Friday, August 3, 2012

Thomas Wolfe Memorial

"O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again."

This is probably the most famous of the lines from Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward Angel." As I started reading the book, however, I felt that thrill of kinship when I read: "Dusk came. The huge bulk of the hills was foggily emergent. Small smoky lights went up in the hillside shacks. The train crawled dizzily across high trestles spanning ghostly hawsers of water. Far up, far down, plumed with wisps of smoke, toy cabins stuck to bank and gulch and hillside." This was a book about the mountains I knew.

The setting for the largely autobiographical book was in reality Asheville, referred to as "Altamont" in the book. Wolfe was so stunningly descriptive, in fact, that he rendered places and people too too well and ended up ostracized from the city he made immortal.

The trip to his home ~ to the setting in the book ~ was another over the mountain day trip for dad and myself. Known as Dixieland in the book, and My Old Kentucky Home in real life, stepping into the old boarding house was like stepping into the novel. I remember it was a dim day, and drizzling rain. We were the only ones on the tour, and the windows were slightly open. The lacy curtains moved slightly with the wind. While those conditions are now a nightmare to this curator, to the hopeless romantic I was then, there could not have been a more perfect experience. My thrill only increased as we saw the sunroom where Zelda Fitzgerald had come to visit during her stay in Asheville...

The bay-windowed room where "Ben" ~ Wolfe's brother and a character in the book ~ died was haunting, and it was brought to life much later when a friend and I went to see a play from the novel at the Flat Rock Playhouse. A major theme in the book is the father's ~ a memorial stone carver ~ desire to capture the likeness of an angel.

"...his cold and shallow eyes had darkened with the obscure and passionate hunger that had lived in a dead man's eyes...As the boy looked at the big angel with the carved stripe of lilystalk, a cold and nameless excitement possessed him. The long fingers of his big hands closed. He felt that he wanted, more than anything in the world, to carve delicately with a chisel. He wanted to wreak something dark and unspeakable in him into cold stone. He wanted to carve an angel's head."

We happened upon Wolfe's angel in a graveyard quite by accident on the drive
between Flat Rock and Asheville.

As Ben, in the play, knew he was growing sick, he sank down at the base of the angel in his father's shop, looked up at it, and said, "And still you smile." It still gives me cold chills. After the play I had to drive by the house. It sat there with a white full moon behind it. Its starkness struck me, and the next thing I heard of the house was that it had been ravaged by fire. I was heart-broken, and something led me back to it ~ to pay respects, perhaps. While there, I talked with the curator. When he realized we shared the same profession ~ as well as heartbreak ~ he said, "I don't usually do this, but would you like to go inside?" Would. I. like. to. go. inside? I didn't hesitate. 

The house was like a caricature of itself in charcoal. The ghostly blackened staircase led to the second floor in darkness. The curtains I loved hung in tatters from the windows. 

The miraculous outcome was that most of the artifacts were saved, and the house was restored so well that it's retained its unique sense of place. The memorial association was even able to paint it yellow ~ to match Wolfe's description of it being a great yellow "barn" of a house.

As the final tribute, Tom's grave in an Asheville cemetery. He used "You Can't Go Home Again," as the title to another novel, but the final act of coming home brought him back to his mountain city.


  1. Okay, kiddo, you got me going here!! I've never read 'Look Homeward Angel' and now it's a must. And, I so love your descriptive remembrances of the places you have visited. Wow.

  2. This one brought tears to my eyes! Oh, how I remember reading Look Homeward Angel and loving it so much, and the two of us sharing about your visits there, especially the sadness after the fire!