Friday, June 22, 2012


Each time we travel to Asheville, North Carolina, where the artistic life abounds, I feel as though I'm  on a writer’s pilgrimage because I inevitably end up visiting the homes of deceased writers. This week, I again stayed at a hotel next door to “The Old Kentucky Home,” the Asheville home in which American author Thomas Wolfe grew up. I toured it for the fourth time! During this tour, I learned more about the 1998 fire that destroyed much of the large yellow frame home that provided the characters and background for Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, and I purchased a video that showcased the six-year restoration, which cost $2.4 million dollars. Right now, the home needs a new coat of paint, and I put a small donation in a box reserved for the $35,000 needed to provide several coats of yellow paint.
Thomas Wolfe’s mother, Julia Wolfe, cashed in on the real estate boom of the early 1900’s in the “Land of the Sky,” as Asheville was then called and bought the sprawling yellow house, described as “Queen Anne architecture," in 1906. She left W.O. Wolfe, her husband, in his home on nearby Woodfin Street and took her youngest son, Tom, with her to the Old Kentucky Home on Spruce St. Thomas Wolfe disliked living in the home because Julia made it into a boarding house, eventually expanding it to include 18 sleeping rooms, and Wolfe had to move from room to room almost nightly to accommodate strangers who lodged at The Old Kentucky Home. Wolfe later described himself as a “vagabond since I was seven – with two roofs and no home.” He escaped the boarding house and Asheville to attend the University of North Carolina and under the tutelage of Edwin Greenlaw, an English professor at the university (actually my distant cousin), he began writing apace, later developing a passion for playwriting.

After attending Harvard, Wolfe taught a few years at New York University, then traveled to London where he wrote most of his bulky novel, Look Homeward Angel. After enraging the townspeople of Asheville with his thinly-disguised autobiographical novel that contained more than 200 local characters, he stayed away from Asheville for eight years until the furor died out, quipping that “You can’t go home again but there are other places and you can go there.”
On the same day as the visit to Wolfe’s boyhood home, we traveled south, arriving in Flat Rock, North Carolina to tour “Connemara,” the farm to which Carl Sandburg moved when he was 67. Carl Sandburg, poet, biographer, author of American folk tales, and collector of folk songs, completed more than one-third of his works while living at Connemara atop Glassy Mountain. He had moved there to find the seclusion necessary for writing, as well as to have ample pastureland for Mrs. Sandburg’s goat herd. At this writer’s retreat, Sandburg spent most of the night writing and slept late, but he ate dinner with his large family and recited from his writings at the dinner table, his youngest children restlessly enduring sonorous recitations for sometimes an hour.
Connemara was a large home filled with Sandburg’s library of 14,000 books and old periodicals (he subscribed to over fifty periodicals). The Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site has the distinction of being the first park to honor a poet. Connemara sits at the top of a 0.3 mile trail and climbs 100 feet – the height of a ten-story building – and I was winded when we finally reached the summit. Goats still inhabit the area and are relatives of Lilian Sandburg’s original herd. They are Toggenburgs, Saanens, and Nubians, and children who visit with their parents are allowed to make friends with them. At one time, Lilian Sandburg’s goats numbered over 200, and helpers milked 50-80 does twice a day. Mrs. Sandburg gained fame for her dairy goats and for her work improving the herd’s bloodlines and production of milk. Her goat milk and cheese were sold throughout North Carolina.
I was impressed with the video of an interview between Edward Murrow and Carl Sandburg and came away pondering Sandburg’s answer to the question: “What is the worst word in the English language?” Sandburg promptly replied: “Exclusive.” Sandburg’s answer reflects his life as a lecturer who deplored the exploitation of workers and child labor. He also received honors from the NAACP for coverage of the 1919 Chicago race riots and worked to achieve social justice, and garnered the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1940 and in Poetry in 1951.
The last night in Asheville ended on a real “hoop-la,” an event in a downtown Asheville park where hula hoopers, ages three to sixty, danced to T.O.U.C.H. Samadi, an electronic trance dance experience that is popular with those in a program called “Asheville Hoops.” Hoop dancing is touted as a way to exercise and relax emotionally, and the movement to electronic music supposedly transports the hula hoopers to a fourth level of consciousness. The young man in the foreground of Vickie Sullivan's video seemed to be a good example of one who had reached this level. 

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