“Dixieland was a big cheaply constructed frame house of eighteen or twenty drafty high-ceilinged rooms: it had a rambling, unplanned, gabular appearance, and was painted a dirty yellow.”
Those words so poignantly penned by novelist Thomas Wolfe described his childhood home in his autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel. The novel featured a coming of age tale tinged by the grief Wolfe experienced at the house. Most tragically, the death of his older brother, who fell victim to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
The house referred to as “Dixieland” in the novel was actually known around the neighborhood as the “The Old Kentucky Home.” Wolfe’s mother Julia purchased it in 1906. She took a then-six-year-old Wolfe and moved down the street into the boardinghouse, leaving the rest of the family two blocks away at their family home. Julia rented the rooms for $1 a day. And although Thomas lived there he never had his own room, often sharing a room with a boarder. In 1918 Thomas’s older brother Ben died of the Spanish flu in one of the rooms. The years that followed would become pivotal in shaping Wolfe’s first novel.
When Look Homeward, Angel was published, it became an international bestseller. To this day, the novel has never gone out of print and writers such as Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, and Philip Roth have credited the book and Wolfe as influences. Although Wolfe fictionalized the name of his hometown, the novel’s brutally honest (and very thinly veiled) portrayal of the places and characters around Asheville caused outrage. Wolfe didn’t return to his hometown for eight years after the novel’s release.
Visitors to the historic boardinghouse can explore the same rooms that Wolfe described with unparalleled accuracy, still preserved in their historic state. A visitor’s center resides just across the backyard, and boasts a rendition of Wolfe’s later apartment inside the Chelsea Hotel. The home’s contents are original to the family. Ninety-five percent of the items in the home belonged to the family as the house was sold from the family to a historical society.
Thomas Wolfe passed away at age 37 from what our tour guide stated was meningeal tuberculosis. He is buried along with his family a couple of miles away at Riverside Cemetery.
Know Before You Go
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday. House tours are offered for $5 per person at half past each hour, with the last tour of the day taking place at 4:30 p.m. Allow 1 hour for the tour. The visitor's center and exhibits are free to visit. There are discounts for students and groups.