Cheré Dastugue Coen
Thomas Wolfe's Angel
A marble statue becomes immortal in fiction.
William Oliver Wolfe was a stonecutter who created tombstones and monuments from his shop in Asheville, North Carolina. He built a home at 92 Woodfin St., according to the “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography,” and raised eight children there with his third wife.
His youngest, born in 1900, was Thomas Wolfe.
At his place of business, W.O. Wolfe used an angel statue as an advertisement, and it was this piece of marble that Thomas Wolfe would incorporate in his debut novel, “Look Homeward, Angel,” published in 1929 and considered to be semi-autobiographical.
Thomas Wolfe majored in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was active in literary groups and the Carolina Players. He studied theater at Harvard but began teaching English when his playwriting failed. He later looked back on his Asheville childhood to create “Look Homeward, Angel,” a story that focuses on a boy living in a mountain town called Atlamont who later attends college at Pulpit Hill.
“This is a first book, and in it the author has written of experience which is now far and lost, but which was once part of the fabric of his life,” Wolfe writes in the novel’s foreword. “If any reader, therefore, should say that the book is ‘autobiographical’ the writer has no answer for him: it seems to him that all serious work in fiction is autobiographical ….”
He concludes with, “But we are the sum of all the moments of our lives — all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it.”
Walter S. Adams of The Asheville Times saw right through Wolfe’s fictionalized account in his "Amazing New Novel Is Realistic Story of Asheville People” article of Oct. 20, 1929.
“Young Wolfe, now 29 years old and a teacher in New York University, covers the first twenty years of his life in this novel,” Adams writes. “It is the utter frank story of himself, his home, neighbors and people about town.”
The book received wild acclaim and led to Thomas Wolfe receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship and publishing subsequent novels. He died too young in 1938.
In Thomas Wolfe’s lifetime, his father sold the angel statue to the Johnson family in neighboring Hendersonville, North Carolina. It was later used for their family plot in Oakdale Cemetery.
Visitors may visit the plot that’s surrounded by a wrought iron fence. A historical marker on Highway 64 West leads visitors to the famous angel.