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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Big man on campus

01wolfevancehallOne of the University’s most famous graduates didn’t really want to come here.

Future novelist Thomas Clayton Wolfe of Asheville had his heart set on going to Princeton University or perhaps the University of Virginia. But – much like his thinly disguised alter ego, Eugene Gant, in Look Homeward, Angel – his father decided otherwise.

“He will go where I send him or not at all.” Gant spoke his final word, not loudly.

Thus it was decided that Eugene must go to the State University.

And so, 100 years ago this month, Wolfe boarded a train in Asheville, bound for Chapel Hill. He arrived on campus Sept. 12, 1916, a precocious, gangly youth with a baby face atop a 6-foot-3-inch frame. He was only 15 and still growing.

The next four years would shape Wolfe’s mind and his work, a process documented in Thomas Wolfe Undergraduate by Richard Walser and Thomas Wolfe: Carolina Student by Abigail Boyd Adams. The highly autobiographical author himself confirms Carolina’s impact in his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929).  (A centennial 2000 edition of Wolfe’s original manuscript, which he called O Lost, restored 60,000 words that had been cut to produce Look Homeward, Angel.) Both versions include descriptions of Eugene Gant at “Pulpit Hill” and his interactions there with influential fellow students and professors.

‘Loneliness, pain and failure’

At first, Wolfe didn’t feel he fit in at college. He had spent the last four years in a private school in Asheville, being tutored in Latin, Greek and literature, voraciously reading any book he could find. The last of eight children, young Tom was the only one to be sent to college by his family. He was so much younger than the other college students that he was often the butt of practical jokes and pranks pulled by upperclassmen.

Eugene’s first year at the university was filled for him with loneliness, pain and failure.

In the novel, Eugene rails against the State University as a place where mediocre minds became lawyers, businessmen and politicians. He pokes fun at its humble architecture and cheap food, but soon falls under the spell of the University and the neighboring town of  “Pulpit Hill.”

The university was a charming, an unforgettable, place. It was situated in the little village of Pulpit Hill, in the central midland of the big state. … In this pastoral setting, a young man was enabled to loaf comfortably and delightfully through four luxurious and indolent years.

06wolfebuckgavinWolfe didn’t loaf, although he did procrastinate.  He excelled in the subjects he liked, getting high marks (90 and above on a 100-point scale) in English literature and composition, dramatic writing and philosophy and solid Bs (80 to 90 points) in Greek, Latin and psychology. Wolfe’s lowest marks (70 to 80 points) came in algebra and chemistry.

When he returned to the university for his second year, he found the place adjusted soberly to war. It seemed quieter, sadder—the number of students was smaller and younger. The older ones had gone to war.

Wolfe’s college years coincided ominously with the Great War and the devastating 1918 flu pandemic. During his sophomore and junior years, the college was more like a military camp. Most students age 18 and older left college to enlist in the military when the United States entered the war, and youngsters like Tom took part in military training on the largely deserted campus. Personally, Wolfe was also deeply affected by two premature deaths during his college years – his college roommate from a heart ailment and his beloved brother Ben from the flu.

‘Young Shakespeare’

While O Lost often portrays its main character as lonely and isolated, Wolfe himself was active in student life. He was a frequent debater in the Dialectic Literary Society and also joined the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. He wrote for serious and humorous campus publications, and became the associate editor of the Yackety Yack yearbook and managing editor and editor-in-chief of The Tar Heel, the college newspaper that began to publish twice a week under his leadership.

Wolfe was a favorite of eccentric philosophy professor Horace Williams and the scholarly English professor Edwin Greenlaw. He was also an early playwriting student in the class of Fred Koch, a proponent of folk plays, as was Paul Green, who would go on to write and stage the outdoor historical drama The Lost Colony. Wolfe and Green were also early members of the Carolina Playmakers, predecessor to today’s PlayMakers Repertory Company. The Playmakers performed Wolfe’s first play, The Return of Buck Gavin, with Wolfe playing the lead.

06wolfeyearbookAs a student, Wolfe seemed to relish the roles of class clown and eccentric genius. He often burst into class late, still working on the previous day’s assignment. He also never seemed to have enough paper, turning in work scrawled on the back of handbills and other scraps, even once famously on a roll of toilet paper. He let his unruly dark hair grow and wore the same clothes weeks at a time without washing them. Yet he was awarded the prestigious Worth Prize in Philosophy and tapped to join the exclusive Golden Fleece Society.

The 1920 Yackety Yack described Wolfe as a “young Shakespeare” and claimed that Wolfe “can do more between 8:25 and 8:30 than the rest of us can do all day, and it is no wonder that he is classed as a genius.”

He was 19; he had completed his college course; but he did not know what he was going to do.

Wolfe would publish two critically acclaimed novels before dying at age 37 from tuberculosis of the brain. Two more novels were published soon after his death. His work lives on, as does the influence he has had on such writers as Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and Pat Conroy. Yet critics and fans of his rhapsodic writing wonder what else might have been accomplished by the author of the mysterious, and prophetic, line now engraved on his memorial on the Carolina campus:

A view of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The memorial honors Wolfe, a Carolina alumnus, and his most famous work, "Look Homeward, Angel."

Thomas Wolfe Memorial

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”