Author Museum Interviews: The Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, North Carolina

Looking Author’s Homeward: A Conversation with Tom Muir of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, NC

You Can’t Go Home Again–at least according to the title of one of Thomas Wolfe’s most critically acclaimed novels, but you can go to the Thomas Wolfe home again. I am living proof of this fact. I first visited the house (located in the heart of Asheville, North Carolina) in 2006, but unfortunately, due to a lack of proper planning and a miscalculation of mileage, my friend and I arrived at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial after it had already closed. We snuck around the premises in the dark like a couple of potential vandals, but we obviously missed out on most of what the museum has to offer since we never went inside or met a tour guide. When I returned all these years later, I made sure I planned my visit to get a proper tour of the property.

The tour was insightful, the guide was funny, and the stories about the “Old Kentucky Home” dovetailed with my remembrances of the “Dixieland” boarding house depicted in Look Homeward, Angel. Because Thomas Wolfe’s texts, like those of Marcel Proust, are so obsessed with the concept of memory and the persistence of the past, the importance of looking author’s homeward becomes all the more obvious. “Each of us,” Wolfe wrote, “is all the sums he has not counted.” By going back to the place where it all begins for a writer, by visiting both home and hometown, we begin to count the sums, and suddenly the writer’s texts begin to dance anew for us in ways heretofore unseen.

I spoke with Tom Muir, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial’s site manager, about Wolfe in Asheville in continuing my exploration of authors and their homes.

—Tyler Malone

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INTERVIEWER

Tell me a bit about the history of Thomas Wolfe in Asheville and specifically the history of this house.

TOM MUIR

Thomas Wolfe was born October 3rd, 1900 in Asheville at his father’s house at 92 Woodfin Street. The house called “Old Kentucky Home,” and located at 48 Spruce Street, just two blocks from the family home, was immortalized in Wolfe’s first book Look Homeward, Angel as “Dixieland.” It was originally built in 1883 by a local banker and was a fine Queen Anne style single family dwelling containing seven rooms. By 1890 eleven more rooms had been tacked on and it had begun to serve as a boardinghouse. Thomas Wolfe’s family purchased the house in August 1906 and added another eleven rooms in 1916. Thomas’ mother, Julia E. Wolfe, served as the proprietress until her death in 1945. Thomas Wolfe became associated with the house just before he turned seven years old. Wolfe writes that he had “gained another roof and lost forever the tumultuous, unhappy, warm centre of his home.” He left for college at age 15, but returned for many visits. His last visit to the home was in 1937.

INTERVIEWER

How did the property transition from private home to house museum?

 TOM MUIR

In 1949, with several initiatives underway in the City of Asheville to recognize Wolfe, the surviving members of the Wolfe Family sold the home to a committee created by the Board of Trade and work began to make the house into a memorial to Thomas Wolfe. The title to the house passed to the City of Asheville in the 1950s. It then became a National Landmark and was added to North Carolina’s Division of State Historic Sites in 1974. Today the house interior is much like Wolfe would have remembered it in his youth.

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INTERVIEWER

Though it is called “Dixieland” in Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, as you mentioned, the boarding house’s actual name was the “Old Kentucky Home.” Since it is located in North Carolina and not Kentucky, how did it get this name?

 TOM MUIR

A native of Kentucky, Reverend Thomas Myers, purchased the house in 1900 and gave it the name in honor of his home state. He sold the house to Julia Wolfe for $6,500. Wolfe wrote that, for Reverend Myers, “the sheltering walls of Dixieland inspired him with horror–he felt that the malign influence of the house had governed his own disintegration.” There were nineteen boarders already in the house, and Julia agreed to keep the name of the Old Kentucky Home the same in order to keep the established clientele. The name would have served as an address for its residents and a marketing tool for future business. Julia Wolfe had a natural instinct for business.

INTERVIEWER

How does the concept of “memory” play a role in Wolfe’s work and how might your keeping a place where his memories are stored help us in an understanding of his novels through that context?

