Thomas Clayton Wolfe Biography

Thomas Clayton Wolfe was a renowned American novelist and short-story writer of the 20th century. Known for his autobiographical novels, such as ‘Look Homeward, Angel,’ Wolfe’s literary journey began in North Carolina where he obtained his BA degree from the University of North Carolina and his MA from Harvard University. Despite initially struggling to sell his plays on Broadway, Wolfe found success as an English teacher at New York University. It was during a trip to Europe that he embarked on his first autobiographical novel, ‘Look Homeward, Angel,’ which garnered widespread critical acclaim. His second novel, ‘Of Time and the River,’ was published by Harper & Brothers. Tragically, Wolfe’s life was cut short by tuberculosis at the age of 38, leaving behind a vast collection of unpublished works that would later be released posthumously.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Thomas Wolfe
  • Died At Age: 37
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Aline Bernstein
    • Father: William Oliver Wolfe
    • Mother: Julia Elizabeth Westall
    • Siblings: Ben
  • Born Country: United States
  • Occupation: Novelist, Short Story Writer
  • Height: 6’6″ (198 cm), 6’6″ Males
  • Died on: September 15, 1938
  • Place of Death: Baltimore, Maryland, United States
  • Ancestry: German American
  • Diseases & Disabilities: Pneumonia
  • U.S. State: North Carolina
  • Cause of Death: Tuberculosis
  • Education: Harvard University, University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill

Childhood & Early Life

Thomas Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina, to William Oliver Wolfe and Julia Elizabeth Westall-Wolfe. His father was a stone carver, while his mother owned a boarding house and dealt in real estate. Wolfe was the youngest of eight siblings, with his first-born sibling Leslie dying in infancy. His other siblings were Eddie Nelson, Frank Cecil, Mabel Elizabeth, twins Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, and Frederick William. In 1904, Wolfe accompanied his family to St. Louis during the World Fair, where his mother ran a boarding house. Unfortunately, his brother Grover died of typhoid in St. Louis. Wolfe joined Asheville’s public school in 1905 and began studying at Mr. & Mrs. Roberts’ private school in 1912.

Education and Early Career

Wolfe’s mother bought a boarding house named the ‘Old Kentucky Home’ in Asheville, where she moved in with Thomas. Despite living close to his siblings, Thomas spent a lonely childhood. His older brother Ben’s death in 1918 had a deep emotional impact on Wolfe, as they were quite close. In 1916, Wolfe joined the University of North Carolina, where he became the editor of the student newspaper ‘The Tar Heel.’ He won the Worth Prize for Philosophy for his essay ‘The Crisis in Industry’ and was a member of the Dialectic Society and the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. He was also inducted into the Golden Fleece honor society. Wolfe volunteered as a civilian war worker in Norfolk during the summer of 1918 and later joined Prof. Frederick Koch’s playwriting course at the university. His one-act play ‘The Return of Buck Gavin’ was performed by the university’s theater company, Carolina Playmakers, in March 1919. In June 1920, Wolfe graduated with a BA degree and joined the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in September 1920. He studied playwriting under George Pierce Baker at his 47 Workshop and obtained his MA degree from Harvard in 1922.

Career and Personal Life

After his father’s death in June 1922, Wolfe studied for one more year under Baker. In May 1923, his play ‘Welcome to Our City’ was staged by the 47 Workshop. In November 1923, Wolfe went to New York City to raise funds for the University of North Carolina and to see his plays on Broadway. However, he did not succeed in getting his plays staged. In 1924, he joined the Washington Square College of New York University as an English instructor and continued to teach until January 1930. During his time in Europe in 1924 and 1925, Wolfe met Aline Bernstein, who became his romantic partner. They had an intense and stormy affair for the next five years. In 1928, Wolfe completed his first novel, ‘Look Homeward, Angel,’ which was published in 1929 and received positive reviews. However, the novel did not sit well with his family and the residents of Asheville, who recognized their references in the book. Wolfe stayed away from the town for nearly eight years and ended his relationship with Bernstein.

Later Career and Death

In 1930, Wolfe went to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship and later settled in Brooklyn to continue writing. He published several short novels and collections of stories, including ‘A Portrait of Bascom Hawk’ and ‘Web of Earth.’ In 1935, he completed his second lengthy autobiographical novel, ‘Of Time and the River,’ which sold better than his first novel but left him dissatisfied with the editing process. Wolfe signed with Harper & Brothers and published a collection of short stories and novels titled ‘From Death to Morning’ in 1935. His writing gained popularity in Europe, especially in Germany, but he was prohibited from entering the country after publishing a novel about the treatment of Jews. In 1938, Wolfe fell ill with pneumonia and tuberculosis, which spread to his brain. He passed away on September 15, 1938, at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Several of his works, including ‘The Web and the Rock’ and ‘You Can’t Go Home Again,’ were published posthumously.

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