Thomas Wolfe found he couldn’t go home again, but I found my way to his literal and literary home in Asheville, North Carolina recently. I was surprised to discover that the boarding house his mother ran and which became the setting for all those Eugene Gant shenanigans is called My Old Kentucky Home because the owner previous to Wolfe’s mother had wanted some sentimental tie with his own home state. The house is a ramshackle, clapboard affair that appeared to me had been added onto in a highly improvisational manner. A second story addition extends beyond the first story by a couple of rooms that are supported by brick columns about eighteen inches square and ten or twelve feet high. I know Asheville isn’t earthquake country, but this still seems like asking for it.
Architecture aside, the houses spawned genius and stories beyond any other structure in American literature I can think of. I knew Wolfe was prolific and died young. However, I didn’t know he’d left over a million unpublished words which his second editor–Edward Aswell of Harper’s–assembled into The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again as well as some short pieces. I also didn’t know how young he’d died–just short of thirty-eight. And here I am at sixty-six and what have I done? Of course he never taught anyone how to write an English paper or speak a line of Shakespeare, so maybe we’re even, if not equally famous.
Wolfe’s first editor, of course, was the renowned Maxwell Perkins who also had such close relationships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al. Their separation seems a little like a father-son breaking away. Whatever the cause, there’s no denying that Perkins was the springboard on which Wolfe launched his career. It’s rumored that Perkins may have had almost as much to do with his success as the author himself because Wolfe’s manuscripts were so rambling, undisciplined, and unfocused. Maybe in the current trend toward publishing not only books and/or original manuscripts, but the revisions made by author and by editor, we’ll find out more. I personally think the revision process is so organic that determining who made which emendation is next to impossible, but it’s still a fun game if you don’t take the accuracy too seriously. As for Aswell, he never got the chance to prove whether he could work with Wolfe because the guy died. All he had to work with was a bunch of drafts. An opportunity and a nightmare. Brave guy, Aswell, and he stuck with it. Made a lot of money for Harper’s, a name for himself, and brought us some good literature. No one knows what product would have emerged if Wolfe had lived, but what did come out was special.
If you’re in Asheville, drop by the center. Good video, artifacts, tour of the house. All that and the Smokies, the Blue Ridge, good food, and lots of artists and hills.