I came to Asheville after a few months on the run from the virus. I’d left New York at the end of April once I knew that my neighbors had begun to die. Now going to Asheville, the green and rocky heart of western Carolina, was the first move toward home. In the mountains the distances were vertical, a good change for a trail runner who spends his life at sea level. But as much as for the walking and the fresh air, I was there for the stories of native son Thomas Wolfe and of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a visitor who arrived as an eclipsed literary star eager to make a comeback but who fretted in his notebook that “there are no second acts in American lives.”
Thomas Wolfe is the biggest local attraction after the mountains. He was something of a mystery to me I hoped this visit would dissolve. Wolfe’s often appended (like John Steinbeck) to the grand trio of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway, all having been born in a four-year period (1896–1900). But Wolfe’s not really gotten there among them. Doubt about him lingers, I think, because he died young, too early for his literary persona to set.
Look for him at the Old Kentucky Home, the only building of its kind left on Spruce Street. In the old days this edge of downtown was filled with places just like it, but they’re gone for hotels and restaurants and other things, all of them imbued with a different style of life from the old street. The house is at the center of his first autobiographical fiction as Dixieland. Tom’s mother ran it as a boarding home, and living there from boyhood gave Tom his ear for storytelling.
In town I set out to find his books. This simple task went almost unfulfilled. Book sources were closed. The Thomas Wolfe Memorial—I think the place has books for sale—was dark. The Memorial consists of two buildings. One is the Old Kentucky Home now preserved as a museum, and other is a modern building behind the museum that functions as a visitor center. Nearby, the bookstore Malaprop’s allowed only locals to enter. I assumed it was the virus that kept me out, but I didn’t bother to confirm with the bemasked bookseller who was standing with one foot on the sidewalk and other inside the store. Persisting in my search, I even stopped to root through the shelves of the three Free Little libraries I came across but none contained a trace of Tom.
Success came later in the day when I found You Can’t Go Home Again on the shelf of a used bookstore, Downtown Books & News. I bought it, but there was a problem. I was afraid to spoil my first impression of Tom. Years ago I’d read the short story “The Far and the Near,” and nothing to me I’d read seemed more exact and rang as true as that way of seeing people. The book in my hand was published long after Wolfe had died, having been put together by an editor, so caution seemed appropriate. I decided to get deep into his writing by starting with a book he’d seen to the end himself. Once home I’ll start and begin with Look Homeward Angel. Or Of Time and the River, which has an introduction by Pat Conroy, Wolfe’s literary heir. Writing elsewhere about his hero, Conroy tells us, “Wolfe hovers above a blank page like God dreaming of paradise. He writes like a man on fire who does not have a clue how not be one fire.”
There in that used book store not far away from Wolfe on the regional writers shelf I found a copy of The French Broad by Wilma Dykeman. It was signed “For Kelley Hinchliffe, my best wishes, Wilma Dykeman 1965.” The French Broad is the river that runs north from southern Carolina through Asheville and the mountains west to Tennessee. In the 1950s, Dykeman began her life as a journalist, novelist and storyteller focused on Appalachia. She wrote, “The landscape changes. The mountains remain. Many of the people do not”. Dykeman is a witness. Think of the history she had told her or seen on her own. Wilma’s father was born before the Civil War; she lived into this new millennium, long enough to know that today is different. New blood has restocked Asheville. The tourist board is part of the chamber of commerce and has a section devoted to settling immigrants from all over America (it seems) in their new home.
Her regionalism reminded me of another “minor” Southern classic, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son by William Alexander Percy, the uncle of Walker Percy and mentor to the younger Percy’s friend Shelby Foote. That book survives all bookshelf purges; maybe this one will too.
Fitzgerald and Wolfe were acquaintances, but none of the time they spent together happened in Asheville. When Fitzgerald visited in the mid-30s, Wolfe hadn’t yet returned home due to the cold local reception of his autobiographical writing. For the visitor, their trails cross vaguely in Montfort, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown. Wolfe’s tomb is found there in Riverside Cemetery. (O. Henry is there too!) From there just a few minutes’ walk through streets lined with grand homes one finds Highland Hospital, at that time considered to be a progressive psychiatric hospital, where Scott deposited Zelda for care in the summer of 1936.
