A very special bond

Thomas Wolfe and Margaret Roberts

Learning about the writer and the man

While in North Carolina, I visited Asheville and the home (now a memorial and historic museum) of the American novelist, Thomas Clayton Wolfe.

With its yellow facade, gables and porch lined with rocking chairs, the Queen Anne style structure seemed out of place and almost to cower under the adjacent modern architecture of downtown Asheville. Once inside, though, you found yourself in the beginning of the 20th century; free to walk across the space that Wolfe occupied between 1906-1916). To have read his first autobiographical novel, Look Homeward Angel, and to then tread those floorboards, made for a deeply moving experience.

Just for some quick background, for those that haven’t been exposed to Wolfe. He and his mother moved to this house, which she converted into a boarding house, when he was seven. In so doing, he left his father and seven siblings behind in their original home on Woodfin Street to lived amidst a constant coming and going of strangers.

Below is Wolfe’s description of that period of his childhood and his first encounter with the teacher that would change his life. (taken from, Look Homeward Angel)

“I was without a home – a vagabond since I was seven – with two roofs and no home; I moved inward on that house of death and tumult from room to little room, as the boarders came with their dollar a day, and their constant rocking on the porch; my overloaded heart was bursting with its packed weight of loneliness and terror…out of that hell of chaos, greed and cheap ugliness — and then I found you, when else I should have died, you mother of my spirit who fed me with light.”

During the visit, I purchased two books. The first was about Wolfe’s life and the second was a collection of the lifetime correspondence between Wolfe and his teacher Margaret Roberts. The first read gets into the nitty gritty of his torment and travels, dealings with editors and other writers, his own demons and explorations. Basically, you go away with a deeper understanding of not just the writer, but also the man.

The real gem, for me, was the second book, which was dedicated to Wolfe’s and Robert’s correspondence. Interesting the mutations and layers of the letters as their complex relationship ebbs and flows between teacher and student, mentor and protégé, confidante and friend, man and woman.

It is also wonderful to see the initial corrections on Wolfe’s early compositions through to the time when the student surpasses his teacher, takes his place in the literary world, all the way up to his untimely end. No matter the ups and downs of the relationship, they both acknowledged that the one was necessary to the life of the other. This special lifelong bond really struck a chord with me.

In fact, I did, upon my return home pick up my copy of, Look Homeward Angel for a reread and found it more gratifying than during my first go at it. And I believe it was in part due to the two background reads. It was also extremely satisfying, on both occasions, to read about the noble profession of teaching fulfilling its high-minded promise to the next generation via a conduit such as, in this case, the committed and caring figure of Margaret Roberts.

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