time and the River and it was not until we read the great dedication he had 
written to his friend and editor that we learned what Maxwell Perkins had 
meant to him. 

I recall that Tom was concerned about the sort of publicity he was 
getting. He was particularly unhappy at the report that he did much of his 
writing with the top of his refrigerator as a desk. Mr. Perkins did what he 
could to persuade him that such publicity though distasteful was actually 
not harmful to his forthcoming book. There was a lively discussion during 
the afternoon as to what was the best thing to do when one has completed 
a book. The answer to this question that I remember was: "Begin another 

Later in the evening I left to attend a performance of Katharine Cor- 
nell in Romeo and Juliet, while Albert and Tom had dinner together. After- 
ward we picked up our bags at our hotel and went to catch the train for 
home. Tom came with us to the station and I remember that he was in- 
trigued by a new electric gadget that opened a station door when we 
walked by its beam of light. He asked me if I was able to sleep on the train 
and whether I was comfortable in a berth. Then I realized his great height 
and the difficulty he must have experienced in travelling. 


It was not long after our trip to New York that we were in Asheville 
for a meeting, and I went around one afternoon to call on Mrs. Wolfe. It 
was during this visit that she said an unforgettable thing about her relation 
with Tom. That morning her daughter, Mabel, had called on the tele- 
phone, much disturbed about Tom's use of his family in a story that had 
just been published. Mrs. Wolfe said calmly that she was no longer wor- 
ried about such things. "If what Tom has written about me is not true," 
she said, "my friends will know it is not true. And if it is true, why it is 
true." And then she added this wonderful sentence: "I am willing for 
Tom to use me in any way he wants in his work." 

Thomas Wolfe came back to Chapel Hill the year before he died, and 
I believe he loved every minute of his return to his alma mater, for he was 
warmly received and honored. In the meantime, I had read those passages 
in Of Time and the River in which he described in great detail the delicious 
food and drink he had enjoyed; and I wondered if I could prepare a meal 
for such a sophisticated traveller. At length, I decided that I could at least 
cook a breakfast that might please his taste. Sunday morning was a favorite 
time for us to entertain, and so we invited him for a Sunday morning 
breakfast. We invited along with Tom his hosts, Corydon and Julia 
Spruill. Billy Polk and his wife, Marion, came from Warrenton. We sat 
down to breakfast about ten o'clock and did not leave the table until near- 
ly four in the afternoon when all of us left for a tea party that Dean and 
Mrs. Dudley Carroll were giving in honor of Tom. 

Tom had been wined and dined so much that he ate rather sparingly. 
There was nothing gargantuan about his appetite, as I had been led to be- 
lieve. He was full of talk, however, about a novel he was going to write 
some day on his dealings with lawyers, for he felt he had suffered at their 
hands in the suits that had been brought against him in New York. I can 
still see him towering above me as he ticked off some ridiculous names of 
imaginary law firms that he planned to use in his novel. 

The day did not end with the faculty tea party, for while we were 
sitting at home in the early evening a quick step on the porch announced 
Tom. As soon as he came in he asked, "Albert, have you got anything to 
drink in the house? I've been giving the Old Well a work-out!" Tom's 
good friends and hosts were teetotalers, and we drank very little ourselves, 
but I managed to forage in our larder and come up with something to 
quench his thirst. 

Then he asked what the night life was in Chapel Hill. We told him 
there were no night clubs but that recently the one movie house in town 


had been allowed to show Sunday night movies if the proceeds were given 
to charity. 

"Let's go," said Tom, and we sallied forth on foot and got there just 
in time for the second showing of a movie called Wild Bill Hickok. We had 
to take seats very near the front because the little theatre was already jam- 
packed. Tom's so tto voce comments on the movie fascinated surrounding 
spectators, and soon they were listening more to him than they were 
looking at the picture. And so the day ended. 

Billy Polk had invited Tom to visit him in Warrenton before he left 
North Carolina, and it was arranged that I should pick him up in Raleigh 
and bring him to Warrenton in our car. Albert was tied up with classes 
early in the day but caught a bus later to join us for dinner and an over- 
night stay. On the morning of the day agreed upon I drove to Raleigh, 
parked the car, entered the Carolina Hotel where Tom was staying, and 
called him on the telephone. A sleepy, muffled voice answered, and then I 
remembered that he was to have had a visit with Jonathan Daniels and 
some other friends the night before. It turned out that they had been up 
until all hours, having a glorious time talking and drinking, and Tom 
must have had very little sleep. I waited in the lobby for about an hour 
until he finally appeared; but not by himself, for he brought with him the 
most enormous object I have ever seen in the form of a travelling bag. I'm 
sure this huge case held many of his manuscripts. 

After he had eaten breakfast — still nothing gargantuan about his ap- 
petite — we set out for Warrenton, and I have never forgotten that ride, 
for it was filled with Tom's exultation at the rolling country through 
which we passed. The whole drive was a fond celebration of the red clay 
and green pines of eastern North Carolina. 

The visit in Warrenton was our last glimpse of Tom until we jour- 
neyed to Asheville for his funeral. When we got to his mother's house, 
Tom's "Dixieland," she and his brother Fred took us in to see him lying 
in his coffin. Tom was beautiful in death. I vividly recall his black, black 
hair against his marble-white face with its finely chiselled features, and the 
folded hands that had written so many thousands of words. I remembered 
one of his stories, Death the Proud Brother, and its magnificent apostrophe 
to Death, Loneliness, and Sleep, with the haunting, lovely line — 

Proud Death, wherever we have seen your face, you came with mercy, love, 
and pity. . . . 


It was not until I was in church for the funeral service and alone in 
the crowd — Albert had left to serve as one of the pallbearers — that the 
tragedy of Tom's death began to dawn on me, and I could not hold back 
the tears. 

For Lycidas [was] dead, dead ere his prime. 
Young Lycidas, and [had] not left his peer. 



I'm delighted that Mrs. Green confirmed what I said this morning 
about Tom's going over to the Seeman Printery in Durham, always late, 
always getting the copy together late and — much to the discomfort of 
Nat Gooding — throwing out ads to make space for his last-minute arti- 
cles. I learned a lesson, and the next year, when I became business mana- 
ger of the Tar Heel, I told Jonathan Daniels, the managing editor, "We've 
got to have a real paper. The athletic association was losing a great deal of 
money on the Tar Heel, and I have guaranteed them no loss this year. In 
fact, I want to make some money out of this thing. To do that we must 
print the newspaper on time." Daniels and Dan Grant agreed, and we 
found a company in Burlington that printed the paper cheaper and faster. 
After that, the Tar Heel always came out on Saturday — quite a change 
from the previous year when it was usually Sunday before Tom got the 
paper on the campus. 




Having been a very close associate of Tom's, you might think I'm 
going to be as voluminous in my talk as he was in his writings. But don't 
let me frighten you; I have just a few little things I picked up before leav- 
ing home which might be of interest. Most of them are supporting docu- 
ments to what has been said so abundantly and so well today. 

