by Charly Mann
Thomas Wolfe, one of the greatest writers of all time, entered the University of North Carolina at the age of 15 in September of 1916. When he was a senior he was editor of the Daily Tar Heel. During his college years he was also an editor of the Yackety Yack and a member of the Playmakers. Like many other UNC students, at the time, he often paid for the services of prostitutes in Durham brothels.
Thomas Wolfe 1918 Debater and Orator for UNC Dialectic Society
Thomas Wolfe (center) on the porch of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity 1919
Wolfe loved Chapel Hill more than any place on earth, and shortly before graduating in June of 1920 wrote his girlfriend in Asheville the following: I hate to leave this place. It’s mighty hard. It’s the oldest of the state universities and there’s an atmosphere here that’s fine and good. Other universities have larger student bodies and bigger and finer buildings, but in Spring there are none, I know, so wonderful by half. I saw Carolina graduates when I was home for Christmas who were doing graduate work at Yale, Harvard, and Columbia. It would seem that they would forget the old brown buildings in more splendid surroundings, but it was always the same reply: “There’s no place on earth that can equal Carolina.” That’s why I hate to leave this big fine place. (May 17, 1920)
UNC campus 1919 when Thomas Wolfe was a senior
UNC campus 1916 when Thomas Wolfe was a freshman
Thomas Wolfe’s honors and activities at UNC, listed here from the 1920 Yackety Yack, far exceeded those of everyone else in his graduating class. Note it is said, “He can do more between 8:25 and 8:30 than the rest of us can do all day, and it is no wonder that he is classified as a genius.”
Thomas Wolfe's UNC senior yearbook photo and accomplishment list. (Note the reference to Gooch's where Wolfe would often eat his meals late in the evening - see previous article.)
Thomas Wolfe's dipolma from UNC, June 1920
Wolfe is most famous for four lyrically eloquent autobiographical novels. The first, Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929. The second, Of Time and River was published in 1935. His last two great novels, The Web and the Rock and, You Can't Go Home Again, were published after his death. Wolfe came down with a highly unusual case of pneumonia in September of 1938. He was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where it was finally determined he had tuberculosis in his brain. The best brain surgeon in the country operated on him, but found the entire right side of Wolfe's brain was covered with tubercles. Nothing could be done, and he died at age 37 on September 15, 1938. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville.
What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. or the crisp October nights. No, our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is as it was meant to be, The University of the People.