Thomas Wolfe’s Home, a former Boarding House in Asheville NC, Brings the Famous Writer to Life
By Lawrence Wells
“I was without a home–a vagabond since I was seven–with two roofs and no home. I moved inward on that house of death and tumult from room to little room, as the boarders came with their dollar a day and their constant rocking on the porch.” (Look Homeward, Angel)
The old house at Number 48 Spruce Street in Asheville, N.C., has pleasantly creaking floors and a moldy smell reminiscent of paper and ink.
Here at the childhood home of author Thomas Wolfe, the spirit of his mother, Julia, holds sway in the neatly made beds, sunlight spilling through the windows, lace curtains shifting with every breeze, tables set for lunch in the dining room.
Wolfe immortalized his mother’s house as “Dixieland” in Look Homeward, Angel. It’s an imposing house until one remembers: it wasn’t his. Young Thomas did not even have a room to himself.
He and his mother slept in any room not rented; and if they all were rented he was sent to stay with his father, W.O. Wolfe, who had separated from Julia partly because of her boarding -house-obsession. She considered The Old Kentucky Home her crowning achievement; and it absorbed her energies and attention.
She had little time for her youngest son, Thomas. Yet her compulsions became part of his deepest feelings and empowered his prose.
Sit and Dream on the Porch
On the front porch, rocking chairs tempt a visitor to sit and dream. In Wolfe’s day there was s splendid view of “Beaucatcher” Mountain to the east, now regrettably obscured by a 12-story Radisson Hotel across the street. The mountain separated boys’ and girls’ schools and it was said that girls had to cross it to catch a beau.
In Wolfe’s fiction, his narrator Eugene Gant’s father–based on Tom’s father–would sit on the porch and entertain his boarders by holding forth on politics and current events, quoting Shakespeare and the Bible. Thomas Wolfe lived in the house off and on between 1906 and 1916 when he enrolled as a freshman at Chapel Hill.
The house was built in 1883 as a private family home; but by 1900 had become a boarding house, known as the Reynolds Boarding House. Rev. T.M. Myers, of Louisville, KY, was the next owner, and named it “The Old Kentucky Home.” (Wolfe pillories Myers in Look Homeward, Angel, has him running through town intoxicated and ranting.)
In 1906 the Reverend Myers sold the house to Julia Wolfe for $6,500. She remodeled extensively in 1916, adding a dozen rooms for a total of 29 rooms and about 11,000 square feet. She operated the boarding house until her death in 1945 charging boarders $1.00 for a room and three meals a day.
‘The Great Chill Tomb’
“The great chill tomb” was how Wolfe envisioned the Old Kentucky Home. Although I wanted to see the house as the author did–dark, cold, and forbidding–I could not help admiring its Victorian order and purpose. The Old Kentucky Home is a spacious two-story frame house with a broad and shady front porch bordered by a wooden railing and furnished with a dozen sturdy rocking chairs.
In the yard, going around the house, I could see lights at every window as if the house were still occupied. Behind the house was a historical-replanting of Julia Wolfe’s kitchen and flower garden, in which she mixed tomato plants with Queen Anne’s lace and gladiolas. One of the family members left a diary describing the garden as she left it when she died. The miniature garden had been planted in the same spot and faithfully reprised Julia’s favorite flowers and vegetables.
Shade trees line the property. An original stone wall stands out front. On the sidewalk, a pair of Wolfe’s size 12 shoes, bronzed, tempt visitors to try them on for size, a reminder of the author’s six-foot-six inch frame.
The Sleeping Porch
The only room in the house that he lived in for any time and made his own was the upstairs sleeping porch, a sunny place with glass panes wrapped around three corners and framed by green tree branches.
One senses a teenaged Thomas sprawled on the iron-frame bed reading all afternoon. “I don’t know how I became a writer,” he wrote in The Story of a Novel, “but I think it was because of a certain force in me that had to write and that finally burst through and found a channel.”
Novelist Pat Conroy was a frequent visitor and would drop by, unannounced. An unabashed Wolfe devotee, Conroy lived in Asheville for a while. When the new visitor center was dedicated, he gave a commemorative address in which he acknowledged Wolfe’s effect on his own writing:
Pat Conroy Inspired by Wolfe
“Look Homeward, Angel was my spawning ground, my birthplace, and my cradle. While reading that fabulous book, I learned that there was a connection between literature and ecstasy. I had been waiting my whole life for Wolfe to present himself to me. My writing career began the instant I finished Look Homeward, Angel. Thomas Wolfe taught me that great books change you immediately and forever.”