This morning reference was made to Tom's room here in college — 
how very unkempt it looked. Here is a copy of a letter I wrote to my wife 
on April 10, 1937: 

Last night I had a delightful evening with Tom Wolfe. I went over to 
his apartment about five o'clock, and that in itself is quite a sight. Outside his 
door were two baby carriages. He says he gets blamed for them but gets no 
credit for them. Inside the apartment, which has a beautiful view overlooking 
the East River, a glimpse around would indicate that robbers had just cleaned 
it out completely, or else the furniture had been replevined by the dealer. It 
was the barest-looking place I have ever seen. He did manage to get two 
chairs together for us to sit on. But it was only a few minutes when all 
thought of furniture was forgotten, because he is without question a most 
fascinating talker. We went to dinner later. Wherever we went everyone 
knew Mr. Wolfe — taxi drivers, newsboys and everyone. We ran into his 
publisher, Maxwell Perkins, at dinner, and it seemed only a few mintues be- 
fore time to catch an eleven o'clock train home, after this lovely evening with 

Probably one of my claims to fame, if I have any, is to have been one 
of Tom's first — if not the first — biographers. I was his biographer in the 
Yachety Yack here at Chapel Hill. It has been republished a great many 
times, but the author isn't usually identified. I am the biographer, and this 
is what I wrote about Tom: 

Editing the Tar Heel, winning Horace's philosophy prize when only a 
Junior, writing plays and then showing the world how they should be acted 
— they are all alike to this young Shakespeare. Last year he played the lead- 
ing role in the "Midnight Frolic" at "Gooch's Winter Palace." 


Gooch's was the one little restaurant in town that stayed open very- 
late, if not all night, and Tom could very frequently be seen there, and 
that's how I brought in the reference to "Gooch's Winter Palace." In 
writing a sketch like this, at that time at least, I was writing to my fel- 
lows. I thought they would understand what I was writing about; little 
did I think that later it would be part of the record. So some of this is 
purely local. My sketch continued: 

This year Tom has played a leading role on the Carolina Shipping Board 
[which was the student council, whose function it was to expel students who 
had violated the rules]. But seriously speaking, "Buck" is a great big fellow. 
He can do more between 8:25 and 8:30 than the rest of us can do all day, and 
it is no wonder that he is classed as a genius. 

So the biographer has seen his prognostication of Tom as a genius 
come true. That's one way of throwing some roses at the biographer! 

In Look Homeward, Angel, I'm Nick Madley. Tom and I took Horace 
William's philosophy class, and Horace, as you know, was a great Hege- 
lian. I would call him Hegel and he'd call me Spinoza and I'd call him 
Kant, and this lovely banter went on all the time. But when he wrote his 
book he was the misunderstood person. A fellow student had been over- 
heard to say, "Professor, we call him Hegel." He made it appear that he 
was misunderstood. 

Another instance about which I take a great deal of pride was this: 
Tom called me one day in 1937 — probably about two weeks after the 
date of this letter that I read to you — and said, "Nat, I'm drawing a 
will. I don't have anything to have a will for but under the New York law 
I must have an executor and an alternate executor. Maxwell Perkins, my 
publisher, is the executor, and would you be willing to be my alternate 
executor?" I said "Sure." I thought Tom would live forever, and to my 
great amazement he died in 1938. Maxwell Perkins then became the ex- 
ecutor, and a very few years later Maxwell Perkins died. So I, who had so 
glibly said yes, was then the executor. The attorneys for the estate said 
that if I did not wish to serve — the lawyers were handling the estate very 
well — and if I wished to renounce the appointment, I could do so. Well, 
I thought very fast; I didn't even hang up the receiver. As long as I felt no 
moral obligation to Tom to carry out my expressed willingness to him — 
I had no moral obligation to him and to his family — I would decline, be- 
cause I had a career to make, not basking in the career of Tom. So I re- 
nounced the appointment over the phone. Subsequent events have led me 


to believe that I made a wise decision, because I don't think anyone could 
handle that estate with all the demands on the executor without spending 
a great deal of time. But Tom in writing to his mother in 1937 gave me a 
character reference, which isn't bad. I might have to use it sometime. He 

You remember about making the will. I'm afraid in regards to this will 
I'm a little bit in a position of the man who said, "If we had some ham we 
would have some ham and eggs if we had some eggs." If anything happened 
to me right now, I don't know how much anyone would be able to realize 
out of my so-called estate. But of course, with a writer there's always the 
chance that the continued sale of his books or manuscripts or other royalties 
may amount to something after his death. At any rate, I put the whole thing 
in the hands of two of the ablest and very best people I know, Mr. Perkins, 
who is the first executor, and Nat Mobley, who was a classmate of mine at 
college and who is now a vice-president of an insurance company in New 

That's not a bad reference, so I have many happy memories of Tom, 
and with what I've said, I think that's enough for the moment. 



My friends, this story that I'm about to relate, I think, has been told 
before. It's the famous story of Tom Wolfe in Eddie Greenlaw's English 
class. We eighteen-year-old students were asked to write a short theme, 
the title of which was to be "My Life." Now, what do you think about a 
youngster eighteen or nineteen years old writing about his life's history? 
At any rate, we all had to do it because it was part of the assignment. 
When we brought the biographies to class, Tom came stumbling in late as 
usual and crawled into the back row. He was called on to read his life his- 
tory, whereupon Tom reached into his right-hand pocket and pulled out a 
roll of toilet paper on which he had written the story of his life. And, of 


course, it was very witty and excellent, and the English was perfect — it 
always was in Tom's case. Eddie Greenlaw, who had quite a sense of 
humor himself, said, "Thomas, the quality of your story as you read it to 
us reflects very much the type of paper that it's written on." 

Now, Tom was a good friend of mine, we met on frequent occasions, 
and we met in France for a couple of days. We visited the battlefields to- 
gether. Marcus Noble, Tom Wolfe, and myself got together and one other 
person, whose name I don't recall. We spent two days together. Tom 
always had cheese under one elbow and a flask of wine or carafe of wine 
under the other. Of course, that didn't suit Frank Graham very well, but 
it suited Mark Noble and myself admirably. We had a nice time together. 

I kept up with him over the years, mostly by correspondence, and 
some of my letters — I am proud to say — are ensconced in that pile on 
top of that little wagon here in the North Carolina Collection. I gave 
them to the University — and, incidentally, I got a very nice tax deduc- 
tion by reason of it. Well, I'm glad they are here, because they are well 
taken care of and they will be preserved a whole lot better than I could 
have preserved them. 

There was only one instance in which I beat Tom Wolfe. After we 
graduated, the class met under the old Davie Poplar to elect a permanent 
president. I beat Tom Wolfe by two votes! 



[Mr. Williams provided the following written substitute for remarks 
he made during the "Memories of Wolfe" session.] 

