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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Faulkner
- Zora Neale Hurston
- Flannery O'Connor
- Katherine Anne Porter
- John Crowe Ransom
- Robert Penn Warren
- Eudora Welty
- Tennessee Williams
- Thomas Wolfe
- Richard Wright
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)

Farmhouse and Barns near Asheville, North Carolina
[7266] Marion Post Walcott, Farmhouse and Barns near Asheville, North Carolina (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-052386-D DLC].

Thomas Wolfe Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Known for his ability to produce lyrical torrents of largely autobiographical prose, Thomas Wolfe earned critical and commercial success with his first novel, Look Homeward Angel (1929), but struggled to live up to his own reputation for the rest of his short life.

Born Thomas Clayton Wolfe in Asheville, North Carolina, Wolfe was the youngest of eight children. He attended a private school in Asheville before going on to the University of North Carolina when he was just shy of his sixteenth birthday. It was at UNC that Wolfe began writing in earnest--first as a reporter for the school paper (of which he eventually became editor), and then as a budding playwright. After graduation, Wolfe went to Harvard to study playwriting at the 47 Workshop with George Pierce Baker. There, Wolfe produced two notable plays, Mannerhouse and Welcome to Our City, both of which featured a satirical style inspired by that of the most infamous critic of the South's cultural and intellectual sterility, H. L. Mencken. However, the sheer length of his plays (Welcome to Our City was nearly four hours from curtain to curtain) and his intensely personal narrative style were poorly suited to drama, and Wolfe soon became frustrated by his lack of success as a playwright.

In August 1925, as he was returning to New York from Europe, Wolfe met and fell in love with Aline Bernstein. Almost twenty years Wolfe's senior and an accomplished scene designer in the New York theater, Bernstein encouraged Wolfe to pursue prose fiction instead of drama. With the publication of Look Homeward, Angel four years later, Wolfe's literary reputation finally seemed secure. A largely autobiographical story of a young Southerner coming of age, the novel was hailed by some as an American answer to James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and made such an impression that in 1947 even William Faulkner ranked Wolfe ahead of himself as the most important American writer of the 1920s and 1930s.

The success of Look Homeward, Angel allowed Wolfe to continue traveling and gathering material for his writing. Wolfe's experiences during these years--as well as his continued association with Bernstein--encouraged him to explore the Jewish themes with which some of his later writing was concerned. According to biographer Hugh Holman, "In 1936, leaving Berlin on a train, an incident with a Jew trying to escape Germany forced [Wolfe] to recognize the cruel nature of the Nazi state, and on returning home he wrote one of his most powerful short novels, I Have a Thing To Tell You, a strong indictment of Germany, which was serialized in the New Republic. Like many of his short novels, it was later incorporated in expanded form in one of his novels, in this case You Can't Go Home Again."

Yet, despite having plenty of new material, Wolfe struggled to produce a followup to Look Homeward, Angel, and eventually was forced to rely heavily on the talents of his editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins (who also worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway), to help him pare down and shape the unwieldy manuscript that eventually became Wolfe's second novel, Of Time and the River (1935). The effort was a popular success, but critics charged that Wolfe's passionate but personal style was becoming tiresome and overindulgent; they also questioned whether Wolfe depended too heavily on Perkins to structure his work. In an effort to prove his ability as a writer, Wolfe changed publishers and worked furiously to produce a third novel. Mere months before his untimely death from tuberculosis, Wolfe delivered his final manuscript (thousands of pages) to his new editor, Edward Aswell at Harper's. After Wolfe's death, Aswell shaped the manuscript into two novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940). Both books continued the story of Wolfe's own life, but included a larger social vision that answered at least some of his critics' complaints.

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