Thomas Wolfe and “The Old Kentucky Home”

The Old Kentucky Home in Asheville in 1946. Photo from the State Archives

On October 18, 1929, Charles Scribner’s Sons published Look Homeward, Angel, the best-known novel by Asheville author Thomas Wolfe. Inspired by a marble angel outside his father’s monument shop on Pack Square, Wolfe wrote his first and largely autobiographical novel about the fictional Gant family wherein the father is a volatile stonecutter and the mother a business-minded boardinghouse operator.

Wolfe was only 6 when his own mother, Julia Westall Wolfe, left her husband and older children and bought the “Old Kentucky Home,” a rambling Victorian boardinghouse in downtown Asheville, to which she brought young Tom. With his family divided, Tom felt lost amongst his mother’s tenants and resentful of the changes the tourists were wreaking on his hometown.

Always aware of the life and people around him, Wolfe later turned his observations into a novel in which his mother’s boardinghouse became “Dixieland” and Asheville, the fictional town of “Altamont.”  Although names were changed, Asheville residents still recognized Wolfe’s characters as themselves and were scandalized. Only in 1937, a year before he died, did Wolfe return home to visit. He was, however, buried in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. His mother’s boardinghouse is now the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, one of 27 state historic sites.

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