Monday, December 29, 2008

You Really Can Go Home Again

This is my final random thought for 2008 and this time around it is not so random. I want to use this opportunity to pay tribute to a good friend who passed away earlier this month.

Ted Mitchell was originally from Oak Park, Michigan, but moved to Asheville, North Carolina in 1988. For two decades he worked as a historic site interpreter and volunteer at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site, and he was also the director of the long-running Thomas Wolfe Festival. I first met Ted on an early visit to the Wolfe Memorial and we later served together on the Board of Directors of the Thomas Wolfe Society.

Ted was quite a remarkable person. A researcher, scholar, and writer extra ordinaire, he authored numerous books, essays and articles on Wolfe, most recently, Windows of the Heart: The Correspondence of Thomas Wolfe and Margaret Roberts (2007). A tribute by Ted’s friend, Rob Neufeld, of the Asheville Citizen-Times, gives you an idea of the type of person he was.
"Ted’s devotion to and reverence for Thomas Wolfe and his contributions to American letters was second only to his devotion and love for those who were fortunate enough to be counted among his friends and colleagues. Ted’s kind words and thoughtful insights into life’s many challenges were a constant source of inspiration and comfort for those around him. His unique and humorous perspectives on life could bring a smile to even the most hardened of souls. Ted loved the natural world around him and . . . he enjoyed daily walks along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The beauty and grandeur of the mountains of North Carolina never seemed to lose their hold on Ted. A pair of binoculars was always by his living room window so that he could occasionally gaze upon the majesty of Mt. Pisgah in the distance."

So I am deeply saddened by Ted’s passing. He has given us so much over the years and would have certainly produced more fine Thomas Wolfe scholarship had his life not been cut tragically short. I will always remember his quiet nature and his true devotion to his friends and colleagues. He will be missed very much and the hole he has left in our lives will long be with us. That said, I dedicate this week’s not so random note to his memory.

I first encountered Thomas Wolfe when I was ten years old. It was 1961 and I was living in Asheville at the time. One day I spied his name on a historical marker near downtown. It noted that Wolfe was the famous author of Look Homeward, Angel, that he grew up in Asheville and was buried in nearby Riverside Cemetery. I would see the sign each time my parents made the trek from our home in east Asheville, through the Beaucatcher Mountain tunnel and into downtown where I attended weekly swimming lessons at the YMCA, on Woodfin Street.

It was after one of those lessons that I convinced my mother to take me to the Riverside Cemetery so that we might try and find where Thomas Wolfe was buried. Perhaps an odd request from a 10 year old boy? All I knew was that he was a famous author from Asheville, but I knew nothing more about him and I had yet to read one of his books. But I liked the sound of the name . . . and the fact that a famous writer had grown up in the very same town where I lived. My mother humored me and we drove out Broadway Avenue through an old residential neighborhood until we came to the main gate of the cemetery. It is a fairly large cemetery and I recall looking around for quite awhile before we found Wolfe’s grave. There it was . . . a simple red marble marker . . . one of several in the Wolfe family plot. I was saddened to learn he had died a young man. Thirty-seven might seem old to a 10 year old boy, but he was the same age as my parents at the time when he died. His epitaph - "The last voyage, the longest, the best" (taken from the Look Homeward, Angel) - and the other inscription on the tombstone from The Web and the Rock - "Death bent to touch his chosen son with mercy, love and pity, and put the seal of honor on him when he died" - made me believe he was probably in a good place.

I began to learn more about Thomas Wolfe. The boarding house – The Old Kentucky Home – which was owned and operated by Wolfe’s mother and where he lived when he was a young boy, was still standing on Spruce Street, just a couple blocks away from the house where he was born, on Woodfin Street. That house was torn down to make way for the YMCA where I took swimming lessons. In the fall of 1963 I began attending David Millard Junior High School, located in downtown Asheville, on the corner of Oak and College streets. Each morning I would ride an old green and white city bus up Tunnel Road and through the Beaucatcher Mountain tunnel, dropping me off at school. In the afternoon, my friends and I walked up to nearby Pack Square to catch the bus taking us back through the tunnel and home. Many afternoons we would get ice cream at a shop on Spruce Street and walk over and sit on the front steps of the Old Kentucky Home to talk. The house was a memorial to Wolfe, but I no longer can recall whether it was open to the public at that time. I remember thinking about Wolfe growing up in that house and I was very curious what it looked like inside. You could look through the windows, but you could not see very much. I never did go inside - not then - and it all remained a great mystery to me. I do have strong memories of that porch and the times I spent there with my friends. It was there that I first learned that President Kennedy had been murdered in Texas. My friends and I rushed home to be with our families not realizing then that we had left our own childhoods and innocence on that porch on that beautiful autumn Friday afternoon.

