It had started to snow on our tiny yellow cottage in Shuffletown as dusk came on, and when the call came from Patricia, there were probably six inches in our backyard—a rarity in that part of the North Carolina Piedmont.
I sat on the living room’s garish calico shag carpet, leaning against the baseboard heater. Phoebe Snow’s “It Looks Like Snow” played on our Goodwill turntable. Joan and I had opened a bottle of red wine; we figured we were in for the night.
Patricia wanted Joan and me to drive to Boone. It was snowing like mad up there, and she and her boyfriend Dave were having a party at her house on Poplar Creek Road. They had been our great friends on Oakland Avenue in Charlotte where we’d lived just before and after marrying, and we hadn’t seen them since we’d all split for different precincts. Through the phone, I heard jubilation in the background. I told Patricia that we were besieged by snow ourselves and settled in. We were going to sit tight. Joan was fine with that. It made no sense to get on the road. It was nine o’clock. We were alone, happy, drinking wine in the middle of a white-out in Shuffletown.
The phone rang again. This time it was Dave. He made the same plea as Patricia, but more passionately with that inflection of challenge. Again, I heard those Appalachian State kids raising hell in the background. They were having a good time. Where was I? He made me feel like I was missing something. It was December of 1979. I was 26. Joan had just turned 24.
We grabbed a few things and jumped into our VW Squareback and headed north on Highway 16. I didn’t consult a map. Maybe I got directions from Dave. It was snowing so hard we couldn’t make out the bridge as we crossed the Catawba into Gaston County, just a mile into our journey. Mountain Island Lake stretched silver toward the chuffing stacks of the mysterious power plant on the water. Laura’s Rozzelle House, last of the mythic, Southern, all-you-can-eat family-style manses, kept its counsel on the near bank, and Thomas Wolfe, as he often did, chanted in my head: O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost come back again.
I visited the North Carolina mountains for the first time before we married. Joan and I, then living in Charlotte, travelled west on Independence Boulevard until it became a dizzying, two-lane switchback. By the time we fetched Asheville, we were sick with vertigo, and the city seemed nothing like Scott and Zelda’s Shangri La. Downtown Asheville, in 1976 was dank and haggard like the little steel towns that dotted the banks of the three big rivers that swept out of my hometown Pittsburgh. I liked Asheville very much. We had reached a pinnacle. Joan and I walked among clouds that sailed like dirigibles across the sky, their shadows falling across the face of the bluish mountains. I had never stood at such altitude.
I had only heard of Thomas Wolfe. I owned a copy of You Can’t Go Home Again (if nothing else, its title seemed apropos of a cruel inevitability), a Signet paperback that sold new for 95 cents, ten years before in 1966, though the great big novel first appeared in 1940. I had figured to one day read it but never had. In fact, I managed to earn a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Pittsburgh without ever reading a word by Thomas Wolfe. In all likelihood, back then, I conflated Thomas Wolfe with Tom Wolfe, the white linen-suited new journalist, who wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
That weekend, as Joan and I strolled Asheville, we came upon Old Kentucky Home (called Dixieland in Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel), Thomas Wolfe’s boyhood home, a 29-room Queen Anne style boarding house, painted white, built in 1883—turrets and gables and porches mitered into the upper stories—ramrodded by his imperious mother, Julia Wolfe. It had been kept over the years as a literary shrine to the memory of Wolfe. Joan swooned indiscriminately over all things educational. She was trained as a teacher at the University of Georgia. The more antique, the better. Touring someone’s home did not interest me. But I would have done anything to please her, not to mention that I wished to come off as urbane. Plus, I wanted to be a writer—had indeed begun composing my first stories in our cramped attic garret in Charlotte where we lived at the time—and I was well aware that Wolfe had been a famous one. Something must have happened in those sprawling plaster rooms he had begun living in at age 6, before departing in 1916 to matriculate at the state university in Chapel Hill.
We paid to get in, then ambled the museum-like rooms, decked in the period livery and accoutrement of Wolfe’s era. The house had the funereal, mausoleum aura of the Pompei ruins—as if the family had moments before been spirited away, but left everything in pristine shape for expected company—half a century later. The rooms I entered had no real significance for me. Again, I hadn’t read a solitary syllable Wolfe had penned. Joan enjoyed the house for its curios and furniture, its palpable witness of the vanished noblesse oblige of mythic Southern lore. She hailed from Gone with the Wind country, Atlanta, and she wore back then, when I first met her, a mantle of fierce love of everything south of the Mason-Dixon, the further south the better. I heard her once say that North Carolina was getting a little too far north. She was still in her Yankee-loathing phase, and her abiding suspicion of them was unrelenting. Somehow I had earned clemency. I was a Yankee, she’d grudgingly admit, but not a damn Yankee.
