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42The Tar Heel Thursday, July 17, 1986
Thomas Wolfe's presence not forgotten at UNC
By ALLISON BELL
Special to the STH
It seems a rare feat for an indi
vidual not even 10 years out of college
to publish a landmark novel.
Thomas Wolfe. UNC Class of
1920, made this much-revered
accomplishment. He published
"Look Homeward, Angel" in 1929,
at the age of 29. Though he wrote
three other novels, plays, and two
volumes of short stories, that first
book, a semi-autobiographical
account of his youth, remains his
best-known work. Critics rank it
among the most influential novels of
the 20th century.
William S. Kennedy estimated in
The Thomas Wolfe Review that
400,000 copies of "Look Homeward,
AngeP were sold during the '60s, and
that 10.000 are still bought every
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Wolfe's widely-read classic has its
roots in Tar Heel country. He based
much of the work on his four years
Wolfe originally wanted to attend
Princeton or the University of Vir
ginia. His father thought that Prin
ceton was outrageously expensive,
and that UVa students were snobs.
Hoping that his son would become
a North Carolina lawyer, he sent the
15-year-old boy to UNC to make
In the fall of 1916, UNC was still
a small university. Only 1,300 stu
dents attended the school. Fewer
than five percent were women, and
none were black. The library held no
more than 75,000 volumes.
Nevertheless, adjusting to UNC
was a problem for a serious young
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freshman like Wolfe. When he joined
a literary society, he and the other
new members were asked to give
speeches. Most of the initiates briefly
parodied some famous oration, then
sat down. Wolfe gave a speech that
lasted 22 minutes. The society
members laughed at him.
Wolfe recovered from that embar
rassment and was soon elected vice
president of the freshman debate
club. Many people on campus knew
him. He was bright, eccentric, and
6 feet 3 inches tall. He couldn't easily
make himself unobtrusive.
He read on his own, but that didn't
help him ace his classes. He earned
a B in English, and C's in Greek,
Latin and Math first semester.
Second semester, he brought his
Latin grade up to a B, but slipped
to a D in math.
Worse, when he applied to be one
of The Tar Heel's ten associate
editors, the paper rejected him.
His sophomore year, World War
I changed the campus. Though the
United States was technically unin
volved, it was clearly about to enter
the conflict. Wolfe was too young to
join the army, but he did take military
science courses. He practiced march
ing, digging trenches and throwing
bombs. Like most students, he
supported war preparations.
Appropriately, he lived in Battle
Dormitory, room number four. The
dorm was more expensive than the
private homes he'd occupied the
previous year, but it was furnished
with the hi-tech luxury of hot running
In the spring, he joined a fraternity.
The pre-Civil War fraternities were
too snooty to take him. Pi Kappa
Phi, then three years old, asked him
to pledge. Experts have never verified
allegations that Wolfe was later
expelled for wearing dirty shirts.
That same spring, he was elected
assistant editor of the Tar Heel and
associate editor of the Yackety Yack.
He should have had a happy summer.
However, his roommate died in
May. The next fall, his beloved
brother Ben died from pneumonia.
Wolfe never recovered from his grief.
In "Look Homeward, Angel," Ben's
death becomes a tragic reminder of
the brevity of life.
That year, Wolfe moved in Pi
Kappa Phi's new fraternity house.
am ma a o
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On J Bus line. Pool and tennis. Immediate
next to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon
house. The S AE house caught on fire
and the fire gutted the Pi Kappas'
building. Wolfe and his brothers had
to return to the old Pi Kappa Phi
When the Tar Heel editor left for
Marine training camp, Wolfe ran the
paper. He ensured that the staff had
a female editor, and he published the
Tar Heel's first six-page issue. He
wrote some funny stories, including
a series called, "The Fables of Sultan
Peikh A. Bou."
However, Wolfe's career as an
editor wasn't entirely successful. In
those days, the Tar Heel was a weekly
paper published under the auspices
of the athletic association. It didn't
have its own typesetting equipment.
