Thomas Wolfe’s Graduation
“Four years later, when he was graduated, he had passed his adolescence, the kiss of love and death burned on his lips, and he was still a child.” - Look Homeward, Angel
In 1906 at the age of five, just shy of the typical school starting age, Thomas Wolfe was allowed to attend school. All the Wolfe children attended the public school in Asheville on Orange Street. Moving to Asheville from Tennessee with his wife Margaret, John Munsey Roberts became the principal of the Orange Street School in 1911. The Roberts soon planned to open a private boarding school to prepare students for college. Roberts looked to the current roster of students at the Orange Street school to select potential candidates for their first classes. Reading a composition written by young Thomas Wolfe, Margaret Roberts declared to her husband “this boy, Tom Wolfe, is a genius! And I want him for our school next year.” It took some took some persuasion from the Roberts to get Wolfe’s parents to pay for private schooling. However, Wolfe’s sister Mabel recalled John Roberts “urged Papa to let him enroll Tom. ‘If the boy wants to go,’ said Papa, ‘he can go.’” Completing 8th grade in 1912, Thomas Wolfe began attending the Roberts’ newly created North State Fitting School.
The school was located at 157 College Street on Buxton Hill. Buxton Hill referred to Buxton Place, a boarding house operated by Miss Mary R. Buxton. Today, Buxton Hill is part of an area known as the “South Slope” in downtown Asheville, near present-day Buxton Hall Barbeque and Catawba Brewing.
In Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe fictionalized John Roberts and his wife Margaret, co-founders of the North State Fitting School, as the Leonards. He wrote of first seeing the school and of seeing Mrs. Leonard:
Mr. Leonard had leased an old pre-war house, set on a hill wooded by magnificent trees. It faced west and south, looking toward Biltburn, and abruptly down on South End, and the negro flats that stretched to the depot. One day early in September he took Eugene there. They walked across town, talking weightily of politics, across the Square, down Hatton Avenue, south into Church, and southwesterly along the bending road that ended in the schoolhouse on the abutting hill. The huge trees made sad autumn music as they entered the grounds. In the broad hall of the squat rambling old house Eugene for the first time saw Margaret Leonard. She held a broom in her hands, and was aproned.
Thomas Wolfe spent his next three years at the North State Fitting School. He would not however graduate from this school. Newspaper articles and advertisements show that the school changed names and moved to a new location for the 1915 school year. Thomas Wolfe would now attend the North State School located at 57 Austin Avenue, on the northeast side of the city, a little under two miles away from his home. Today it is a residential street which parallels a stretch of Asheville’s prominent Merrimon Avenue. Like the Church Street location, the structure was eventually demolished.
The August 28th, 1915, Asheville Citizen notes the school’s new location, “the property was purchased soon after the close of the last term and the building will be modern in every detail . . . the students will have enlarged quarters and ample campus facilities during the next term.” The North State School ultimately shut its doors in 1920.
Wolfe’s senior year at the North State School proved to be both busy and rewarding as he participated in several debates against other local schools as a member of the Vance Literary Society. There was also a citywide Shakespeare tercentenary celebration in May 1916. Following his appearance in the Shakespeare pageant as Prince Hal, he won a bronze medal for his essay, “Shakespeare: The Man.” Margaret Roberts urged Wolfe to adapt his essay for the school’s declamation contest to be held during June graduation ceremonies, where he also won. At the age of fifteen, Wolfe graduated from the North State School in 1916. Wolfe’s sister Mabel recalled Thomas speaking at the graduation festivities, held at the Austin Avenue location. She, and her husband Ralph, “were a few minutes late in arriving and we found the auditorium so packed that we had to stand on the lawn outside and listen through the open windows…the family was so proud of Tom. But Papa and Mama had all but made spectacles of themselves as from one of the front seats they vociferously applauded the oratorical rapier thrusts of their last-born.”
Thomas Wolfe later credited his teacher Margaret Roberts as having one of the strongest and most profound influences on his education and life. He gifted to Margaret Roberts one of the first copies of Look Homeward, Angel, with the inscription, “To Margaret Roberts, who was the mother of my spirit, I present this copy of my first book, with hope and with devotion.” Like many others who recognized themselves amongst the pages of his novel, Margaret was deeply hurt over the negative portrayal of her husband. Letters shared between the two show that over the years they maintained regular correspondence and Margaret expressed deep pride over his continued success as an author. In the last letter she sent Tom before he died, dated July 21, 1938, she recalled his final year at the North State School and his rather humorous role in the Shakespeare pageant, where Wolfe donned a makeshift costume that was much too short for his already tall, lanky frame.