As a high school student I picked up a Scribner’s paperback edition of Look Homeward, Angel (1929) by Thomas Wolfe and fell in love. My oldest brother had purchased the book for a college course; he had written his name on the inside front cover. I was taken by the exuberant, lyrical prose of the North Carolina writer and hunted for Of Time and the River, the sequel which a New York editor had carved out of mountains of manuscript. It was easier to find paperback copies of two posthumous volumes of Wolfe's, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again. In time I took an unprecedented step in my life. I had a local bookstore order Of Time and the River, available then only in hardcover, directly from the publisher.
I planned a car trip to the author’s home state the summer after my freshman year in college. In the car that one of my best friends had received as a gift from his parents, he and I headed to the Smoky Mountains. The route was a familiar one to my friend from summer visits to a particular mountain lodge that his parents had favored year after year. Knowing my fascination with Thomas Wolfe, my friend had agreed to continue on to Asheville so that we could visit this favorite author’s grave and childhood home.
Look Homeward, Angel is autobiographical, and in a key section of the novel Wolfe narrates the days leading up to the death of his older brother Ben in the flu epidemic of 1918. Within an hour of arriving in Asheville, I got to the city cemetery, stood at the family tomb and read Ben’s name. The next day I toured the home where the Wolfe family had lived. I moved from room to room, reading next to each doorway passages from the novel about what had taken place in that room. It was particularly important to stand in the room where Ben had died and read the familiar passage affixed to the doorway.
In the presence of a close friend, someone who had known me well enough to accompany me on this pilgrimage to Asheville, I still could not summon up in that public place the kind of feelings that each private reading of Thomas Wolfe’s novel had inevitably evoked.
I was there – at the grave, in the room where Ben had died – and I could only acknowledge that something had happened there about which I had read and been moved reading. Miles and miles of travel, and I was not touched in the ways I might have expected.
At least not immediately.
Within twenty-four hours, however, in the mountain lodge where my friend had stayed so many times before, I began my writing about the Asheville visit. I wrote about someone who had been so moved by a favorite author that he had been willing to visit the place where that author had lived his early years and been buried.
The visit to Asheville sounded significant when I wrote about it.
It might also have felt significant – even as it was happening – if I had been able to sit still for a while in each of those places. If I had turned to my friend and said, “You know what’s happening now?” If I had thought to whisper to my favorite author, “I’m here. I came here for you and to thank you.”
I’m better at that now.