Wolfe had to take articles to the
printer for typesetting and layout as
well as for printing. He could never
be sure how much space articles
would fill. Whenever he had too
many articles, he picked up ads and
threw them away.
Wolfe also had the terrible but
common habit of doing everything
at the last minute, or even the minute
after the last minute. The Tar Heel
was supposed to come out on Sat
urday. Because of Wolfe's delays, it
often hit the stands on Sunday.
Wolfe didn't just run a paper his
junior year. He also wrote a play.
Frederick Henry Koch, new to UNC,
founded the PlayMakers Repertory
Co. to promote his ideas about
American drama. The PlayMakers
produced "The Return of Buck
Gavin," a melodrama about a crim
inal who risks everything to place
flowers on his friend's grave, as one
of the three shows in its first season.
This fall, from Sept. 24 to Oct. 11,
PlayMakers will honor Wolfe by
staging Ketti Frings' Pulitzer
winning adaptation of "Look Home
Wolfe was even funny. William H.
Bobbin, former N.C. chief justice and
a classmate of Wolfe's, describes
some of the young author's humor,
a dialogue between two men of
Shakespearean England, in "Thomas
Wolfe of North Carolina":
"My lord, a lady waits without.
Without what? Without food or
clothing. By all means, feed her and
show her in."
There's another story about Wolfe
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talking to an angry man who wanted
to sue the Tar Heel. "You can't do
that," Wolfe said. "And why cant I
?" the man demanded. "Because, I,
sir, am a minor," Wolfe replied.
Wolfe was so busy that he had to
eat during his classes. But he was
typical in one respect: he hated
laundry. When his clothes were too
dirty to wear, he bought new ones.
After he graduated, his mother
recalled that he once brought home
30 sheets for her to wash.
Wolfe graduated from UNC with
an English degree, no academic
honors and the experience of campus
involvement. In "Look Homeward,
Angel," Wolfe satirizes his activities,
but he doesn't forget them.
Later, Wolfe attended Harvard,
taught at New York University, and
published his stories. He died of
tuberculosis in 1939, a month before
his 39th birthday.
Louis D. Rubin Jr., UNC's "Uni
versity Distinguished" professor of
English, is one of the world's leading
scholars in the area of Southern
literature. He believes that today's
undergraduates are less interested in
Wolfe than their predecessors were.
Many UNC students continue to
admire Wolfe. Even those who
haven't read his books or don't like
them are devoted to him. Mitch
Wike, a senior business major, said
that he didn't enjoy "Look Home
ward, Angel," but that he did appre
ciate visiting Wolfe's hometown,
Asheville, N.C. "It was great to walk
in the streets that he described in his
book," Wike said.
According to current Pi Kappa Phi
Dan Reiman, a junior journalism
major, a portrait of Wolfe hangs over
the fraternity hearth, and every
pledge must learn the following quote
from "Look Homeward, Angel": "I
know not yet what I will do with my
life, but one thing is certain: I have
genius and I know it too well to hide
As long as the Pi Kaps initiate
pledges, the memory will live on.
The Orange County Women's
Center will offer "Finding Childcare
in Orange County" as the first in its
"Newcomers Series" on Wednesday,
July 23. The Center, which runs the
series through August 27, will hold
all of its programs at the Presbyterian
Student Center from 7:30-9 p.m. A
speaker will provide info on finding
childcare options to suit your needs.
The Center will also sponsor a
program on "What Employers Look
For in Employees" on Thursday, July
24, from 7:30-9 p.m. at the Women's
Resource Center. The fee is $5 for
members and $6 for non-members.
Kay Norris, president of Village
Publishing, will speak on achieving
career goals, office politics, being a
team player, and learning the tricks
of the trade.
The Center will also sponsor a free
community lecture, "Anxiety
Attacks: Their Cause and Cure," on
Tuesday, July 22, from 7-9 p.m. at
the Community Church, 106 Purefoy
Rd. in Chapel Hill. For more info
or to reserve a space in any of these
programs, call 968-46 1 0 46 1 4 or stop
by the Center at 406 W. Rosemary
St. in Chapel Hill.