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Thomas Wolfe goes to school

Article Published: Oct. 19, 2009 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Thomas Wolfe goes to school

By Joanne Brannon Aldridge

"The Magical Campus" collects for the first time the earliest published writings of Thomas Wolfe, the Asheville native son once called "the most promising writer of his generation." He would have been 109 on Oct. 3. This collection includes poetry, plays, short fiction, essays, speeches and orations, and news articles from his days as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It also includes his thesis "The Crisis in Industry," which won the Worth Prize in philosophy which brought with it publication. The thesis appeared as a pamphlet Wolfe's junior year. The publication qualifies as Wolfe's first book. Wolfe scholar Richard Kennedy has suggested that "Crisis" shows "a glimmer of the force that was to come" and gave a "hint of the creative turbulence that was later in him."

Four poems and a short story are considered Wolfe's first published writing. One of the poems, "The Challenge," brought Wolfe "a sudden burst of fame." It was reprinted in his hometown paper Asheville Citizen (April 4, 1918) and elsewhere in the South.

At Carolina, Wolfe was a star undergraduate speaker, debater/orator and writer/editor - a wordsmith on the stage and page. His writings reflect something of what the University was from 1917 to 1920 and the joy Wolfe experienced there. They also reflect the active influence of three of Wolfe's teachers who have become legends: "Proff" Frederick Koch, founder of the Carolina Playmakers and the "folk drama" movement; Edwin Greenlaw, English professor who encouraged students to write what they know from experience; and philosophy professor Horace Williams who became Vergil Weldon in "Look Homeward, Angel," described as "Hegel in the Cotton Belt." The writings show how these legends operated in Wolfe's life and what they became in his fiction.

As class poet in 1920, Wolfe predicted, "sometimes when springtime comes/ And the shifting moonlight falls/ They'll think again of this night here/ And of the walls/ Of White old well and of old South/ with bell's deep booming tone/ They'll think again of Chapel Hill - and - thinking - come back home."

Later, in "Look Homeward, Angel," he wrote "...the university was a charming, an unforgettable place...buried in a pastoral wilderness groved with magnificent trees...An Arcadian wilderness where he had known so much joy."

Editors Aldo P. Magi and Mathew J Bruccoli have skillfully brought this body of Wolfe's undergraduate writing together, arranged it chronologically, and written helpful headnotes for each selection. The collection is enriched by illustrations from the Yackity Yack (the university's yearbook), front covers of magazines, Wolfe's handwritten cover sheets and the notes on manuscripts.

In his foreword, novelist Pat Conroy suggests this collection's importance: "There is great value in studying the early writings and the clumsy attempts of writers for their artistry and mastery later in life...a setting out and a beginning...which would lead in an inexorable unerring path to the publication of "Look Homeward, Angel" in 1929...This book is indispensable to Wolfe scholars and a treasury to a man like me."

Wolfe, looking back on those days at Carolina, wrote to Benjamin Cone in 1929: " was as close to magic as I have ever been."

Thomas Wolfe's "The Magical Campus: University of North Carolina Writings 1917-1920" is edited by Mathew J. Bruccoli and Aldo P. Magi, with a foreword by Pat Conroy and published by the University of South Carolina Press (134 pp. 32 illustrations). Retail price is $22.50

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