TOM MUIR

Thomas Wolfe inherited his mother’s amazing ability to recall details of past events, complete with sights, smells, and sounds. As Wolfe writes from his experiences his memory serves as a vital creative tool. He wrote that his first book was an effort to forget and move past the painful experiences of youth. Wolfe has been described as a “myth maker.” By using his mother as a character and the Old Kentucky Home as a setting in his writings, and later with that house becoming a memorial to the author, an incredibly powerful experience was created for our visitors. For first time visitors, whether they have read Wolfe’s work, or become inspired by their visit to begin reading his work, an unforgettable appreciation and understanding of Wolfe instantly occurs. The lights come on. It is an experience you will not soon forget.

 INTERVIEWER

We know a lot of Thomas Wolfe’s thoughts of Asheville through reading his novels, but what was the reaction of Asheville to Wolfe then and now?

TOM MUIR

In October 1929, no doubt there was some shock and anger created by Wolfe’s portrayal of Asheville as Altamont, home to his character Eugene Gant. His family and friends became a curiosity. And as Wolfe’s celebrity grew in the 1930s, so did the public’s interest in Asheville. By the 1940s he was embraced by the city as a source of pride and a tool for tourism. For many years the Thomas Wolfe Memorial was one of the few attractions in the city. A revitalization of the downtown has changed some of the emphasis for tourism away from our history and literature, yet there is still great support for the memorial in this community and the historic site continues to rank amongst the top things to do and see for our visitors.

 INTERVIEWER

What are some of the items that you have here at the museum that you find the most interesting?

TOM MUIR

In addition to the historic house, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial has a welcoming visitor center with audio visual program, special events, and a good exhibit gallery. One of the features of the exhibit gallery I enjoy seeing the most contains objects from Thomas Wolfe’s father’s monument shop. He was a stone cutter who Wolfe describes as a frustrated artist. In Look Homeward, Angel, his father, W.O. Gant, is certainly one of the most powerful characters and one many of our visitors find fascinating. I hesitantly admit that I identify with the frustrated artist and his tools.

INTERVIEWER

How did you become the site manager of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial?

TOM MUIR

I started my career in the early 1980s as a park ranger and historian, and have always been enthusiastic about sharing cultural resources first hand on a guided tour with visitors. I have been fortunate enough to make a career as a public historian and steward for historic places. I started work at Wolfe Memorial one year ago in an effort to return to my favorite kind of work, on the frontline, sharing stories with visitors to the site. Who said “You can’t go home again”? After ten months on the job I became Historic Site Manager. While the work now often takes me back to administrative duties, it is a small site, with a small staff and ample opportunities to share in giving our visitors a personal experience.

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INTERVIEWER

What is your favorite work by Wolfe? And who are some of your favorite writers besides Wolfe?

TOM MUIR

When Wolfe writes about his home, his family, and friends, I enjoy his writing the most. Certainly Look Homeward, Angel would be my favorite place to start. Then it would have to be the first three chapters of The Web and the Rock. I recently finished Gap Creek by Robert Morgan, A Short Time to Stay Here by Terry Roberts, and A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. At least for the moment, I am enjoying learning about and experiencing the work of the writer’s of Western North Carolina who were influenced by Thomas Wolfe.

INTERVIEWER

Unlike some other modernists, like say Hemingway or Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe isn’t as widely read today. Why do you think that is and what do you think can be done to revive Wolfe in the public consciousness?

TOM MUIR

Because of Wolfe’s untimely death at age 37, and changes in the publishing industry, he has faded from view more quickly than some of his other contemporaries. We are excited to be reading about a film going into production this summer by Michael Grandage Productions, Genius, which will focus on Thomas Wolfe’s editor Maxwell Perkins. Thomas Wolfe’s story will play an important part in the film. With the big bad Wolfe on the big screen, we hope there will be new enthusiasm for his work and greater support for the preservation of his memorial in Asheville. His stories have inspired many new writers and as long as his work stays in print will continue to do so.

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INTERVIEWER

Lastly, for visitors thinking of coming to visit, what other points of interest would you recommend in and around Asheville?

TOM MUIR

If you want to get a general picture of the places to go in and around Asheville jump on the Gray Line trolleys. Give yourself plenty of time to jump off, visit the beautiful churches in the downtown, see the architecture of the commercial area, walk the Urban Trail, see the River Arts District, and Riverside Cemetery where Thomas Wolfe is finally at rest.

 

For more on the The Thomas Wolfe Memorial, please visit: http://wolfememorial.com/

 

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