A larger than life figure -- like his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway -- Thomas Wolfe embodied a particularly American vision of the restless and eager writer, taking in the totality of his life experience and turning it into a gigantic, unwieldy vision in prose. With the publication of his semiautobiographical Look Homeward, Angel in 1929, Wolfe announced his dramatic entrance on the stage of modern fiction; but an early death made his exit sadly premature.
Thomas Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, among the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, North Carolina, a childhood which he immortalized through the creation of Eugene Gant, the hero of Look Homeward, Angel (1929). Wolfe enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the age of fifteen, determined to become a playwright, but despite the success of his college productions, and later, the plays he wrote during his studies at Harvard University's renowned 47 Workshop, he was unable to interest professional New York producers in his work.
Fearing penury and professional failure, Wolfe was encouraged to turn to the writing of fiction full-time by Aline Bernstein, a set designer for the New York Theatre Guild, with whom Wolfe carried on a five-year affair (and who appears in Wolfe's fiction as the Esther Jack character in The Web and the Rock (1939) and Of Time and the River.) Scribner's legendary Maxwell Perkins was the only editor to appreciate Wolfe's freshman effort, Look Homeward, Angel, and after extensive revisions and collaborative editing sessions, the novel was published in 1929. The largely autobiographical book was received with unequivocal enthusiasm. The residents of Asheville, however, the real-life denizens of this "drab circumstance," rebelled against Wolfe's often-scathing portrayal of his hometown. The public outcry was so great that Wolfe did not return to his hometown for seven years.
Rewarded with commercial success and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Wolfe wrote a second autobiographical saga about the life of Eugene Gant, Of Time and the River, in which Eugene, an aspiring novelist, details his travels to Europe. This time, the critics were torn. Wolfe's apparent formlessness was both a constant source of delight and frustration to critics, many of whom felt that Wolfe was pioneering new literary ground, while others insisted that the overweening passion inherent in Wolfe's rambling narratives betrayed the author's immaturity and solipsism.
Furthermore, Wolfe's intimate collaboration with his editor, Perkins were often derided by contemporaries, who insisted that Wolfe's inability to master novelistic form without significant editorial assistance rendered him artistically deficient. The rancorous extent of the criticism led to Wolfe's eventual break with Perkins, and in 1927, Wolfe signed with Edward C. Aswell at Harper. Yet Aswell had no less significant a role in reshaping and trimming Wolfe's future works than Perkins did previously.
The early part of 1938 found Wolfe in Brooklyn, this time writing with a new social agenda. Agreeing with some of his critics that his earlier work was indeed too egocentric, Wolfe rechristened Eugene Gant as George "Monk" Webber, and embarked on writing a new novel dedicated to exploring worldwide social and political ills. This mammoth undertaking, after gargantuan editorial efforts on the part of Aswell, would be published posthumously, and as two novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940), as well as The Hills Beyond (1941), a collection which contained short fiction, a play, and a novella.
Wolfe's development as a novelist was truncated by his sudden death at the age of thirty-eight, yet the progression of his novels showcases Wolfe's ever-evolving capacities as a writer. Navigating his way from self-obsessed chronicler of his own adolescence to sophisticated assessor of the adolescence of America itself, Wolfe was a writer who grew up in step with the country that both made him and maddened him. He died in 1938.