My family moved from Asheville that following spring of 1964, and it would be over twenty years before I would return. I am sorry to admit it, but I did not think much about Thomas Wolfe or his books during those many years. In the summer of 1986, I took my wife and young son on vacation in the north Georgia mountains. Our route took us through Asheville, and while we were there I wanted to show them where I once lived and went to school. We walked around downtown and eventually over to Spruce Street where I saw the Old Kentucky Home again. It looked pretty much the way I remembered it even though downtown had grown up around it. Now the house was open for tours and soon we found ourselves snaking through the narrow hallways and up the long flight of stairs to explore every room, niche and cranny. The guide told us about the time Thomas Wolfe had lived there and he came alive for me for perhaps the first time.

It could have ended there. We could have walked out the door at the end of the tour and never gone back. And perhaps Wolfe was correct when he wrote that you can never go home again. Maybe we would have driven on to the Georgia mountains and I would have never thought about Asheville or Thomas Wolfe again. But it did not happen that way. At the end of the tour, I was looking around the small book store located in one of the downstair rooms. There I found postcard of Wolfe boarding a streetcar in Berlin in 1936 with the tower of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche clearly recognizable in the background. I had been to this very spot not long before and the now bombed-out ruins of the Gedächtniskirche tower is one of the more prominent and recognizable landmarks in Berlin. So, Thomas Wolfe and I shared more than I had thought. We both lived in Asheville when we were young and we had both gone to Berlin as young men. While perusing the books in the gift shop, I also came across a display of many earlier editions of Wolfe’s books, including a number of German translations. As an American student of German culture, I am often struck by the number of American writers who are popular in Germany, and by the number of German titles in that small display, I presumed that Wolfe had found an audience in Germany. I purchased a copy of Look Homeward, Angel and read it while I was on vacation. I was stirred by passages describing the old boarding house and I read references to Germany and Germans.

I decided then and there that I wanted to explore Wolfe’s affinity for Germany and I began reading everything he had written (no small task) as well as what others had written about him. I delved into Wolfe’s letters and notebooks and I was suddenly thrust into the small circle of Wolfe scholarship. I joined the Thomas Wolfe Society in 1989, figuring this would put me in touch with others who researched and wrote about Wolfe. I made a number of good and lasting friendships with some wonderful and generous people and to this day I look forward to annual Society meetings as one of the high points of the year. They never disappoint.

When I first saw the name of Thomas Wolfe on that small historic marker in Asheville over 40 years ago, I would have never dreamed that one day I would be involved in a scholarly effort to better define his life, his work, and ultimately, his own understanding of a culture so foreign from the one in which he and I grew up. From reading his name on a sign, to visiting his grave in Riverside Cemetery, to the delight of reading Look Homeward, Angel for the first time, to the rediscovery of this childhood interest some 20 years, to the beginning of a scholarly interest in Wolfe, I have come a long way with Thomas Wolfe.

I have grown up with Thomas Wolfe lurking in the shadows – sometime so close I feel like I can reach out and touch him, that we could sit down on those step of the old boarding house on Spruce Street and talk about a thousand topics. Other times he seems to be on the edge of the shadow. Close enough to know he is there, yet too far away for any meaningful connections. But Thomas Wolfe is always there. And his presence is always stronger when I am in Asheville visiting the Old Kentucky Home on Spruce Street. I find myself standing only a few yards from where I first saw that historical where I came to know who Thomas Wolfe was . . . only a few yards from where the house he was born in once stood on Woodfin Street. It has been a long and rather circuitous route over 47 years. Ironically, when I am in Asheville I realize that Thomas Wolfe had it all wrong. You really can go home again. Ted Mitchell knew that too and I can only hope that his long last voyage is the best.

NEXT WEEK: A Final Measure of Kindness

1 comment:

  1. i really enjoyed reading about your friend Ted. i'm sorry for his passing.