by Francis McGovern
The Old Kentucky Home, known as “Dixieland” in the novel Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, is located at 48 Spruce Street in downtown Asheville. The novel is autobiographical and Wolfe presents Dixieland more as a prison than a home, which has the protagonist, Eugene Gant, by the soul. Wolfe had a love hate relationship with the house, his family and the town. It seems more fitting rather, that he would have torn it down, surely in regret, only to have built it back up again.
The home and adjacent area have now become The Thomas Wolfe Memorial. The Memorial is a wide bright structure that was built behind the home. Inside you can purchase tickets for a tour, view art work, and browse books and pamphlets about Wolfe and his work, and connections to Asheville. There is also an excellent slide presentation about his life that will give you some background before the tour.
In 1906 when Thomas Wolfe was not quite six years old his mother, Julia Wolfe, purchased the Old Kentucky Home. She made the decision to move despite opposition from her husband, William Oliver Wolfe, who stayed at their former home on Woodfin Street. Julia was driven by a fear of poverty and desire for money. She was said to be able to drive a hard bargain. Wolfe portrays her as Eliza Gant in the novel, the money grubbing, property lusting, keeper of Dixieland.
Wolfe’s father is W.O. Gant in the novel, a mason and stonecutter, who was full of passion and joy for life, but full of a melancholy and vengeance toward his wife for the way his life had turned out. He was a binge drinker with a lust for liquor and a frailty of spirit.
The tour begins at the rear of the house, taking you through the hall past the dining room and into the kitchen. The house is preserved much as it was when Thomas Wolfe lived there. While upstairs you can see a suit of Wolfe’s clothes, and other Wolfe artifacts. Dixieland was a boarding house and he slept in many of the rooms there, depending on which was available. The tour finishes on the large front porch, which is one of the more memorable places in the novel.
I felt odd walking upon the front porch of the house. I had pictured it as a place of commotion and energy in the novel, but standing there, the porch was so quiet. When I looked across the street, all I could see was a building and I wondered what the view was like in Wolfe’s day. I tried to picture Wolfe dreaming large dreams of escape from The Old Kentucky Home and planning his triumphal return to Asheville.
“Eugene wanted the two things all men want: he wanted to be loved and he wanted to be famous. His fame was a chameleon, but its fruit and triumph lay at home, among the people of Altamont. The mountain town had for him enormous authority: with a child’s egotism it was for him the centre of the earth, the small but dynamic core of all life.”
Wolfe portrayed his family (the Gants) and his town (Altamont) harshly in Look Homeward Angel. Reaction to the book was mixed in the Asheville. The Wolfe family accepted the book better than the town, which held a grudge. The characters in the novel are based on real people with the names changed and often times the portraits painted are not flattering. Many in Asheville took the book literally. So much so that for six years the Pack Memorial Library did not have a copy of the book. Not until F. Scott Fitzgerald, after being told the Library did not have a copy, went out and bought two and brought them there. Slowly the wounds in the town began to heal, and after a voluntary exile of over seven years, Wolfe returned home in May of 1937 to a reception worthy of a native son.
Thomas Wolfe did not have much time left and spent the final year of his life traveling and writing. He died at Johns Hopkins Medical Center on September 15, 1938 of complications from tuberculosis. He is buried in the family plot in Riverside Cemetery.
Visit The Wolfe Memorial
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial
PO Box 7143
Asheville, NC 28802
Visit The Thomas Wolfe Society
The Thomas Wolfe Society
Visit The Thomas Wolfe Website
The Thomas Wolfe Website
A great site about Thomas Wolfe