Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Old Kentucky Home

In the process of reading the above-mentioned book, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains, I found a particular author excerpt catching. Poet and Asheville native Michael McFee wrote an engaging account just for this guidebook on his experiences discovering Thomas Wolfe’s home, and I thought I would share it with the Wide-Web World:

“When I was growing up in the mountains, from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, Asheville wasn’t such a groovy little city, Thomas Wolfe’s name wasn’t so ubiquitous, and his mother’s boardinghouse wasn’t yet an official historic site. “The Old Kentucky Home” was just 48 Spruce Street, where Tom’s brother Fred offered occasional tours of the twenty-nine rooms. He didn’t seem to like the house or his family very much: when my mother and I first visited, in 1968, I remember he pointed out, unapprovingly, where his famous younger sibling crept along the roof to sneak into a female guest’s room.
“A few years later, after I read Look Homeward, Angel (at sixteen: just the right age, just the right place), I went back solo, and the ramshackle place was much more interesting: it had become Wolfe’s “Dixieland,” and its drafty high-ceilinged rooms – some dim, some sunny – seemed haunted with ghosts of stories, the place itself a rambling gossipy character.
“I headed off to college in 1972 to study design, but soon transferred to Wolfe’s alma mater and decided to become a writer myself. When a dozen-storied hotel opened right across Spruce Street from his house in the mid-1970s, I heard that copies of Look Homeward, Angel had been placed in each bedside table drawer, beside the Gideon’s Bibles. Who could resist such a detail? I put it into a poem called “Asheville,” which was ironic, allusive, and dreadful.
“Graduate school, marriage, work, child, and parents’ deaths – it was decades before I got back to what had become the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. In fact, it was almost too late, after the devastating arson of 1998: I didn’t visit again until the fall of 2002, when a huge blue tarp still covered the partially collapsed roof, the north side of the rambling house was all plastic and tarpaper and 2 x 4 braces, and smoke damage haunted the windows. Four years into its restoration, the sun did not shine bright on “My Old Kentucky Home,” and it didn’t look like it ever would again.
“Memorial Day weekend, 2004. I stand where I rattled the chain-link construction fence only twenty months earlier, but can barely believe what rises before me: the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, gloriously intact, painstakingly and sympathetically resurrected. In fact, the old boardinghouse roof, the exterior yellow paint, the interior plaster, the furnishings – everything looks just like it did the year Tom left for college at Chapel Hill.
“But, appropriately for the nature of this particular place, it’s not overdone, a lifeless museum of early twentieth-century Americana. As I stroll through the house – around Julia’s kitchen, up the creaky central stairs, past the bed where W.O. unwillingly spent his last days – it’s easy to imagine that the family or boarders just stepped out and might be back shortly.
“Which is to say: The place feels exactly right. Like home, again.”

--- Michael McFee, quoted from Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains: A Guidebook, by Georgann Eubanks (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.)

On a last note, there are other great commentaries on Thomas Wolfe to be found in the Fall 2007 issue of Appalachian Heritage, including another Old Kentucky Home discovery account by Kentucky native Gurney Norman.

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