Inside the House That Helped Shape Thomas Wolfe And His Film Portrayal

Jun 9, 2016
Originally published on June 12, 2016 8:23 am

The City of Asheville goes by another name, Altamont. That's how it appeared in a book by early twentieth century writer Thomas Wolfe.  He called the place home, but not in an especially fond way. His novel Look Homeward Angel about a young writer trying to break free of his small town and family was largely autobiographical and brought him literary acclaim. A new film which takes place in New York, called Genius, portrays Wolfe and his working relationship with his editor. As Jude Law got ready to fill Wolfe's literary shoes, it wasn't the big city he had to go to fully understand the writer, it was Asheville, and one place in particular there. 

Walk up to the childhood home of Thomas Wolfe and the first thing you notice is a wraparound porch that goes on for days with rocking chairs swaying in the breeze.

"Thomas Wolfe in an interview recalled seeing rocking chairs on porches of houses all over Asheville and he thought they were symbolic of the restlessness in our blood," says Tom Muir, the manager of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site.

The author's name is plastered all over the city now. After all, he's Asheville's prodigal son. He returned and was warmly embraced before he died in 1938, but that wasn’t before he burned a few bridges and was exiled for about eight years. An unfortunate reality any author faces when they use their own life and those in it as material for their novels.

Wolfe’s mother bought the house in 1906. It’s a beautiful yellow Victorian structure. Muir describes it as an island of the past surrounded by modern Asheville.

Walk inside the old boarding house (which is open to the public for tours) and it’s full of actual furniture and décor from the Wolfe family. And it’s full of stories, some happy, but more sad. The youngest of eight, this is where Wolfe spent formative years of his life. And it’s also an important character in Wolfe’s first novel.

"I sometimes wonder if Thomas Wolfe would appreciate this house being his memorial," reflects Muir.

Because this house is complicated for Wolfe. He never had a room to call his own, where he slept depended on how many borders were staying there.

Muir persuaded producers of the film Genius to send Jude Law to Asheville. He said if Law wanted to truly understand what it would be like to play the role of Wolfe—grit and all—he’d have to come here, even though the film takes place in New York.

Touring the house you’ll pass by the kitchen, the dining room, the parlor where weddings took place, as did family wakes including Wolfe's before he was laid to rest at Riverside Cemetery. 

Upstairs is a room that is sacred ground for Wolfe. It’s where his beloved brother Ben died from the Spanish influenza. He described that scene in Look, Homeward Angel this way:

"...all those uncertain murmurs of waste and confusion fading now from the bright window of his eyes, he passed instantly, scornful and unafraid, as he had lived, into the shades of death.”

As much heart ache is in this house, it shaped Wolfe into the author and person he became, someone who could make horrible moments both beautiful and meaningful.   

Genius premiered in Berlin earlier this year has been getting mixed reviews, which is no surprise to Muir. Everyone’s a critic. Still, he sees the film as nothing but a positive opportunity for the legacy of Thomas Wolfe.

Genius comes to theaters Friday June, 10, although it is a limited release. Smaller markets like Asheville will have to wait a little while longer to see the city's native son on the big screen.

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