‘Magical' shows glimmer of greatness


By Thomas Wolfe.

Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Aldo P. Magi. University of South Carolina Press. 160 pages. $22.50. ****

“… the university was a charming, an unforgettable place … buried in a pastoral wilderness groved with magnificent trees … An Arcadian wilderness where he had known so much joy,” Thomas Wolfe wrote in “Look Homeward, Angel.”

“The Magical Campus” collects for the first time the earliest published writing of Wolfe, the Asheville native who was once called “the most promising writer of his generation.” The collection includes poetry, plays, short fiction, essays, debate speeches and orations and news articles from his days as a student at the University of North Carolina.

It also includes his thesis, “The Crisis in Industry,” which won the Worth Prize in philosophy. The prize brought with it publication, and the thesis appeared as a pamphlet during Wolfe's junior year. The publication qualifies as his first book. Wolfe scholar Richard Kennedy has suggested that “Crisis” shows a “glimmer of the force that was to come” and gave “a hint of the creative turbulence that was later in him.”

At Carolina, Wolfe was a star undergraduate speaker, debater and writer/editor – a wordsmith on the stage and the page. Editors Matthew J. Bruccoli and Aldo P. Magi have skillfully brought this body of writing together, arranged it chronologically and written helpful head notes for each selection. The collection is enriched by illustrations, including whole pages of the yearbook Yackety Yack, front covers of magazines, Wolfe's handwritten coversheets and notes on manuscripts.

In his foreword, novelist Pat Conroy suggests the collection's importance: “There is great value in studying the early writings and clumsy attempts of writers who become famous for their artistry and mastery later in their lives … a setting out and a beginning … which would lead in an inexorable, unerring path to the publication of ‘Look Homeward, Angel' in 1929 … this book is indispensable to Wolfe scholars and a treasury to a man like me.”

Wolfe, looking back on those days at Carolina, wrote to Benjamin Cone in 1929: “… it was as close to magic as I have ever been.”

Joanne Brannon Aldridge is a teacher, lecturer and writer who lives in Boone.