Wednesday, May 28, 2014

That Magical Campus: A Return to Thomas Wolfe's University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This past weekend I was lucky enough to find myself back on that “magical campus” as famous alumnus Thomas Wolfe described the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the oldest state university in the country having been established there in 1789.  Most of the students there, and dare I say perhaps some of the faculty, were only a twinkle in their parents’ eyes the first time I visited the campus to conduct research in the North Carolina Collection housed in the Louis Round Wilson Library (some of my correspondence has managed to find a home here).  I have returned many times since for one reason or another thus disproving Wolfe’s old saw, “you can’t go home again.”  A lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge since that first visit many years ago, but I was happy to see that the town and campus appeared pretty much the way I always  remember them.  I could certainly find my way around without consulting a map or asking directions.

The reason for this latest trip?  I was invited to chair a session of papers presented at the 36th annual conference of the Thomas Wolfe Society.  Indeed, Wolfe has been my reason for each of my previous visits to UNC-Chapel Hill; either to attend earlier gatherings of the Society, or to conduct research in the Wolfe papers in the Wilson Library (I have also ferreted through the more extensive Wolfe papers and manuscript collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library).  It was nice to catch up with old friends and colleagues while making the acquaintance of a number of young and budding American and foreign Wolfe scholars who will insure the future of Wolfe studies.  It all made for a delightful weekend on his “magical campus.”

It is difficult to spend any time in Chapel Hill or on the UNC campus without invoking Wolfe’s name; it was here he flowered into one of the premier 20th century American writers.  Born 1900 in Asheville, in the western Carolina mountains, Wolfe arrived in Chapel Hill shortly before his 16th birthday having graduated from the North State Fitting School, in his hometown.  UNC numbered around one thousand students at the time, nothing close to the enormous present-day campus with an enrollment of almost thirty thousand   The University offered him his first opportunity to escape his native landscapes and the culturally provincial environment of Asheville.  It also provided him a large degree of independence from “his crouched family,” as Eugene Gant, Wolfe’s alter ego, describes his in the original “O Lost” manuscript of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929).  “He was happy, full of expressive joy . . . He was closer to a feeling of brotherhood than he had ever been, and more alone,” Wolfe wrote describing the fictional Eugene Gant.  “His isolation was in his favor.”  Like Gant, Wolfe was able to spread his wings for the first time in his life, to rub shoulders with others, especially those students from the wealthier Piedmont and coastal areas, who grew up much different than himself.  He was not exactly a “mountain grill” his father looked down upon, but he had only a very limited exposure to the bigger world beyond Asheville.  His eyes were opened wide, and his time at UNC would eventually lead him to Boston, New York, Europe, and literary fame.

In a later letter Wolfe described his time in Chapel Hill as “close to magic,” and the UNC as “the magical campus.”  But it did not seem so during his freshman year.  Being six foot-three and weighing less than 140 pounds, Wolfe was a clumsy lad outfitted in old and ill-fitting clothes.  He lived in a boarding house on Franklin Street, still the main commercial drag adjacent to the original campus, and lived a mostly solitary and lonely existence . . . so much so that he hesitated returning for his sophomore year.

His father forced him to resume his studies, and it was a good thing he did.  Once back in Chapel Hill, Wolfe began to take a real interest in his course work and campus activities.  He studied English literature under Professor Edwin A. Greenlaw (the building currently housing the English department is named in his honor) who pushed the young Wolfe to do more than what his other instructors expected of him.  He began to flourish as a member of the “Dialectic,” or “Di,” one of the two literary societies on campus he joined as a freshman.  Perhaps we can say the “die was cast.”  Wolfe joined the writing staff of the University of North Carolina Magazine, and The Tar Heel, the campus newspaper of which he later became the managing editor and editor-in-chief.  He would also serve as the editor of Yackety Yack, the campus annual.   From a lonely freshman he gradually evolved into a campus leader much in demand, exercising what he called “the huge pretense of idiot geniality.”

During his last two years on campus Wolfe studied under Professor Frederick Koch who instilled in him an avid interest in drama and the theater, an interest he would continue after graduation in George P. Baker’s 47 Workshop, at Harvard University.  While at UNC Wolfe wrote two one-act folk plays - The Return of Buck Gavin and The Third Night - both of which were performed by the Carolina Playmakers toward the end of Wolfe’s time in Chapel Hill.  He also performed the leading role in the former.

The main core of the UNC campus . . . the one Wolfe came to know . . . has not changed all that much since he was there.  The brown-brick buildings bordering the forested central quads extending southward from Franklin Street are still there and look much like they did in Wolfe’s day almost a century ago.  So is The Old Well, the iconic campus meeting place.  One evening at dusk, I wandered this magic landscape from Franklin Street to the Wilson Library where I heard Joseph Bathanti, the current poet laureate of North Carolina, read from his work.  It seemed entirely appropriate that he conjured up shades of Thomas Wolfe and his western Carolina mountains where Bathanti continues to live, write, and teach.  How could he not?  

In the past, the Wolfe Society has always met at the Wilson Library with its rich collection of Wolfe papers.  This year, however, we moved our proceedings to the venerable, elegant Carolina Inn, just a few blocks away.  Completed in 1924, four years after Wolfe left Chapel Hill, the Inn has, according to its official historian Kenneth Joel Zogry, served as the “University’s Living Room” for the past 90 years, hosting countless meetings, receptions, weddings, and banquets celebrating faculty and students past and present.  Its simple elegance oozes Southern charm and hospitality.

“The Carolina Inn,” writes Zogry, “was born of a bad night’s sleep.”  John Sprunt Hill, a Carolina alumnus and trustee who went on to become a prominent lawyer, banker, philanthropist and trustee responsible for the expansion of UNC at Chapel Hill, visited the campus in 1921 as head of the school’s building committee.  He stayed at one of the Franklin Street boarding houses, and offended by the heat and frequent nocturnal visits by vermin, he walked along the edge of the campus one night, and according to the local legend, pledged to build a proper inn befitting the oldest state university in the country.  A lover of literature, Hill was also largely responsible for the construction of the Wilson Library, which opened its doors in 1929 and eventually housed the North Carolina Collection which he also endowed.  In 1935, Hunt and his partners donated the Carolina Inn to the University, stipulating that the profits from its operation would support the Collection.  It seemed only right that the Wolfe Society would hold its meeting at the Carolina Inn seeing that the proceeds would benefit the preservation of the Wolfe collection and other important North Caroliniana. 

Upon graduating in June 1920 with 144 others, Wolfe scribed the senior class poem, “1920 Says a Few Words to Carolina.”

        They’ll think again of this night here
        And of these old brown walls,
        Of white old well, and of old South
        With bell’s deep booming tone.
        They’ll think again of Chapel Hill and-
        Thinking – come back home.

Wolfe final novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, was published posthumously in 1940.   He may never have returned to his magical campus, but I have done so with every opportunity offered to me.  I look forward to coming home again.

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