A writer's search for an angel sent homeward

THOMAS WOLFE, the American romantic who spent his short life trying to cram the universe into a single sentence, had a big birthday last month.

On Oct. 3, the day the United States Postal Service honored the author of "Look Homeward, Angel" with a stamp celebrating his life and work, Wolfe would have been 100.


Instead, he died two weeks short of his 38th birthday of tuberculosis that destroyed his brain.

In the late summer of 1938, Wolfe -- having visited every national park in the western United States in two weeks -- contracted pneumonia after downing a pint of liquor with a derelict on a ferryboat.


The illness reopened a TB lesion from childhood on the author's right lung, cells from which entered his bloodstream and traveled to his brain. A passenger train carried Wolfe from Seattle to Baltimore, where an operation to save his life was performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

An adolescent Walter E. Dandy Jr. watched his father perform the surgery. "I used to sit in the gallery and watch my father operate on Saturdays," said Mr. Dandy, 75, a retired anesthesiologist. "Wolfe was desperately sick. Everyone agreed that he had TB of the brain, but without the technology we have today, they couldn't be sure."

To be sure, the world's leading neurosurgeon drilled Wolfe's head at the base of the skull on Sept. 12, 1938.

What would Dandy find inside the 6-foot-6-inch man of letters?


Certainly. Sick or not, the last place Wolfe wanted to be was Baltimore's domed hospital on Broadway, the place where his tombstone-carving father had been treated for prostate cancer before being sent home to die.

Unkempt rows of ambition, resentment and envy irrigated with Scotch?



"When they opened the skull," said Mr. Dandy, "tubercles were everywhere." Nothing, a medical report said, could be done.

And so the incisions in Wolfe's head were closed with silk sutures and three days later, the soul of a giant who had enough of everything to set our manifest destiny between hard covers -- perhaps the 20th century's one lunatic up to the task of the Great American Novel -- was sent homeward.

The man who tried to save him -- who'd been dispatched too late to Mexico to relieve Trotsky's headache and was no good to the dying Gershwin for the same reason -- didn't know much about the man-child under his scalpel.

"My mother had to tell Dad that Wolfe was a big shot," said the junior Mr. Dandy. "He was probably aware that he was famous, but didn't know why."

For all that Wolfe published -- mountains and rivers and constellations of words and enough discarded prose to best any number of today's authors -- he was just wetting his whistle when they buried him in his Asheville, N.C., hometown at an age when most serious writers are just starting to hit their stride.

I drove through the mountains of Asheville last summer on a 10,000 mile, do-it-yourself book tour that took me from Poe's grave at Fayette and Greene streets to Jack London's birthplace in San Francisco and back again.


Hustling my own books from the trunk of the family car, I stopped in Asheville long enough to give a reading (no one showed up so I went to the movies and fell stupid in love with Jennifer Ehle in the movie "Sunshine") and pay my respects to Wolfe's grave at Riverside Cemetery.

The hillside cemetery reminded me of the journey I took in the autumn of 1988 to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Sherwood Anderson is buried. But winding through the hills of Marion, Va., to pay respects to the guy who wrote "Winesburg, Ohio," all I heard about was Thomas Wolfe.

The mad bibliophile who couldn't stop yakking about Wolfe was a Baltimorean who had exiled himself to the hills of Virginia, a strange and foul-mouthed hybrid of uneducated novelist, racetrack sharpie and rare manuscript hound named John Mason Rudolph.

"Wolfe unearthed the Earth," ranted Mr. Rudolph in the way I imagine Wolfe ranted about Tolstoy. "After him, no one had to write a word. He said it all."(Where are you reading your beloved Wolfe now, Johnny? Are you binging through "Look Homeward, Angel," a la Fitzgerald in Paris, in an 18-hour marathon? Sweet obsession! I haven't seen you since you banged out your novel in that flophouse on Light Street. Is it published? Are you alive?)

It is widely assumed that Wolfe, like Saroyan and Kerouac and other writers unwilling to surrender their naivete, is the stuff of precocious adolescents -- a great piece of caramel to suck on before setting out for the truer worlds of John Cheever or Richard Yates.

In an Oct. 2 story about the recent publication of "O Lost" -- a restored version of "Look Homeward, Angel" that is faithful to the manuscript Wolfe submitted to Scribner's before Maxwell Perkins got out the long knives -- the New York Times said that Wolfe's work, "if read at all, is usually the domain of college curriculums."


The guest book at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, a product not of journalists but readers, gives the lie to the Times report.

"They come as friends and strangers, a huge variety of 12-year-olds and people in their 90s from all over the world," said Ted Mitchell, a Wolfe biographer who has worked at the museum for a dozen years. "All of his novels are in print and in today's world, publishing houses don't keep titles just for prestige."

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter with The Sun.