Monday, May 25, 2009

DIXIELAND REVISITED

Fifty years ago, I stood on the porch of “The Old Kentucky Home” (“Dixieland” in LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL), the boyhood home of Thomas Wolfe where his mother, Julia Wolfe, kept a boardinghouse until the 40’s and about which Tom wrote in his voluminous novel, LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL. At the time I stood on the porch, the old home was closed for the week-end, and rain fell steadily as I peered through the glass windows fronting the porch of the yellow frame boardinghouse, wishing I could go inside and roam through the twenty-nine high-ceilinged rooms. Feeling forlorn, I turned away and vowed to come back one day when “The Old Kentucky Home” was open to the public.

This past week-end, I entered the restored boardinghouse on a tour guided by an employee with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and got my “literary fix” as we moved through the rooms that Wolfe immortalized, complete with handsome pieces of furniture that once belonged to the Wolfe family. I was able to view the room where his brother Ben died, a large room on the second floor with a bay window and stained glass and the large dining room with numerous tables set with linen cloth and china for over 30 boarders who sought hospitality from Mrs. Wolfe during the early 1900’s. A lot of memories of the old home have been kept alive through Wolfe’s novels, “the spectral images of the people he had loved, who had loved him, whom he had known and lost,” Wolfe wrote in LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL.

Thomas Wolfe was brazenly autobiographical in his writings, and his boyhood in the old boardinghouse at 48 Spruce Street plays a major part in his reminiscences which were so overtly realistic that he could not return to the public library in Asheville for seven years after LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL appeared in print. Of course, Asheville now lays claim to the famous novelist, and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial is a house museum of which the city proudly boasts. It houses exhibits, an audiovisual program that features Thomas Wolfe’s life, and a gift shop that sells all of Wolfe’s books. I had to purchase at least one of the books and a few postcards featuring rooms in the old home.

On the tour I learned that LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL has never gone out of print since its publication in 1929. I remember reading it in the late 50’s and being taken with the poetic prose and Wolfe’s abilities as a commentator about social ills, particularly those in the South. I bought YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN because I wanted to read about the censure that surrounded Wolfe when he went home to Asheville after seven years. It’s reported that Ella Winter, a guest at a dinner party in New York City that Wolfe attended, provided Wolfe with the title for this book. When she learned that Wolfe had returned to Asheville after his seven year absence, she said, “But don’t you know you can’t go home again?” Wolfe’s way of returning home was to write about that experience.

The manuscript of YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN is reputed to have filled an eight-foot high packing crate, and inside of that crate were thirty-five notebooks, enough to fill three books, that portrayed America and Europe as nations at the edge of collapse. Wolfe wrote about the social problems and economic injustices that prevailed in America and Europe but at the conclusion of YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, he sounds a note of hope: “I believe that we are lost here in America but I believe we shall be found.”

That message of optimism was written in 1937-38, and I wonder what Thomas Wolfe would say about those nations today?
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