Steve Hill, previous curator of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, observed that despite Wolfe’s renown, in some ways he remains a stranger to his birthplace. “The irony is that the book that made him famous is the same one that alienated him from his hometown,” Hill said.
“Even though Look Homeward, Angel is a work of fiction, it was autobiographical, and some folks that read it in 1930 saw themselves reflected in the characters. These were bitter and caustic characters, to some degree. Some people in Asheville took offense and a few even threatened Wolfe’s life on occasion.
As a result, he did not come back to Asheville until 1937, which was the year before his death. He died in 1938 of tuberculosis. So he felt that he was in exile, and whether he was or not, that was his perception of it.”
Tom Wolfe went home in 1929 just before the novel was published, to warn his family of what was coming. He had written an anxious (unpublished) letter to the local paper defending his book as “a fiction, and that he mediated no man’s portrait here.” Apparently he was unable to bring himself to speak candidly with family members about his writing, but he hinted at what the town’s reaction would be when he parted.
His sister Mabel later recalled, “Tom and I walked down the tracks and he clutched my arm and said: ‘Now Mabel, when I come again I may have to come incognito or wear false whiskers.’” When she expressed her surprise he added, “I’ve said a few things in this book coming out that some of them are not going to like. I hope you will understand and know I tried to do my best.”
‘Shall I ever Come Back to My Home Again?’
As the train pulled out of the station, he wrote in his notebook: “Shall I ever come back to my home, ever again?”
“When the family realized what was going to be in the book,” Hill observed, “they sort of braced themselves.”
Look Homeward Angel was published to immediate acclaim, making Wolfe an overnight literary sensation. The New York Times Book Review praised Wolfe as a writer of “a very great gift–the ability to find in simple events and in humble, unpromising lives the whole meaning and poetry of human existence.” Wolfe subsequently wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, and then as if to belie his theme returned to Asheville in 1937, heralded as the town’s most celebrated son.
“He stayed with his mother at The Old Kentucky Home for about three weeks,” said Hill. “And I think that he felt some of the same pressures that he had felt as a child before he left town and went to college at Chapel Hill. The things that plagued him during his childhood were fresh on his mind. He was not comfortable during that three-week stay in the boarding house.”
‘The Creak of the Old Stair’
In a column for The Asheville Citizen commemorating that 1937 homecoming, Wolfe wrote of his tentatively entering “Dixieland,” and of standing there awash in feeling and memory: “…Again in the old house I feel beneath my tread the creak of the old stair, the worn rail, the whitewashed walls, the feel of darkness and the house asleep, and think, ‘I was a child here; here the stairs, and here was darkness; this was I, and here is Time.’”
A second-story room spared by the fire is dedicated to the memory of Thomas’s favorite brother, Ben, who died there in 1918 of pneumonia. Upon entering Ben’s bedroom one feels apologetic and honored, aware of death enshrined, and Tom Wolfe’s towering grief and loss. As Wolfe later recalled, Julia sat beside the bed holding Ben’s hand while Thomas looked on helplessly.
His father, W.O., sat in a rocking chair at the foot of the bed, waiting, praying. Years later Thomas, an avowed atheist, wrote, “We can believe in the nothingness of life; we can believe in the nothingness of death and of life after death; but who can believe in the nothingness of Ben?”
Ghosts Not Easily Dispelled
Wolfe’s ghosts are not easily dispelled. One is touched by the plainness of the house, its provincial and commercial purpose, the genius it randomly, fortuitously spawned. From this place sprang an American legend who would capture in words every fleeting moment and expression and sentiment of human experience as he knew it.
Wolfe is buried in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery not far from the grave of O. Henry. The Wolfe family plot is prominently located near the front gate. No pilgrimage to Asheville is complete without paying one’s respects.
Engraved on the tombstone is an epitaph penned by the author himself, from his novel The Web and the Rock: “Death bent to touch his chosen son with mercy, love and pity, and put the seal of honor on him when he died.”
Visit the Thomas Wolfe Memorial
52 North Market Street
Asheville, NC 28801
(828) 253-8304. Open 9:00am – 5:00pm
Tuesday – Saturday
Sunday & Monday: CLOSED
Closed State Holidays
Lawrence Wells is the author of two historical novels (Doubleday & Co) and four non-fiction books. He was awarded the 2014 Faulkner-Wisdom prize for narrative non-fiction at the Words and Music Festival. His late wife, Dean Faulkner Wells, was the only niece of author William Faulkner. Wells’ memoir “In Faulkner’s Shadow” will be published in September 2020 by the University Press of Mississippi. Visit his Amazon author’s page.