It was the summer of 1969 when my dad suggested we take a trip to Key West, Florida. Since I love travel, I agreed — with one stipulation. The vacation needed to include a stop in Asheville, North Carolina, the birthplace and memorial of my favorite author, Thomas Wolfe.
A few years before, I had read Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe’s first novel, and had become fascinated with his poetic prose. In addition, I felt connected with the Gant family and other characters of the fictitious town of Altamont. My dad once told a friend, “Karen knows more about Thomas Wolfe’s family than she does her own.”
In reality, Wolfe had written about his own family and Asheville; and when the novel was published, the thinly veiled characters and events were easily recognized by everyone in town. Unfortunately, his beautiful prose was lost on many of the embarrassed townspeople who looked upon the novel as scandalous gossip.
As a high school teacher in Highland County, I made many references to Wolfe and read some of his descriptions as I was teaching sophomore English. October is my favorite month; it was Tom’s as well.
“It was October and the leaves were quaking. Dusk was beginning. The sun had gone, the western ranges faded in chill purple mist, but the western sky still burned with ragged bands of orange.”
When my friend and teaching colleague, Geneva Miller, taught Wolfe’s “Circus at Dawn” in her American lit class, I was invited each year to come in and give my Thomas Wolfe lecture.
I’ll not forget one Oct. 3, Wolfe’s birthday, when my class all came in wearing little badges they had fashioned, announcing to the world, “Today is Thomas Wolfe’s birthday!” One artistic student, Nadine, presented me with a picture she had drawn of my favorite author.
When we arrived at Asheville and checked into our motel, I immediately asked the young man at the desk about the Wolfe Memorial and learned it was within walking distance. Then he added, “Thomas Wolfe’s brother just left.” Fred Wolfe, the last surviving member of the family, lived in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and made frequent pilgrimages to his home place to greet his brother’s admirers. Ironically, he always stayed at the motel we had chosen.
I enjoyed my tour of the memorial, but must confess I was disappointed in not meeting my favorite author’s brother, Luke Gant.
When we returned home, I wrote to Mr. Wolfe, expressing my admiration of his late brother and disappointment of not getting to meet “Luke.”
Not many days later, I came running into the house, exclaiming, “I got a letter from Fred Wolfe! I can’t believe it. Fred Wolfe wrote to me!” Grandma Kornmiller happened to be at our house at that time and kept interjecting, “Who’s Fred Wolfe?” Then came her next question. “Is he married?” Grandma, bless her heart, was concerned about all aspects of my life.
Fred and I continued corresponding, and the following summer I made a solo trip to Asheville in my sporty yellow Cougar convertible and eagerly awaited Fred’s arrival the following afternoon. I’ll never forget the moment I first met him and his wife. This tall, lanky man with huge feet and a mop of unruly gray hair greeted me enthusiastically. “I’m Fred, and this is my wife, Mary. I brought you some peaches, Honey.” I responded that I thought Georgia was the peach state but was promptly corrected.
“South Carolina produces more peaches than Georgia.” My parents and I agreed that those were the best peaches we ever tasted.
I so enjoyed watching Fred give tours of his home place and his mother’s boarding house, excitedly quoting passages from the novel as he gave commentaries on each room. Fred stuttered, just like Luke in the novel, as he gestured with his unfiltered Camel cigarette.
That evening I was Fred’s and Mary’s guest at “Sound and Lights,” a presentation of dramatic readings from the novel. We sat in the car that rainy night and watched and listened while a spotlight focused on different rooms as the narrator read. Wow! There I was in the company of my favorite author’s brother, in their car, listening to passages from a book I loved. Life couldn’t be better. The next day the three of us visited Riverside Cemetery where the whole family is buried. There, Fred dramatically related tales about his parents and siblings.
I saw Fred one more time when a friend and I took a trip to South Carolina and stopped by his home for a brief visit. Once again, all he wanted to talk about was his brother and his literary genius. His kitchen table was filled with cigarette butts and correspondence from Thomas Wolfe fans. It seemed that Fred’s purpose in life was to perpetuate his brother’s memory. Any question directed to him personally was immediately diverted to his brother and his talent.
My correspondence with Fred did end as my life went in a different direction, but I never forgot him. I still have every letter he wrote to me. Recently I did a google search and found an interesting video about him on YouTube. He lived to be 85, longer than any of his seven siblings. He even out-lived Mary, who was 22 years younger.
Fred quipped that he and Tom were alike. “We both were tall, had big feet and big appetites.”
However, that’s where the similarities ended.
Fred was one of the most extroverted and selfless people I’ve ever met. His brother described him well.
“He came with wide grin, exuberant vitality, wagging and witty tongue, hurling all his bursting energy into an inane extraversion. He lived absolutely in event: there was in him no secret place, nothing withheld and guarded—he had an instinctive horror of all loneliness. He wanted above all else to be esteemed and liked by the world, and the need for the affection and esteem of his family was desperately essential.”
Karen Kornmiller writes a bi-weekly column published in The Logan Daily News. The views of this column may not necessarily reflect that of the newspaper.