In 1921 or 1922 Tom Wolfe, B. C. Brown, and possibly others came 
to New York in an effort to raise funds for the Edward Kidder Graham 
Memorial Building. We, the young alumni living in New York, worked 
with them in trying to pick the pockets of well-established alumni — in- 


eluding George Gordon Battle, well-known attorney; Junius Parker, chief 
counsel for American Tobacco Company; Rufus Patterson, chief executive 
officer of American Machine and Foundry; John Motley Morehead, in- 
dustrialist; Alf Haywood, attorney; and others. A few of the young alum- 
ni had dinner as guests of the fundraisers; guests included John Terry, 
Elliot Cooper, George Denny, and possibly others. The restaurant, no 
longer in operation, was next door to the McAlpin Hotel, 34th Street and 
Broadway, where the fundraisers were staying. We were on the second 
floor of the restaurant, and the waiter had to make several trips up and 
down stairs. As we were leaving I looked back over my shoulder and saw 
the waiter picking up first one and then another napkin and slamming 
each one down a little harder than the preceding one. He was furious; no 
one had left a tip. It was quite some time before I went back to that 

One evening after Tom had moved to New York, I was in his apart- 
ment in the middle fifties on Lexington Avenue. Furnishings included a 
white iron bed, a chest of drawers, a couple of chairs, and a large, bare, 
round table about three feet in diameter. That was about all. A large pile 
— about half a bushel — of unopened letters was stacked on the table. I 
remarked: "Tom you seem to be behind with your correspondence." He 
answered, "If you don't read them you don't have to answer them." 

One evening when I was with Dr. Eugene Sugg (from a few miles 
west of Chapel Hill on what is now Highway #54 but practicing in New 
York City), we were discussing alumni in the area and he said he had 
never met Tom. I arranged for Tom and Eugene to have dinner with me 
at the Columbia University Club at 4 West 43rd Street. The appointment 
was for six o'clock. At seven o'clock Tom had not arrived. I telephoned 
and woke him up. He hurried over from his apartment on Lexington 
Avenue. We sat down at a table for four in the bar and grill section and 
were soon voluntarily joined by Lewis Arnold — an Englishman who 
spoke slowly in very crisp, measured words with very little lip movement. 
He immediately took over the conversation and very soon pulled from his 
pocket newspaper clippings and started reading about his brother who 
was a member of the British Parliament, representing the Labour Party. In 
less than three minutes Tom looked at his watch and said: "We had better 
be going or we will be late." Tom did not want to play second fiddle in 
any conversation. I had expected we would have dinner at the club but 
was pleased that Tom had saved us from listening to a slow conversation 
about something in which we had no interest. We went to the Blue Rib- 


bon Restaurant in the 45th Street area between Sixth Avenue and Broad- 
way, one of Tom's favorites in that neighborhood. 

When Tom returned from one of his early trips to Europe, he invited 
some of his Carolina contemporaries to meet him at the Harvard Club, 27 
West 44th Street, about noon on Sunday. Except for the absence of B. C. 
Brown the group was about the same as had been with him for dinner 
when he was in New York raising funds for the Graham Memorial 
Building. Nat Mobley, one of his fraternity brothers, had moved to New 
York by that time and was probably with the group. We moved on from 
the Harvard Club to the Blue Ribbon Restaurant (mentioned above) at 
about one o'clock. Tom was in fine form discussing his European trip. It 
is my recollection that his comparatively short haircut was due to an inci- 
dent in a German beer parlor where he had been conked on the head with 
a beer mug, and the haircut was necessary before some stitches could be 
taken in the repair work. 

It is also my recollection that it was on the return trip mentioned in 
the preceding paragraph that he met Aline Bernstein, a married woman 
with whom he was closely associated for several years. I have no recollec- 
tion of that subject having been mentioned at the luncheon while I was 
there. The meeting is described in some detail in one of his books, The 
Web and the Rock. He first saw her as he stood at the rail of his ocean- 
going vessel as her tender approached to put some passengers aboard. I do 
not remember the port. 

As the afternoon wore on, most other guests left the restaurant, but 
Tom continued to hold the attention of his guests. The waiters gradually 
moved in nearer to hear better as they pretended to be rearranging place 
settings at nearby tables. I had to leave about four-thirty but Tom seemed 
to be gaining speed and showed no sign of reaching a terminal in review- 
ing his European trip and related subjects. The thing I have always re- 
membered about the luncheon was the close attention his friends (and 
waiters) paid to his conversation, which was not aimed at capturing their 
attention but was simply the contagious enthusiasm generated by what he 
had seen and done. 

When Fortune — or a similar publication — was issued in breadpan 
size (about 10" x 15" x 1"), an article by Tom described the campaign of 
a candidate for governor of North Carolina. I remember the article for 
two reasons: for one reason the pages were cut (when printed) lengthwise 
down the middle; the second reason: I could identify the candidate and his 
advisor on rural economic problems although no actual names were used. 


The candidate was O. Max Gardner, and Tom described him as stuffing 
the keyhole and putting a rug against the door at floor level as he knelt to 
pray for his own success in the campaign. His advisor on rural economics 
was clearly Dr. Eugene C. Branson of the University faculty. Both were 
ridiculed by Tom with tongue-in-cheek treatment. 

In 1967 Andrew Turnbull wrote a biography of Tom Wolfe. At his 
request we met for dinner while he was writing the book. We went to 
the Blue Ribbon Restaurant and had a very pleasant discussion of my 
recollections of Tom at the University and in New York. I have no clear 
memory of the details of our conversation, but when the book came out I 
was impressed by the great number of alumni — and others — listed in 
four pages of acknowledgments, strung out one name right after another. 

Someone has said that no man is a hero to his close associates. I con- 
cluded that I should revise my measurements of "Buck Gavin," my class- 
mate, when Sinclair Lewis — one of the leading authors of the 1920s — 
said that Tom Wolfe was an outstanding young writer who would 
achieve recognition for the depth and excellence of his writing. 



Paul Green told about being initiated in the Sigma Upsilon and how 
badly he was beaten. I was initiated the same night that Tom Wolfe was, 
and we were down near the Bynum Gymnasium, on all fours, and we 
were beaten in the rear end so that we could not sit down for about a 

The summer after we graduated, I went up to Asheville for a few 
days, and I saw Tom, and we went around to the Old Kentucky Home. I 
met his mother and sister, and I enjoyed visiting with Tom. 

The next time I saw Tom was in New York in October 1923. My 
wife and I were on our honeymoon and we stayed at the old Waldorf- 
Astoria. There was a restaurant right across the street that advertised good 


Southern cooking. So we went in there. We had barely sat down when 
Tom Wolfe came in. He joined us, and we enjoyed visiting with him. 
The next night we were the guests of Kameichi Kato, who was a school- 
mate of ours; his father owned a steamship line from Tokyo to New York. 