As I wandered the rooms, I had no idea that I was laying eyes on W.O. Wolfe’s actual stone cutter’s tools, that the grand fireplace I glanced at was where W.O. and then his counterpart from Look Homeward, Angel, Oliver Gant, doused the laid hearth in kerosene of a morning and with a single match set off a blaze like a rocket to warm his children. Nor the very china and flatware, the tureens, and pitchers Julia Wolfe and then her fictional doppelganger, Eliza Gant, set before her strange boarders. The room, the very bed, that Benjamin Harrison Wolfe, Thomas’s brother, would die in and then die in again. Ben’ s name did not change in the fiction. It was all there, spread before me. I just didn’t know what it was.
Then I crossed the threshold of a bedroom, upstairs, and in an opened closet hung a massive camel-hair topcoat, swaying almost imperceptibly in whatever breath suspired throughout that house. Beneath it on the floor sat a pair of enormous, plain brown oxfords, the laces untied as if Wolfe had just stepped out of them. On a table in the middle of the room brooded a solemn black typewriter—an antique Remington or Olivetti, the name flourished in gold above the tiered keyboard. Light sluiced through the white sheer curtains. The very last of it burnishing that coat and shoes, flashing off the gilt keys of the typewriter.
It was the end of the day, beatified with all the ineffability with which Wolfe wrote. I stood in that room with the woman I loved. She really believed that some day I’d be a writer. Something occurred that my Catholic disposition, even now, latches onto as the gift of grace. I found myself miraculously transformed into a Thomas Wolfe fanatic, evangelized, I swear, by his topcoat and shoes. Nothing more poignant, nor memorable. And most astonishing of all, I had never read a word he’d written.
That deficit, however, was quickly remedied. I like to think I rushed out of Old Kentucky Home, aglow like Paul after he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, to the nearest bookstore and purchased everything authored by Wolfe they carried. I had found my author. What I do know is that I launched into a pathological and exhaustive study of Thomas Wolfe. Appropriately, I launched first into Look Homeward, Angel and was “touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.” I adored the book. Then onto Of Time and the River; and the Wolfe biography by Elizabeth Nowell, Wolfe’s literary agent; and The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, edited by Nowell. I ripped through The Window of Memory, by Richard Kennedy; The Mountains, edited by Pat Ryan, a book containing Wolfe’s plays; the biographies Aline by Carole Klein, about Wolfe’s lover, Aline Bernstein; and A. Scott Berg’s wonderful Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. I read Thomas Wolfe and His Family, by Mable Wolfe Wheaton (Wolfe’s sister, portrayed as Helen in Look Homeward, Angel), with LeGette Blythe. I even tackled Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception, edited by Paschal Reeves, a compendium of reviews, scholarly abstracts and précis—the kinds of writing that in my former life I had carefully steered clear of because of how tawdry and boring I found them.
Joan and I visited Wolfe’s grave at Riverside Cemetery. I had more or less lost my mind.
By the time we moved out of Charlotte to Shuffletown, I had pussel-gutted myself on Thomas Wolfe. There, in the yellow cottage, I had a little room off our living room and, at a wooden table I had nailed together myself, I began my first novel, an unapologetically swooning bildungsroman in homage to Wolfe that I called, in the overwrought spirit of Wolfe, Perhaps, by Love Bequeathed. It was, of course, about growing up in Pittsburgh, the city lately called the Paris of Appalachia—a stretch for anyone who’s ever visited that not obviously Appalachian city, though perhaps some muse of my homeland’s geography, its hills, coal barges and steel, its hardheaded devotion to grime and toil and hardscrabble had infiltrated my consciousness, my soul, as I set out to mimic Thomas Wolfe. He had wanted to say everything: in a never before apprehended, mad, poetic, epistemological rant, sheer unbridled passion, the more the better—and so did I, not unlike I’m certain other unwashed writers just starting out.
I worked my book every day in joy and certainty—some of the most inspired and glorious writing I’ve ever bent my head over—and I’ll always be grateful for those days sitting there basking in the unlikely and utter dazzle that I was a genius, the heir apparent to Wolfe. Were I attached to cigarettes, I would have chain-smoked. Had I been able, I would have stood and used the top of our refrigerator to write on—as Wolfe had done—but I wasn’t tall enough. Instead I sat and wrote everything out long-hand in tiny immaculate cursive on a legal pad, then typed the day’s yield on my old Underwood, using carbon paper to produce a second copy. I was writing my own family saga, filled with melodrama and tenderness and oozing with heartbreaking, flowery sentimentality, channeling the gargantuan Wolfe—and he never let me down.