She remained there for most of the rest of her life. Fire destroyed the building in March 1948, and Zelda and several others died in the blaze. Possible escape was prevented by the questionable practice of high-dosage drugging of the patients to a near catatonic state. The site has been left vacant and is now a green memorial to the dead. By that time, Scott was already waiting for her in their shared grave in Rockville. He had died seven years previously in the apartment of his Hollywood mistress Shelia Graham in December 1940.
The Grove Park Inn was Scott’s other place in Asheville. There were many famous names in the Grove Park’s registry during the early heyday at the hotel. In 1935, Scott’s first summer in Asheville, he wasn’t one of them. Tender is the Night had been out a year, and sales were modest. No longer a bestselling author and culture maker, fame had receded from Scott, and he’d been reduced to a face in the crowd.
Scott had a summer alone there that year. Almost alone. One side of him was a dutiful husband, or at least a nostalgic one. The other was a man still ready to live a fantasy of himself, and that version of Scott found a mistress that summer. Stories are still repeated about his habits.
His rooms are still on display. He kept a two-room suite, one for writing and one for living. There’s the story about the bullet hole. Was it a failed suicide try, or an act of anger done after the husband of his hotel lover was disinclined to defend his honor (and of that woman) by pistol duel? And there’s a story about the case of beer he drank every day to ween himself off gin. This gossip doesn’t hold much interest for me.
And not all of Scott’s time at the Grove Park Inn was taken in boozy skirt chasing. He never stopped writing. In the 1930s, he had begun to write magazine essays, many of which were honest ruminations on the distance between his past renown and current desolation. This confessional turn was mocked by Hemingway in the first published version of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” though explicit reference to Scott was excised in later publishing of that short story. The essay “My Lost City” captures that mood. It’s my favorite. Sold to Cosmopolitan before his sojourn in Asheville, it was cancelled by the magazine, and appeared in print for the first time in The Crack Up, a collection published after Scott was long dead.
The Grove Park Inn really is a beautiful building. Construction was completed in 1913 and immediately attracted a well-heeled crowd seeking relaxation in the serenity of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The fabric is made with enormous blocks of granite, and is given a human scale by the austere and stylish furnishings of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Ten U.S. presidents have spent time there, and each has left a distinct memory of himself. Former President William Howard Taft was the first to visit. He resigned from his next job, as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, from the hotel in 1930. President Obama was the most recent visitor. A basketball with his autograph is exhibited in the lobby.
Asheville has surprises that have nothing to do with these famous writers. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is the Basilica of St. Lawrence. Lawrence is one of the patron saints of Rome, having been martyred there in the 250s. At least 34 churches in Rome were dedicated to Lawrence during the Middle Ages, including the immense basilica built over his tomb, which was wrecked in an American WW II air raid of the Eternal City.
To find this dedication here in an area that historically has one of the smallest Catholic populations in the United States was a strange surprise. But Lawrence is known to get about. Last summer I found his relics in the cathedral of Puebla, Mexico, which has no shortage of Catholics. Like many things in virus-season Asheville, the church was closed when I tried to visit. Still, the exterior—I love the breezeway with mountain view between the rectory and the sacristy— suggested the architectural quality I’d been told was found inside the building.
The Biltmore is a Gilded Age mansion built (and still owned) by a branch of the Vanderbilt family, and known as the biggest house in America. I skipped it. What’s important is that the architects and artisans who worked there remained in Asheville to work on other projects, including The Grove Park Inn and the basilica of St. Lawrence. The Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino was one of those men. He became the architect of the St. Lawrence and included his own tomb within the church’s design. Before arriving in Asheville, he contributed to a number of buildings in New York, including Grand Central Terminal. His trademark tiled vaulting is featured there and in the celebrated dome of St. Lawrence.
I miss the evenings at the house on the edge of town, each one a local beer drinking symposium as prelude to rising before dawn. Twilight again on the porch listening to children at play their indistinct voices outside the house beyond the screen of trees; the silent glow-buzz of fireflies against the wire fence; a breeze, the shuffle of air and the jangle of chimes; the jagged line of peak against night sky, and lightning over mountains too far away to hear thunder; the last night music through the window Johnny Cash and Nick Cave singing Hank Williams; and again in the cemetery on the other side of the road tomorrow before first light the fog will be as gray as the stones it enfolds.