I saw him again in the summer of 1937. We had taken our son up to 
Brevard to a summer camp, and stopped at Oteen to get some gas. When 
I went into the gas station to sign my ticket, there was a great big tall 
man on the telephone. It sounded like Tom Wolfe, but he had grown 
about two or three inches taller, and he had gotten nearer 250 pounds. I 
just waited until he got through, and he turned around and recognized 
me. I asked him what he was doing there, and he said he had a place about 
three miles up the mountain. I asked him how did he get down there, and 
he said he walked. I said, "Get in our car and we'll take you back up 
there." So we took him up to the cabin. The first thing he did was pull 
out a section of a davenport and got a jug of corn liquor. He said, "This is 
the best liquor you will ever taste. I know a fellow up here that ran this 
through his still eight times. You don't need a chaser on it." He was 
right. I asked him what he was doing up there, and he said he was work- 
ing on a book, and he showed us the manuscript. It must have been that 
thick! He said he was supposed to cut out about half of it. I was impressed. 

Somebody commented about Tom's stuttering. Tom was always 
seeking for exactly the right word to express his feelings, so it wasn't a 
question of his stuttering, it was a question of searching for the right 
word. Well, he was a great fellow! 



I have nothing to add. I was in the law school and Tom of course 
was in academics. I did know him, and I saw him act, but these brilliant 
speakers knew him intimately, and I don't want to take their time. I am 
delighted to be here to share their memories. 



VANCE E. SWIFT, '20 ^ i ^ 

[Mr. Swift provided the following written substitute for the remarks 
he made during the "Memories of Wolfe" session.] 

The Thomas Wolfe that I knew as a classmate at the University of 
North Carolina during the years 1916-1920 was not the flamboyant un- 
kempt eccentric slob that he so often has been portrayed by some of his 
biographers who, not having known him during his undergraduate days 
at Chapel Hill, have attempted to paint a composite "on the Hill" picture 
of Wolfe from descriptions found in his autobiographical novel, Look 
Homeward, Angel. It appears, in fact, that many of his biographers, in- 
cluding Andrew Turnbull, Elizabeth Nowell, and others, in their effort to 
piece together a true picture of Wolfe from his writings, have failed to 
differentiate between the real Wolfe and the fictional Wolfe described in 
Look Homeward, Angel. They apparently have identified the fictional 
character, Eugene Gant, in Look Homeward, Angel as the real Thomas 
Wolfe, and thus have failed to differentiate between the fictional Eugene 
Gant and the real Thomas Wolfe. 

Eugene Gant, the main character in Look Homeward, Angel, was a 
combination of the real Thomas Wolfe and the fictional Wolfe called 
Eugene Gant. In those instances where the real Thomas Wolfe failed to 
meet the specifications of the character that the author sought to portray, 
Wolfe did not hesitate to resort to fiction in creating, in Eugene Gant, the 
character that he sought to portray of himself in his autobiographical 
novel Look Homeward, Angel. 

While I have never been a Wolfe scholar, was not a close personal 
friend of his at Chapel Hill, and did not follow his progress as a writer 
after he went to New York, I did get to know him quite well and to ad- 
mire him as an outstanding student classmate. I got to know Wolfe dur- 
ing our first year at Chapel Hill through our mutual friends, Edmund J. 
Burdick from Asheville, and another brilliant student, I believe his name 
was Leslie Eugene Sluder, from Brevard, N.C., both of whom were fore- 


ed to withdraw from the University due to terminal illness at or near the 
close of my second year at Chapel Hill. 

In those days "bull sessions" were commonplace among students at 
the University and, on occasion, I used to join Wolfe, Burdick, and Sluder 
at their rooming house in "bull sessions" on various subjects, including 
sessions on English assignments. 

The assignment that I remember best, because it was the most impor- 
tant English assignment of the year, was to write a theme on "Who I 
Am," which was to be something of an "autobiographical thesis." After 
having learned from upperclassmen that the best grades in the past had 
gone to those students who had resorted to fiction rather than fact to de- 
scribe significant episodes in their lives, Wolfe, Sluder, and I decided to re- 
sort to fiction and to make our stories sufficiently dramatic as to be in- 
teresting, but without being so unrealistic as to reveal the fact that it was 
fiction rather than fact. 

Wolfe, as I recall, wrote what we all thought was exaggerated dra- 
matic fiction about the hilarious and terrifying episodes encountered with 
his rambunctious drunken father. We thought the episodes as he described 
them were so dramatic and unrealistic that the professor would recognize 
the whole story as fiction rather than fact, and we told him so. 

I do not recall that Wolfe's theme was ever published, but the one 
written by Sluder which described his experience as a National Guardsman 
on the Mexican border during the bandit Villa's raids, won top honors 
and was published in Carolina Magazine, a UNC student magazine. 

In one of our early "bull sessions" held at the Andrews House, I 
recall that Wolfe talked about his abortive plans to attend the University 
of Virginia where he had hoped to have contact with the aristocratic "first 
families" of Virginia, the state of his mother's ancestors. Instead of Vir- 
ginia, Wolfe's father insisted on his going to the less "snooty" and more 
democratic University of North Carolina where he would associate with, 
and be recognized socially, by North Carolina students from all social and 
economic levels in the state and thus provide contacts that would be of 
value to him in his future business or political career. 

In the days prior to our entry into World War I, the social life at the 
University of North Carolina was dominated mainly by the old-line fra- 
ternities whose membership, numbering less than 10 percent of the stu- 
dent body, was composed primarily of descendants and close friends of the 
once wealthy aristocratic antebellum landed gentry of the East, along with 
an increasing number of sons of the newly rich industrialists of the Pied- 


mont and the West. Wolfe was not one of them and sometimes was made 
to feel ill at ease by upperclassmen from each of these groups. 

Before the inactivation of fraternities occasioned by our entry into 
World War I, class distinction was beginning to develop between frater- 
nity and nonfraternity members on the campus, resulting in some cases, in 
downright hostility. There was very little fraternization between frater- 
nity and nonfraternity members, and not many students outside the circle 
of friends and relatives of members, and former fraternity members, re- 
ceived bids to join old-line fraternities. Having no genealogical or ancestral 
fraternity lineage, Wolfe, like many others with no lineal or collateral fra- 
ternity ancestors, found the doors to the University's upper social life closed 
to him, so he initiated an offensive against the fraternity "caste" system 
under which the fraternities operated. He did this in part by ridiculing fra- 
ternities and the haughty attitude of their members who, according to 
Wolfe, sat like vultures on their porches along "fraternity row" looking 
down their noses with an air of superiority on nonfraternity students as 
they walked past fraternity houses on their way to and from classes. These 
same fraternity students generally gazed upward into the sky and pre- 
tended not to see nonfraternity students as they met and passed along the 
graveled walkways. 

