Until I visited the South, I thought of the “Carolinas” as twins or at least close siblings. But as we drove from Charleston, SC to Asheville, NC it became clear that these two states are separated by more than a dotted-line border on a map. Palmettos became a distant memory and gave way to pine forests as the highway began a vertical climb into the mountains of North Carolina.
The weather was bad, as it was for most of our trip. Grey and spitting rain, the sky frowned on us as we approached Asheville, but no matter, we were on a pilgrimage. Ever since reading (and weeping over) Look Homeward, Angel back in my impressionable twenties, I hankered to see the place of which author Thomas Wolfe wrote so hauntingly.
Wolfe called his home town Altamont in Look Homeward, Angel and Libya Hill in You Can’t Go Home Again but the made-up names were the thinnest of veils for Asheville. Indeed, Wolfe’s champion and editor, Maxwell Perkins, said in an introduction to Look Homeward, Angel that “…no one could understand Thomas Wolfe who had not seen or properly imagined the place in which he was born and grew up.”
Asheville’s center struck us as being just as grey as the weather. There were rows of old, dark and not particularly charming buildings, many of which enterprising hipsters have transformed, more or less successfully, into microbreweries, galleries or boutiques. But one building in particular was of interest to us: “The Old Kentucky Home” boardinghouse run by Wolfe’s mother and depicted as “Dixieland” in Wolfe’s first novel. He spent much of his childhood there and it is now lovingly maintained as a memorial to the author.
The floorboards are creaky and the stairways are narrow. You can easily imagine Julia Wolfe doing the laundry and there is a hush about the room where Wolfe’s brother, Ben, passed away, an event that is stirringly recalled in Look Homeward, Angel
Wolfe’s life was turbulent and far too brief. After his death just shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, no lesser a contemporary than William Faulkner declared that Wolfe may have had the greatest talent of their generation. I’ve just started re-reading Look Homeward, Angel and am just as transported by it as I was thirty-some years ago. Except that this time, I know those creaky floorboards and stairwells and I have stood in the rooms where Wolfe’s childhood unfolded.
In the early pages of Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe alerts the reader to “Altamont’s” reputation as a playground for wealthy Northerners. “Several rich men from the North had established hunting lodges in the hills, and one of them had bought huge areas of mountain land and, with an army of imported architects, carpenters and masons, was planning the greatest country estate in America – something in limestone, with pitched slate roofs, and one hundred and eighty-three rooms.”
The man was George Washington Vanderbilt II and the estate would become known as Biltmore. Wolfe was a bit off on his room count – Biltmore currently boasts two-hundred-fifty rooms. But he was right about the estate’s prominence: set like a jewel on a hill outside of Asheville, Biltmore is acknowledged to be the largest private home in the United States.
While a young hard-scrabble Julia Wolfe was scheming on future property and business ventures to raise herself above her mountain-folk origins, Frederick Law Olmstead of New York’s Central Park fame was taming the 125,000 acres of George Vanderbilt’s estate. It is considered to be America’s first managed forest. We saw spring lambs dotting the hillsides and a cheery yellow field of canola that is being tested out as a crop.
We allowed two days to take in the wonders of Biltmore; one to tour the house and another for the gardens. It is a magnificent place.
Like Thomas Wolfe, George Vanderbilt died tragically and too young, from complications following an emergency appendectomy. Each man left behind a towering legacy; Wolfe in his lyrical novels and short stories and Vanderbilt in the stunning beauty that is Biltmore.