I let it all go in that over-the-top frenzy of words he was so famous for: three-four adjectives for every one. Pages filled in a weir of impenetrable, impressionistic language that I told myself made sense. Words and more words that I counted over and over. Output was everything. Somewhere I had read that Wolfe, after a feast at Cherio’s, his favorite restaurant, lumbered through Manhattan on one of his legendary interminable treks muttering a litany of “I wrote ten thousand words today, I wrote ten thousand words today.”
Like Wolfe, I drank indecent amounts of coffee as I wrote. Cup after cup, pot after pot, until I was so deranged with caffeine I’d barge out our front door and yawp barbarically at the crows in the pine trees ringing the cottage and they’d yawp back in affirmation. I refused food until nightfall, then fell asleep dreaming about what I’d written that day, what I’d write the next. I was certain that what I scribed at that table in Shuffletown was good, damn good, that it would guarantee my fame as a writer, that when I sat in that room I was in the grip of something wholly original. The Muse had its claws lodged in my capacious heart. There’s a good chance I was never happier.
That night we left Shuffletown for my second trip to the North Carolina mountains, this time to Boone, in Watauga County, I was very much under the spell of Thomas Wolfe. It was experience I was after and the caprice that night in the blizzard proved worth it. Joan and I would only realize a day later on our return, when we could actually see the skinny, winding roads hanging over the escarpments we’d travelled to get there, how insane we’d been to attempt the journey in the first place.
Somehow we made it up the mountain. I remember inching up Poplar Creek Road, on the fringe of Appalachian’s campus, peering into the driving snow for our friend’s house when at us came a brigade of wild kids on skis tooling down the middle of the road to welcome us, the heroic wayfarers we fancied ourselves. Later that night, after much good cheer and revelry, and the onset of desperate hunger, the most miraculous event of the evening occurred. Patricia picked up the phone for take-out—Joan and I gasped in incredulity—and in short order a Jeep commandeered by an intrepid grinning kid grinded up with a sack of meatball sandwiches from Sollecito’s, an Italian joint that delivered in blizzards at 3 a.m. Holy God, I thought, standing in the middle of the road in a foot and a half of snow eating the indescribably delicious sandwich, I want to live here. I never dreamed that, twenty-two years later, I would land a job teaching creative writing at Appalachian State University, that those inscrutable, amazing mountains that shrouded my future that snowy night long ago would become my beloved home.
Of course, my Thomas Wolfe novel was no good, but it took a little while before that fact hit me. I don’t apologize for it not being good. It’s no secret that one has to write poorly before writing well. Nevertheless, that realization came with true regret, and reluctantly I scrapped my book. Not long after, I lost traction with Wolfe as well and never made it all the way through The Web and the Rock, and I still haven’t read You Can’t Go Home Again – though I’ll always love Wolfe and will be forever grateful to him, to his overcoat and shoes, to whatever happened to me the day I traipsed into Old Kentucky Home. I’m willing to call it mystical. It made me want to write a book every day, to fill my own steamer trunk with stained and tattered foolscap.
About the author
Joseph Bathanti is Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
Bathanti is the author of six books of poetry: Communion Partners; Anson County; The Feast of All Saints; This Metal, which was nominated for The National Book Award, and won the 1997 Oscar Arnold Young Award from The North Carolina Poetry Council for best book of poems by a North Carolina writer; Land of Amnesia, from Press 53 in 2009; and his new collection, Restoring Sacred Art, from Star Cloud Press in 2010.
His first novel, East Liberty, winner of the Carolina Novel Award, was published in 2001 by Banks Channel Books in Wilmington, N.C. His latest novel, Coventry, winner of the 2006 Novello Literary Award, was published by Novello Festival Press in Charlotte, NC. They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina’s Visiting Artists, 1971-1995, his book of nonfiction, was published in early 2007. Most recently, his collection of short stories, The High Heart, winner of the 2006 Spokane Prize, was published by Eastern Washington University Press in fall 2007.
He is the recipient of two Literature Fellowships (in 1994 for poetry and 2009 for fiction) from the North Carolina Arts Council; The Samuel Talmadge Ragan Award, presented annually for outstanding contributions to the Fine Arts of North Carolina over an extended period; a Fellowship from The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry; the Bruno Arcudi Literature Prize; the Ernest A Lynton Faculty Award for Professional Service and Academic Outreach; the Aniello Lauri Award for Creative Writing; the Linda Flowers Prize; the Sherwood Anderson Award; the 2007 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Prize; and others.