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This Tom Wolfe dug the dark suits.

Lit Nerd Wednesday!

On a tree-lined street in Brooklyn Heights a faded plaque rests on one of the many brownstones that dot the area — fitting as the reputation of it’s subject is almost as equally faded. Mention Thomas Wolfe these days and you will more than likely get a reference to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or garish white suits, but by the time sharp threads was born the first was already considered one of the bright stars in the up and coming crop of writers, which included Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He would become a profound influence on Jack Kerouac who, before creating the spontaneous prose style of On the Road, would emulate Wolfe in his first novel The Town and The City.

Thomas Wolfe grew up in Asheville, N.C., a place that played a large part in his epic autobiographical stories like his debut novel Look Homeward Angel – a negative description of his hometown that many there resented making the few homecomings he had less than welcome. At the University of North Carolina he studied Theatre and eventually moved to New York City in 1924 to sell his plays while also teaching English at NYU, a gig that lasted for seven years. In 1925 he met Aline Bernstein, a scene designer for the Theatre Guild, who persuaded him to move into writing novels since his style seemed more suited for the format – his plays were consistently rejected for being too long.

In 1933 he moved to Brooklyn Heights to avoid the fame brought on by Look Homeward Angel and possibly to keep enough distance from Bernstein’s husband who was on to their affair. He settled on the fourth floor of a brownstone at 5 Montague Terrace in an area that might be one of the most literary streets in America – later Norman Mailer lived nearby as well as W.H. Auden who lived in a commune known as “February House” with composer Paul Bowles, writer Carson McCullers and burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee  — how’s that for a combo?

Of course, the fact Wolfe chose Brooklyn doesn’t mean he loved it. “God I hate Brooklyn” he once told a reporter. “I’ve seen the damndest things here, it’s a great enormous blot and three million people live here!” He expands on this in his short story Only the Dead Know Brooklyn. Despite this view, he still felt creative enough at 5 Montague to write Of Time and River, a bestseller but one that was originally so long he left his publisher Scribners in anger over the severe editing.

Wolfe left Brooklyn in 1935 and stayed for a time at the Chelsea Hotel. He eventually left New York for a tour of the West, a trip that inspired him to take a larger view in his writing and away from the autobiographical work that became his trademark. But it was not to be — while in Seattle, he contracted miliary tuberculosis of the brain and died in Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1938 just a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday.

Who: Thomas Wolfe

Where: 5 Montague Terrace, Brooklyn NY

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