Thomas Wolfe’s Angel
This trip to Hendersonville takes me past the Oakdale Cemetery and Thomas Wolfe’s famous angel monument from Look Homeward, Angel. Written in 1929, this first novel is biographical. The fictional town is a depiction of his hometown, Asheville, NC, 90 minutes from my home. The original title of his novel was The Building of a Wall. Then it became O Lost. It took Wolfe 20 months to complete this manuscript. His first editor at Scribners trimmed it by 60,000 words. Ouch. Wolf felt it became as much the editor’s work as his own and he parted with Scribners. In 2000, the original unedited version was published. I’m not in the least bit interested in reading that! I found the edited stream-of-consciousness- version tedious enough.
The story behind the angel is that his father, William Oliver Wolfe, ordered the Italian marble statue from New York and used it for years on his porch to advertise the family monument business on Patton Avenue in Asheville. In 1906, he sold it to a family in Hendersonville, where it was moved to Oakdale Cemetery. It marks the grave of Mrs. Margaret Bates Johnson. Wolfe apparently owned 8 or 9 of these angels, all similar. One other surviving is in Bryson City, NC, and one in Old Fort, NC. But the detailed description of the angel in his short story “An Angel on the Porch,” which later he incorporated in Look Homeward Angel, describes the one in Hendersonville. In 1949, a newspaper article in Asheville Citizen Times explained this to the dismay of residents in the other two cities and a great debate about the “real” angel lasted for several years in the mountains.
Wolfe isn’t my favorite writer. Look Homeward Angel is far from my favorite book. But seeing the angel and the historical marker as I drive by going to work on critique reminds me that writers can – and do – come out of these mountains. Write on!