In the days before World War I fraternities generally did not observe 
what later was to become known as "rush season," a period during 
which fraternities sought to recruit and pledge new members by enter- 
taining them and generally courting their favor. Instead, a system in those 
days, called "booting" or "bootlicking," was in evidence, a system 
under which "neophytes" attempted to curry favor on the part of frater- 
nities by entertaining their members frequently and lavishly. This sort of 
action sometimes extended over a period of years only to culminate even- 
tually in a final "blackball" except in a few cases where the fraternity, be- 
ing in need of money, would accept the student and arrange for him to be 
initiated a few days before graduation in order for the fraternity to collect 
the initiation fee. 

Wolfe abhorred this kind of action, and soon after the reactivation of 
fraternities following the close of World War I, Wolfe participated active- 
ly in a move among student leaders to break up the stranglehold of the 
aristocratic old-line fraternities on the social life of the University campus 
by organizing local groups of outstanding students into local fraternities 
and then petitioning well-established national fraternities for a charter. 
The move had the full backing of the University, and soon charters were 


granted to local groups and the number of strong national fraternities was 
doubled. Thus the stranglehold by the few old- line aristocratic fraternities 
on the social life at the University was broken. As I recall it, Wolfe was a 
leader in one of the first locals to receive a charter. 

Having been forced by his father to attend the University of North 
Carolina rather than the University of Virginia, the school of his choice, 
Wolfe likened his situation to that of Jonathan (Dean) Swift, an orphan, 
who was adopted by his uncle, Godfrey Swift, an attorney general in 
Ireland, and forced to live in Ireland, a country he later came to dislike. At 
the age of six, Jonathan's uncle sent him to Kilkenny school, called the 
Eton of Ireland, where, as an orphan among the elite families of nobility 
and great wealth, Swift sometimes was made to feel ill at ease. This may 
have engendered some bitterness in his life that later on found expression 
in his satirical writings which disclosed that he cherished a resentment 
against not only his uncle but the whole human race. 

Wolfe expressed admiration of Swift's writings and allowed as how 
someday he, Tom Wolfe, would write a satire equal to Gulliver's Travels in 
which he would portray the "little people," meaning the "nonaristocrat- 
ic" people, as heroes over the "Aristocratic Giants." Look Homeward, 
Angel and You Can't Go Home Again may have been a later expression of 
Wolfe's pent-up feelings about his family, his friends, the common peo- 
ple, the aristocrats, and the whole human race. 

As I stated in the beginning, the Thomas Wolfe that I knew as a 
classmate at Chapel Hill was a likeable, congenial, well-groomed young 
student who loved to associate with other students and people every- 
where, but he was one who held in contempt the haughty self-styled aris- 
tocratic students who looked down their nose at him and at others whom 
they considered to fall below their own economic and self-proclaimed 
social status. 

On one occasion, I recall that Wolfe, as an act of ridicule, tousled his 
hair, rolled up his trouser legs to midway his ankles, disarranged his neck- 
tie and, staring up at the sky, walked nonchalantly down the gravel walk- 
way along fraternity row while members sat on their porches staring up at 
the sky. 

Wolfe was an incessant talker and, though he was well informed on 
many subjects, he did not let his lack of knowledge of a given subject 
stand in his way of discussing it as enthusiastically as if he were an expert 
on the subject. I sometimes thought that he was prone to exaggerate in 
discussing some subjects, especially in reciting what appeared to me to be 


wild tales of his escapades. Sometimes he would fabricate a wild story to 
test the ability of his listeners to judge fiction from fact. 

Wolfe's mother ran a boarding house in the summer resort town of 
Asheville, which was frequented in summer by wealthy visitors mainly 
from the South, who came there to play and to escape the summer heat. 
This fact, along with the fact that he was not embraced by students from 
the wealthy elite families from Asheville and environs, such as the Bing- 
hams, McKees, Colemans, and other Asheville socialites, may have given 
Wolfe a feeling of inferiority or resentment. It may also have engendered a 
burning desire on his part someday to soar above them and obscure their 
social status with the literary and dramatic fame which he hoped and ex- 
pected to achieve. 

After the deaths of Burdick and Sluder, I saw very little of Wolfe. 
My time and interest centered in the field of science, medicine, and ath- 
letics, while Wolfe's interest was in literature and drama. Although I kept 
in touch with Wolfe through mutual friends such as Sidney Allen, George 
Denny, George Taylor, Hobart Souther, and others, I had a full schedule 
in the Medical School, and was also a member of the varsity baseball team. 
This made it necessary for me to spend long hours in the medical school 
laboratories at night in order to make up work that I had missed during 
afternoons spent on the athletic field and on out-of-town trips with the 
baseball team. 

Obviously, Wolfe was a different character at Harvard and New 
York University from the Wolfe I knew during our first two years at 
Chapel Hill. (I saw very little of him during my last two years at the Uni- 
versity.) I lost track of him after he left Chapel Hill and I heard little or 
nothing of him until after the publication of his autobiographical novel, 
Look Homeward, Angel, when I happened to mention Wolfe and his novel 
at a dinner party given by my neighbor Lawrence Stallings and his wife, 
Helen Poteat, at their "Forest Hills" home in Caswell County. This was 
my first discussion of Wolfe with anyone who had known and associated 
with him in New York, and I was astounded and shocked to hear Mrs. 
Stallings refer to him as an undesirable, uncouth, eccentric person to be 
avoided. Others at the party, as well as I can recall, included Walter Lipp- 
man and a staff writer from Time Magazine, who knew Wolfe. All agreed 
that Wolfe was something of a literary genius who, somehow along the 
way in the process of becoming a famous writer, had degenerated into an 
eccentric, unkempt alcoholic. 


Some years later in discussing Wolfe with Hamilton Basso, a friend 
of Wolfe and a member of the Roosevelt Commission on Farm Tenancy 
and the Economic Problems of the South, I learned that Wolfe had evi- 
denced a compassion for the downtrodden people living in the North 
Carolina mountains. Basso, who spent his summers at Brevard, said that 
he knew Wolfe well in New York and in North Carolina, and that he 
thought perhaps Wolfe might have had visions of becoming a second 
Edgar Allen Poe, George Bernard Shaw, or Jonathan Swift. He went on 
to say, however, that Wolfe was a literary genius who someday would 
take his rightful place in the "Literary Hall of Fame." 

My cousin, Janie Swift Sharp, now in her late nineties, and whose 
late husband knew Wolfe as a customer who frequented their bookstore 
on Pack Square in Asheville, thought that the people in Asheville, and in 
North Carolina in general, were unkind to Wolfe because they lacked the 
vision to recognize and appreciate a great novelist until after literary critics 
all over the world began to acclaim him as a great satirist. People in 
Asheville, according to Mrs. Sharp, thought of Wolfe as a local "home- 
grown" youth, and could not conceive of a local boy becoming a great 

But North Carolinians, especially the North Carolina press, have 
always been slow and reluctant to praise a native son for outstanding 
achievement. Whether it is lack of vision, lack of appreciation, jealousy, 
or timidity, North Carolinians have not been prone to praise their native 
sons and daughters. 

