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Thomas Clayton Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, the youngest of eight children to William Oliver Wolfe and Julia Elizabeth Westall. The family lived in a five-room house located at 92 Woodfin Street in Asheville, North Carolina. Wolfe later wrote about his memories of the roaring fires and sumptuous meals at his father’s home. In 1906, Julia Wolfe purchased the Old Kentucky Home boarding house, located two blocks away at 48 Spruce Street. Julia soon moved to the boardinghouse to manage the business and took six-year-old Tom to live in the house with her. Although the two houses were only a short distance apart, Wolfe felt separated from the rest of his family. Although he was allowed to spend days with his brothers and sisters at his father’s house, each night he was summoned by Julia back to the boarding house.
MOTHER AND FATHER
– Married in 1885
A turn-of-the-century image of Thomas Wolfe’s parents, William Oliver and Julia Westall Wolfe, dated to around the time Tom was born.
“…from the first, deeper than love, deeper than hate, as deep as the unfleshed bones of life, an obscure and final warfare was being waged between them.” Look Homeward, Angel.
AN EARLY TRAGEDY
– Leslie’s Death
Julia Wolfe and her first-born child, Leslie E. Wolfe.
Nine months after W. O. and Julia were married, the first of eight Wolfe children was born. Sadly, Leslie lived just nine months before she died of infant cholera.
“The first, a girl, died…of infant cholera….” “The others outlived the grim and casual littering.” Look Homeward, Angel
THE SECOND CHILD
– Demure, Shy, Maidenly . . .
Effie was the oldest child in a large, rambunctious family, but described as quiet by nature. She was married at age 21 in the Old Kentucky Home and moved to South Carolina. She was portrayed as Daisy Gant in Look Homeward, Angel.
“She was a timid, sensitive girl, looking like her name – Daisy-ish industrious and thorough in her studies.” “…she had very little fire, or denial in her; she responded dutifully to instruction; she gave back what had been given to her. She played the piano without any passionate feeling for the music, but she rendered it honestly with a beautiful rippling touch.” Look Homeward, Angel
THE THIRD CHILD
– The Wandering Rebel . . .
As the oldest boy, a good deal of responsibility was placed on Frank’s shoulders at an early age. He was portrayed as Steve Gant in Look Homeward, Angel.
“Gant went almost daily to Elizabeth’s house in Eagle Crescent, whence he was delivered nightly by a band of exhausted and terrified prostitutes into the care of his son Steve….” “Son, said Elizabeth, shaking Gant’s waggling head vigorously, don’t you carry on, when you grow up, like the old rooster here. But he’s a nice old boy when he wants to be.’” Look Homeward, Angel.
THE FOURTH CHILD
– The Dependable Performer . . .
Mabel took over the housekeeping at her father’s house on Woodfin Street when Julia was at the boardinghouse. She was frequently called into service at the boardinghouse as well. For several winters she escaped Asheville touring with a Vaudeville group. She was portrayed as Helen Gant in Look Homeward, Angel.
“Helen…a tall thin girl, with large hands and feet, big-boned, generous features, behind which the hysteria of constant excitement lurked. The bond between the girl and her father grew stronger every day….” “Her face was full of heartiness and devotion, sensitive, whole-souled, hurt, bitter, hysterical, but at times transparently radiant and handsome.” Look Homeward, Angel.
– Forever Young . . .
The fifth and sixth of the Wolfe children were twins. Fond of politics, W. O. named his boys after the presidential candidates of 1892, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison Wolfe. In 1904 Julia opened a boardinghouse in St. Louis for the World’s Fair. Grover then 12 years old, contracted typhoid and died while the family was at St. Louis. He was portrayed as Grover Gant in Look Homeward, Angel.
“Eugene grew conscious of a gentle peering face, a soft caressing voice, unlike any of the others in kind and quality, a tender olive skin, black hair, sloeblack eyes, exquisite, rather sad, kindliness…” “This was Grover—the gentlest and saddest of the boys.”Look Homeward, Angel
Ben left school about eighth grade to work for the Asheville Citizen newspaper. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, he contracted pneumonia. He died in an upstairs bedroom of the Old Kentucky Home, one week short of his 26th birthday. He was portrayed as Ben Gant in Look Homeward, Angel.
“So, to Ben dead was given more care, more time, more money than had ever been given to Ben living….” “And as the wind howled in the bleak street, and Eliza wove a thousand fables of that lost and bitter spirit, the bright and stricken thing in the boy twisted about in horror, looking for escape from the house of death. No More! No More! You are alone. You are lost. Go find yourself, lost boy, beyond the hills.” Look Homeward, Angel.
THE SEVENTH CHILD
– The Salesman and the Sailor . . .
Fred was a good natured, outgoing “natural born salesman.” He lived a long and colorful life. As an adult, he settled in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Active in establishing the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Association in 1949, he remained involved with the Memorial until his death at the age of 85. He was portrayed as Luke Gant in Look Homeward, Angel.
“…his reputation for salesmanship was sown through the town; he came with wide grin, exuberant vitality, wagging and witty tongue, hurling all his bursting energy into an insane extraversion. He lived absolutely in event: there was in him no secret place, nothing withheld and guarded—he had an instinctive horror of all loneliness Look Homeward, Angel.
THE EIGHTH CHILD
– The “Book-Brooder” . . .
Tom, the youngest of the eight Wolfe children, was born October 3rd, 1900. His mother was in her early forties and father over fifty. An avid reader, it was through books that Tom learned of the world beyond Asheville’s mountains. He was portrayed as Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel.
“By 1900, Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler had almost finished saying the things they were reported as saying, and that Eugene was destined to hear, twenty years later.” Look Homeward, Angel.
The material used in the “family section” is courtesy of the North Carolina Historic Sites web site.