One Wolfe to tout right stuff of other

The place that literary legend Thomas Wolfe called "as close to magic as I've ever been" will celebrate the centennial of his birth with a writer who shares his name and casts a shadow as long as the Look Homeward, Angel author himself.

Tom Wolfe, a pioneer of New Journalism and the author of Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, will speak Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Memorial Hall. His speech is titled, "Look Homeward, Wolfe."

Wolfe will appear to inaugurate the annual Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lectureship. Before Wolfe gives his speech, he will receive the prize from Carolina alumnus Ben Jones of the international Thomas Wolfe Society.

The event is free and open to the public.

Carolina's festivities will be among many nationwide commemorating Wolfe's birth on Oct. 3, 1900, in Asheville. (See page 10 for other campus Wolfe events.) Observances will include an exhibit at the New York Public Library and issuance of a U.S. postage stamp featuring Wolfe on Oct. 3 in his hometown.

Thomas at Carolina

Wolfe enrolled at Carolina at age 15, standing 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 230 pounds. From Chapel Hill, he went to Harvard University, where he earned a master's degree in English and studied playwriting. He taught briefly at New York University before turning to writing full time. When Scribner's published his first book, Look Homeward, Angel, in 1929, critics hailed Wolfe as the country's most promising young novelist.

Wolfe followed with numerous short stories and a second novel, Of Time and the River, in 1935. After he died in 1938 of tuberculosis of the brain, an editor fashioned two posthumous novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, from Wolfe's manuscripts.

Wolfe remembered Carolina as "a charming, unforgettable place" amidst a "pastoral wilderness" like some "provincial outpost of great Rome," wrote Carolina English graduate student Brian Carpenter in the latest Carolina Quarterly, a national magazine based in the English department.

Carolina will remember Wolfe with a birthday bash as busy as the author himself when he was on campus, penning and starring in plays, serving as class poet, debating, editing the student newspaper and laying down a mean fox-trot at the Campus Y.

"He can do more between 8:25 and 8:30 than the rest of us can do all day," said Wolfe's senior yearbook entry, "and it is no wonder that he is classed a genius."

The University's new Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lectureship, sponsored by the international Thomas Wolfe Society and Carolina's English department and Morgan Writer-in-Residence Program, will bring a major writer or scholar to campus annually.

In the mid-1990s, the society and others began raising funds to endow the prize and lectureship, which honor Wolfe's life, work and contribution to American literature. Donors raised $50,000 -- through efforts including a 1998 benefit lecture on campus by author Pat Conroy -- and the late Chancellor Michael Hooker matched that amount with funds from his office.

Tom as Thomas

Joseph M. Flora, a Carolina English professor who teaches Southern literature and chairs the University's Wolfe centennial committee, said Tom Wolfe was chosen for the prize "because he exemplifies in many ways our Thomas Wolfe."

"He's a writer of great energy and a vision of the United States that transcends his region, and yet he is also a Southerner," Flora said. "I'd like to think that if Thomas Wolfe had not died so young, he would have done some of the things that Tom Wolfe has been doing."

Early in his career, Tom Wolfe became a leader in the New Journalism, or nonfiction written in a literary, fictional style. By the early 1970s, he was famous for several creative nonfiction books about the American counterculture, beginning with The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, published in 1965.

Subsequent titles in a similar vein included The Painted Word (1975), on the American art world; From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), about American architecture; and The Right Stuff (1979), on the psychology of rocket pilots and astronauts in the early space program. The latter won Wolfe an American Book Award for non-fiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Vursell Award for prose style and the Columbia Journalism Award.

He moved to fiction with Bonfire in 1987, about the money-obsessed 1980s in New York City. The novel topped The New York Times' best-seller list for two months and stayed on the list for more than a year. Like The Right Stuff, it was made into a movie.

Wolfe will publish a collection of fiction and nonfiction next month on the recent turn of the century. Titled Hooking Up, it will include the novella Ambush at Fort Bragg, serialized in Rolling Stone in 1996.

Another literary giant, Pulitzer Prize winner William Styron, was scheduled to speak at Carolina for the centennial. But Styron was forced to cancel his visit after he was hospitalized for pneumonia.

Flora hopes that the centennial will acquaint a new generation of students with Thomas Wolfe. He wrote long books with long, lyrical sentences that don't always succeed with today's shorter attention spans, Flora said, and his stature seems to have diminished recently in some circles.

"We're not going to let him be forgotten," Flora said.

Yes, he goes on too long in places.

"But the best Wolfe? It's really great stuff," Flora said.

For more information about Carolina's Wolfe centennial celebration, see and http://

Other Wolfe highlights

* Marathon reading of Look Homeward, Angel. Chancellor James Moeser will begin this reading in the Pit on Oct. 2 at 8 a.m., and UNC President Molly Broad will be the last reader, at around noon on Oct. 3. Then there will be a singing of "Happy Birthday" and serving of a birthday cake. Celebrants will get free Wolfe buttons from UNC Press and enjoy free soft drinks and cake. (Volunteer readers are still needed, especially on the night of Oct. 2. Anyone wishing to participate may contact English graduate student Miranda Wilson at

* A Kind of Magic Door: Thomas Wolfe at the University of North Carolina, 1916-1920. This exhibit of photographs, manuscripts and publications will open Oct. 2 and run through Feb. 14 in the N.C. Collection Gallery in Wilson Library (call 2-1172).

* Look Homeward, Angel. This play written by Ketti Frings and based on Wolfe's novel will be staged Oct. 18-Nov. 12 by PlayMakers Repertory Co. (call 2-7529).

* Adventures in Ideas Weekend Seminar. Sponsored by Carolina's humanities program, this seminar about the play will be held Oct. 20-21 (call 2-1544).

* The Lost Boys. Adapted from a Wolfe novella, this play will be staged by StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and Wordshed Productions on Oct. 20 and Oct. 21 (call 2-4299).