Instead of praise, we have been quick to criticize the efforts, especially 
the literary efforts of our sons and daughters. Early criticism by North 
Carolinians and the North Carolina press of Look Homeward, Angel, and 
Thomas Wolfe, the author, was no exception; and it was not until Wolfe 
had received worldwide acclaim as a great novelist that we in North 
Carolina came to recognize and accept him as a literary genius. 




I would like to add a very small note, but I think a significant one, 
that is implicit in much that's been said this afternoon and much more 
that's been written and said previously. And that is a note on the gentler 
and quieter affection and good feeling that Tom so often displayed. As a 
person of universal imagination, feeling, and emotion, he went through a 
range far exceeding my imagination, of course. I was impressed then and 
in retrospect am even more impressed about this quieter, private person, 
who Tom Wolfe was occasionally. Just two illustrations perhaps I may be 
allowed to mention. 

One is that he learned, in 1921, I think it was, that my fiancee and 
her sister were going to take a trip to Boston — my wife's first trip and 
her sister's second or third trip. They went up to see friends. Tom learned 
about it, and he drafted a fellow student from the graduate school to go 
down to the boat to meet them. He took charge of them; he took them to 
breakfast, took them to lunch, took them out to the football field, took 
them all around, and delivered them to their host. And all because of his 
feeling for these two comparative strangers from North Carolina and one 
of them a fiancee of a classmate of his. 

Sixteen years later Tom came to Chapel Hill in 1937 and I had the 
privilege of taking him to some of the places he wished to see and some of 
the people he wished to visit. One of them was to answer the invitation of 
Phillips Russell to attend his class, which was then in Murphey Hall in the 
auditorium — and a big class. Tom and I came back rather late for the 
class, because he wanted to go to Durham to see some people at Duke, 
which we did; and we arrived at Murphey in the middle of the class. We 
cracked the door, and I asked Tom to go ahead in. I thought he would go 
right on down as soon as Mr. Russell recognized him. Professor Russell 
did stop what he was saying, in the middle of a sentence, perhaps in the 
middle of a word, and indicated that he would be pleased if Tom would 
come forward. But Tom just lurched over to a chair and sat down very 
quickly and asked Russell to please go ahead, which Phillips did and 


which I silently applauded. It strikes me now that this is something that 
we all feel and we all know and that ought to be mentioned explicitly, and 
I do bring it forward with my appreciation and applause. 



If my memory served me better, I could really tell some good stories. 
Legette Blythe of Charlotte asked me at Sunday school some years ago to 
write down on a piece of paper the jokes that Tom Wolfe told around the 
class meeting at the Oaks. I said, "I don't remember any of them." He 
said, "You ought to for you laughed louder than anybody else there!" 

One time I met Tom in New York in front of the McAlpin Hotel. I 
was going to register, and two friends were with me from Greensboro. I 
was going out to Long Island to have dinner with them. I saw Tom coming 
down the street. We have heard a lot about how Tom dressed. When I 
saw him coming, I thought "My goodness, here's poor Tom." Remem- 
ber, these were the days of the depression. I thought I'd have to give him 
a loan. We greeted each other and I introduced him to my two friends. I 
asked "What have you been doing in the meantime?" He said he was 
teaching at NYU. I jumped back and thought, "My goodness, NYU can 
afford to pay better salaries than this, and he could dress a little better." 
He told me that he'd been to Harvard and got a master's degree, and then 
he told me the story that Ben Cone told you about — that he had been to 
Flanders Field with Ben Cone, Frank Graham, Marcus Cicero Stephens 
Noble. I believe there was someone else he mentioned. And then he 
begged me to spend the night with him. He said, "I'm staying at the 
Harvard Club, and the next time you come up, call me at the Harvard 
Club." I did, about the next summer, but he'd moved, leaving no for- 
warding address. I think he moved over to Brooklyn. If I'd known then 
what I know now, I could have found him. I'm sorry I didn't get to see 
him anymore. 


Jayne Mansfield, the actress, was in Greensboro once, and we had a 
running conversation. I asked her if she was in college at Texas in 1960. I 
said, "You beat us in Austin, but we beat you in Chapel Hill." She 
slapped her hands and said, "I wasn't on the team that year." Then I ask- 
ed her, "Did you ever read any of Thomas Wolfe's books?" She said, "I 
read everything he wrote, and everything written about him." I told her 
that he was a classmate of mine and he asked me to spend the night with 
him in New York afterward. "Oh, you ought to have spent the night 
with a famous author like that," she said. And I said to Miss Mansfield, 
"If he had introduced me to a good looking blonde like you, I'm sure if 
something had happened, I'd have been written up in his next book." 

Wolfe's biographer came to town, and I told him that story. He 
asked if I thought that Jayne would like Tom Wolfe. I said that from 
what I've heard, she certainly would have. He told me about that 
beautiful Boston winter in New York when I saw him. I'm sorry I didn't 
get to see him anymore, but there's one joke that I would like to finish 
with. I think he told this at the class reunion. I know that I wasn't plan- 
ning to go. The tickets were a little stiff, but when I was told that Tom 
was going to respond to the faculty toast, I said, "Let me have one of 
those tickets; I wouldn't miss that for anything in the world." I think 
one of the stories he told was about an absent-minded professor who was 
going to make a Fourth of July oration. He couldn't remember the names 
of places and dates, so he wrote names down on the inside of his pocket — 
like this. He said, "Who was it in that memorable year of 1492, who 
discovered this great country of ours? None other than that great explorer 
and discoverer — Christopher Columbus. And who was it that was the 
founding father of our country, and got us free from the tyrannies of 
Great Britain? None other than that great statesman — George 
Washington. And who saved this great union in times of civil strife? 
None other than that great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. And in 
whom must we put our trust today, if we are to go forward as a great na- 
tion? None other than our good Lord and Savior — Hart, Schafifner and 




[Mr. Rountree, a classmate of Thomas Wolfe, could not attend the 
session on "Memories of Wolfe, " but he supplied the following writ- 
ten statement.] 

I first saw Thomas Wolfe in January 1919 when I returned to the 
University of North Carolina following wartime service in the United 
States Navy. I had dropped out of the University in 1916, at the end of 
my junior year, to take a job with the Wilson Daily Times, but I was 
enabled to return through the good services of Secretary of the Navy 
Josephus Daniels, who issued an order that anyone desiring to resume a 
college education could get out of the Navy. I had signed up in the regular 
Navy for four years. 

I was at a table in the Alumni Building trying to map out what 
courses to take in my major, English. I asked a lanky, personable young 
fellow sitting at the table if he had any suggestions. 

"Take Koch's playwriting, by all means," he said. "It's great." 

