Wolfe wrote four lengthy novels, plus many short stories, dramatic works and novel fragments. He is known for mixing highly original, poetic, rhapsodical, and impressionistic prose with autobiographical writing. His books, written and published during the 1920s and 1930s, reflect vividly on American culture and mores of the period, albeit filtered through Wolfe's sensitive, sophisticated and hyper-analytical perspective.
The Wolfes lived at 92 Woodfin Street, where Tom was born. His father was a successful stone carver who ran a gravestone business. His mother took in boarders and was active in acquiring real estate. In 1904, she opened a boarding house in St. Louis, for the World's Fair. While the family was in St. Louis, 12-year-old Grover died of typhoid fever.
In 1906, Julia Wolfe bought a boarding house named "Old Kentucky Home" at nearby 48 Spruce Street. She took up residence there with her youngest son, while the rest of the family remained at the Woodfin Street residence. Wolfe lived in the boarding house on Spruce Street until he went to college in 1916.
Wolfe studied at the University of North Carolina (UNC), where he was a member of the Dialectic Society and Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. In the fall of 1919, he enrolled in a playwriting course. His one-act play, The Return of Buck Gavin, was performed by the Carolina Playmakers with Wolfe acting in the title role. He edited the Tar Heel, UNC's student newspaper, and won the Worth Prize for Philosophy for an essay, The Crisis in Industry. Another of his plays, The Third Night, was performed by the Playmakers in December 1919.
He graduated from UNC with a B.A. degree in June 1920. In September of that year, he entered the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, where he studied playwriting under George Pierce Baker. Two versions of Wolfe's play The Mountains were performed by Baker's 47 Workshop in 1921.
In 1922, Wolfe received his Master's from Harvard. His father died in June of that year, in Asheville, an event that would influence his writing. He continued to study with Baker in the 47 Workshop, which produced his ten-scene play Welcome to Our City in May 1923.
Wolfe went to New York City, in November 1923, and solicited funds for UNC. In February 1924, he began teaching English as an instructor temporarily at New York University (NYU), a position he occupied periodically for almost seven years.
In October 1925, Wolfe and Aline became lovers. Their affair was turbulent and sometimes combative, but she was a powerful influence. He returned to Europe in the summer of 1926 and began writing the first version of a novel, O Lost, which eventually evolved into Look Homeward, Angel. It was an autobiographical novel that fictionalized his early experiences in Asheville, the narrative chronicling family, friends and the boarders at his mother's establishment on Spruce Street. In the book, he renamed the town Altamont and called the boarding house "Dixieland." His family was fictionalized under the name Gant, with Wolfe calling himself Eugene, his father Oliver, and his mother Eliza.
The original manuscript of O Lost was over 100 pages longer and considerably more experimental in character than the final edited version of Look Homeward, Angel. The editing was done by Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's, the most prominent book editor of the time, who also worked with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Initially, Wolfe expressed gratitude to Perkins for his disciplined editing. When the novel was published in 1929, Wolfe dedicated it to Bernstein. Soon after the book's publication, Wolfe returned to Europe and ended his affair with Bernstein.
The second novel Wolfe submitted to Scribner's was The October Fair, a multi-volume epic roughly the length of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. After considering the commercial possibilities of publishing the book in full, Perkins opted to cut it down extremely and create a single, bestseller-sized volume, which would be titled Of Time and the River.
Wolfe then left Scribner's and signed with Harper and Row. By some historic accounts, it was Perkins' severe editing of Wolfe's work that prompted him to leave the Scribner imprint; other accounts describe Wolfe's growing resentment that his success was commonly attributed to the efforts of Perkins.
He was sent for treatment to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, on September 6, but an attempt at a life-saving operation revealed the disease had overrun the entire right side of his brain. Without regaining consciousness, he died 18 days before his 38th birthday.
Despite his disagreements with Perkins and Scribner's, on his deathbed Wolfe wrote a deeply moving letter to Perkins. In the letter, he acknowledged that Perkins had helped to realize his work and had made his labors possible. In closing he wrote, "I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below.
Wolfe was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina, beside his parents W.O. and Julia Wolfe. Another famous author, O. Henry, is buried in the Riverside Cemetery, but his grave is not near Wolfe's.
Recently, O Lost, the original "author's cut" of Look Homeward, Angel, has been reconstructed by Matthew Bruccoli and published. Unfortunately, the October Fair manuscript was so scattered among editors during their various operations upon it, that it cannot be reconstructed, and readers will never know what Wolfe intended for that immense work.
After Wolfe's death, William Faulkner said that Wolfe was his generation's best writer; Faulkner listed himself as second. Wolfe's influence extends to the writings of famous Beat writer Jack Kerouac and author Philip Roth, among others. Although his reputation has declined somewhat in recent years, he remains one of the most important writers in modern American literature.