So I followed the suggestion of Thomas Wolfe and joined the dis- 
ciples of "Proff" Frederick H. Koch, who had come to Chapel Hill the 
preceding fall from the University of North Dakota, where he had founded 
a similar theatrical group. 

The playwriting course was an innovative change from anything I 
had had before. Instead of the dusty classrooms of Old East and Old West, 
the Playmakers had a bright meeting place off the rotunda of the library. 
There were a large slick-top table and comfortable chairs, instead of 
benches. To give an authoritative atmosphere, the walls were lined with 
playbills and pictures of Koch's Dakota Playmakers. There were one or 
two bookcases filled with volumes on drama. 

Koch sat at one end of the table, framed in sunlight from a window. 
He was a dapper, tweedy little man with a penchant for Norfolk jackets 
and artists' ties. He wore pince-nez glasses which he used to punctuate his 
remarks. He had a sparkle in his eyes and great enthusiasm for his cause — 


the establishment of a new native theater. It would make use of the state's 
rich heritage of folklore and tradition. Hopefully it would spread to other 
parts of the country and rescue the theater from its shallow Broadway 

The aspiring playwrights who sat around the table shared Koch's fer- 
vor. There were Elizabeth Lay, no less gifted than her husband-to-be, Paul 
Green; Elizabeth Taylor, an accomplished player of senior roles; beauteous 
Virginia McFadden, the sharecropper's daughter, who would marry a 
Broadway producer; Harold Williamson, the country lad, who brought 
homey realism to the tragedy of the tenant farmer. 

Then there was Thomas Wolfe, the thwarted dramatist, who would 
end up being a novelist. 

Wolfe was the life of the class and its most assiduous member. He had 
an inexhaustible fund of humor and was constantly getting laughs with his 
wisecracking. Anything for a laugh. 

One day Koch inquired if it had been one of us whose serious mien 
had been remarked on by Hamlin Garland, the novelist. Garland, whose 
autobiographical A Son of the Middle Border was winning popularity, had 
been invited by Dr. Eddie Greenlaw to address his class in advanced com- 
position, English 21. 

Wolfe and myself were the only playmakers taking the course. I could 
well imagine Garland was referring to me. I had given him rapt attention, 
never having seen a real author before. 

Koch was smiling in my direction and I expected him at any moment 
to say, "How about it, Rountree?" 

Then, to my immense relief, Wolfe blurted out, "I guess he was 
talking about me, Proff. I am the serious type, you know." 

There was a round of laughter and I breathed easy again. 

I have sometimes wondered if Wolfe's joshing wasn't a mask to con- 
ceal his inner torture that would crystalize later in Look Homeward, Angel 

At the time he projected a seriocomic image. A gangling youth of 
eighteen, he was a loose combination of legs, arms, big hands, and a small 
head that seemed a mismatch for his six-foot, three-inch frame. In class he 
sat hunched forward, supported by his elbows. His dark hair was tousled 
and his clothes looked rumpled, as if he had slept in them — which doubt- 
less he had, on occasion. 

It was said that he sat up all night scribbling a one-act play. He would 
come on class the next morning bleary-eyed and disheveled, and, assem- 
bling his hastily written manuscript, proceed to read it to the class. The 


manuscript was usually a hodgepodge of notepaper, envelopes, or what- 
ever he could lay his hands on. 

Despite his unorthodox system, there was no questioning his talent. 
He had a flair for the dramatic and facility for writing dialogue and cre- 
ating scenes. He was also a born actor, as displayed in his The Return of 
Buck Gavin, produced in Koch's first bill of one-act plays. He had the lead 
role, that of a mountain outlaw, and scored a big hit with his lusty por- 

Flushed with success, Wolfe got busy writing another play with a 
similar theme, but it wound up in the University Magazine, as did others 
he pounded out. He had one more play produced before going to Harvard 
to pursue his dream under famed drama professor George Pierce Baker. 
The dream never materialized. It took a woman with higher dramatic skills 
than Wolfe's to bring Look Homeward, Angel to Broadway and win a 
Pulitzer prize. 

Wolfe would have been less pleased than offended. He had scorned 
the suggestion of a woman member that the Neighborhood Playhouse of 
New York would produce a play he wrote at Harvard — Welcome to Our 
City — if he would make certain alterations. Who the hell did she think 
she was to know more about his play than he did, Wolfe wrote the 

I was willing to concede Wolfe's superiority as a dramatist, but he 
had to barge in on my territory by getting verse in the University Magazine. I 
considered myself the University's poet laureate emeritus. I had written 
verse for the magazine since my sophomore year. I had written an ode 
celebrating the inauguration of President Edward Kidder Graham and had 
been awarded the English Department's prize for the best verse published 
in 1915-16. Wolfe was infringing on my rights. 

In the spring of 1919, fresh out of the Navy, I contributed a piece 
(titled New York, Ahoy!) to the magazine. It described a sailor's reaction 
upon seeing the Statue of Liberty after months at sea. It was acclaimed by 
the Tar Heel critic for its realism and the verse form used. 

I followed up by getting two poems in a College Wits editions of 
Judge, the national humor weekly; one of them was copied by New York 
columnist Franklin P. Adams (F.P.A.) in his Conning Tower. 

Because of my splurge, I was named to the advisory board of the Tar 
Baby, campus humor magazine, and invited to join Sigma Upsilon, the 
University's literary fraternity. The formal invitation came from Wolfe, 


himself. I was to appear on a certain night at the fraternity's meeting room 
in the South Building for initiation. 

Upon my arrival, I was blindfolded and led out of the building. 
What dark doings lay in store, I wondered. Supported by Wolfe, I was 
walked along in silence. Campus sounds grew fainter and fainter, suggest- 
ing we were headed out of town. After what seemed an hour, the proces- 
sion suddenly halted and Wolfe said, "Well, Rountree, this is where you 
get it." 

The blindfold was removed and I found myself standing in the middle 
of a cemetery. Peering into the darkness I saw the initiation detail group- 
ing in a semicircle. They looked menacing. 

"Have you got your paddles, boys?" Wolfe asked. Before they could 
answer, he said, "I don't think Rountree could stand much paddling. 
Since he is a poet, we will let him give us a recitation. Are you familiar 
with An Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard, Rountree?" 

"I remember some of it," I responded. The Gray classic had been 
one of my favorites in high school. 

"All right, get up on that gravestone and cut loose," Wolfe said. 

I planted myself on the low stone and began reciting: 

"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, 

The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea — " 

"Put some expression in it, Rountree," Wolfe interrupted. "You're 
not reciting prose." 

I raised my voice slightly and resumed: 

"The plowman homeward plods his weary way, 

And leaves the world to darkness and to me." 

Wolfe let me go on, testing my memory. When I came to "The 
rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep," he broke in with "You don't do the 
rude forefathers justice, Rountree. ' ' 

Taking over the recitation, he sonorously went through verse after 
verse of the poem, licking his chops on such lines as "The short and sim- 
ple annals of the poor," "The paths of glory lead but to the grave," and 
"And waste its sweetness on the desert air." 

I decided he had plotted the whole episode to impress me with his 

Sessions of the fraternity were devoted to criticizing each other's 
compositions and reading literary works. On one occasion Wolfe read 
portions of Shaw's Arms and the Man. He was captivated by Shaw's satiric 


humor and attempted a comedy satire of his own before settling for 
Koch's plain fare. 

Wolfe reached his stride in Greenlaw's English 21. He called the 
gruff, exacting Greenlaw one of his "great" teachers. A native of Illinois 
with a Ph.D. from Harvard, Greenlaw was fired "with a zeal for good 
teaching." He detested superficial thinking and shoddy work. Students 
had to extend themselves to win his grudging approval. Wolfe welcomed 
the challenge. 

Early in 1919, Greenlaw embarked English 21 on its most ambitious 
project, a mock peace conference to settle the issues of World War I. The 
class was divided into delegations representing the different allied countries 
involved. Wolfe was one of five representatives of the United States. He 
also headed the Commission of Indemnities and was a member of the 
Commission on Freedom of the Seas. I was on the French delegation. 

The first order of business was a study of the historical background of 
the war as it related to the countries involved. What issues were at stake 
and how could they be resolved in a peace treaty? 

There was unanimous agreement that Germany must be demilitarized 
and her empire broken up. The conference voted to strip her of her 
overseas possessions and segments of her European territory. Wolfe 
supported a demand by France for the return of Alsace-Lorraine, with a 
tribute to Lafayette and Franco-American ties. "Good-bye Broadway, 
hello France!" was still ringing in everybody's ears. 

It was generally agreed that France should share heavily in repara- 
tions. The war had been fought largely on her soil and she had suffered 
enormous casualties. As at Versailles, there was a consensus that Germany 
should be made to pay to the hilt. Wolfe's Commission on Indemnities 
came up with staggering billions and the conference went along. 

The class project was completed in twelve weeks, well ahead of the 
peace treaty at Versailles. Greenlaw, who had been pleased with the work 
of the group, invited the class to his home for a celebration. Copies of the 
treaty were circulated on the campus and sent to leading newspapers. The 
New York Times suggested editorially that it might not be a bad idea to 
adopt the student treaty, that it was probably as good as anything that 
would come out of Versailles. The New York Public Library ordered a 
copy for its files. 

The last I saw of Wolfe was at the 1920 commencement. That fall I 
sent him an announcement of my marriage to a Goldsboro girl. He ac- 


knowledged it with a wedding gift — a little silver pickle fork. He prob- 
ably could have used the money to his own advantage. 

The years went by and suddenly Wolfe had become famous with the 
publication of Look Homeward, Angel. I lost no time getting a copy. Skip- 
ping over the early chapters, I looked for what he had to say about Chapel 
Hill. Suddenly, in his account of his junior year, "Mr. Rountree" stared 
me in the face. It had to be me. I was the only Rountree at the University 
and Wolfe had remembered there was no "d" in my name — a common 

The passage, inserted without introduction on pages 594 and 595, 
had to do with a purported conversation in the philosophy class of Pro- 
fessor Horace Williams (Vergil Weldon in the book). Students were asked 
what they would have done had they been in Galileo's place, when he was 
forced to recant his position that the earth moved around the sun or be 
burned at the stake. 

"And if they had asked you, Mr. Rountree?" 

"I'd have told the truth," said Mr. Rountree, removing his glasses. 

"But they had built a good big fire, Mr. Rountree." 

"That doesn't matter," said Mr. Rountree, putting his glasses on again. 
How nobly we die for truth — in conversation. 

"It was a very hot fire, Mr. Rountree. They'd have burned you if you 
hadn't recanted." 

"Ah, I'd have let them burn," said the martyred Rountree through 
moistening spectacles. 

"I think it might be painful," Vergil Weldon suggested. "Even a little 
blister hurts." 

"Who wants to be burned for anything?" said Eugene. "I'd have done 
what Galileo did — backed out." 

"So should I," said Vergil Weldon, and their faces arched with gleeful 
malice over the heavy laughter of the class. 

The passage was pure invention. I never took philosophy — it was 
not my dish. 

I would have backed out faster than Galileo did. 

Thanks, anyway, Tom, for putting me in your book, even as a cock- 
eyed idealist. 

Maybe you intended it as a compliment. 


North Caroliniana (Society, Inc. 

North Carolina Collection 

UNC Library 024-A 

Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514 

Chartered on September 11, 1975, as a private nonprofit corporation under pro- 
visions of Chapter 55A of the General Statutes of North Carolina, the North Caro- 
liniana Society has as its main purpose the promotion of increased knowledge and 
appreciation of North Carolina heritage through studies, publications, meetings, 
seminars, and other programs, especially through assistance to the North Caro- 
lina Collection of The University of North Carolina Library in the acquisition, 
preservation, care, use, and display of, and the promotion of interest in, histori- 
cal and literary materials relating to North Carolina and North Carolinians. The 
Society, a tax-exempt organization under provisions of Section 501(c)(3) of the In- 
ternal Revenue Code, depends upon the contributions, bequests, and devises of 
its members and friends. 

Unofficially limited to one hundred North Carolinians who have contributed sig- 
nificantly to the state, the Society elects additional individuals meeting its criterion 
of "adjudged performance," thus bringing together men and women who have 
shown their respect for and commitment to our state's unique historical, literary, 
and cultural inheritance. 

A highlight of the Society's year is the presentation of the North Caroliniana So- 
ciety Award to an individual adjudged to have given unusually distinguished ser- 
vice over a period of years to the encouragement, promotion, enhancement, pro- 
duction, and preservation of North Caroliniana. 

The North Carolina Collection, the headquarters for the North Caroliniana So- 
ciety, has been called the "Conscience of North Carolina," for it seeks to pre- 
serve for present and future generations all that has been or is published about the 
state and its localities and people or by North Carolinians, regardless of subject. In 
this mission the Collection's clientele is broader than the University community; 
indeed, it is the entire citizenry of North Carolina as well as those outside the state 
whose research extends to North Carolina or North Carolinians. Its acquisitions 
are made possible by gifts and private endowment funds; thus, it also represents 
the respect that North Carolinians have for their heritage. Members of the North 
Caroliniana Society have a very special relationship to this unique institution which 
traces its beginnings back to 1844 and which is unchallenged as the outstanding 
collection of printed North Caroliniana in existence. A leaflet, "North Carolina's 
Literary Heritage," is available without charge from the Collection. 


Archie K. Davis, President 

William S. Powell, Vice-President 

H. G. Jones, Secretary-Treasurer 

Gertrude S. Carraway 

Louis M. Connor, Jr. 

Thomas Wolfe at Chapel Hill 
(Yachety Yack, 1920)