Students, faculty and local residents filled Memorial Hall on Tuesday for the inaugural Thomas Wolfe Memorial Lecture, given by - appropriately enough - Tom Wolfe, journalist and best-selling author of the novel "Bonfire of the Vanities."
Thomas Wolfe Society President Ben Jones presented Wolfe with the first annual Thomas Wolfe Prize, which accompanies the lecture. Wolfe's speech, "Look Homeward, Wolfe," focused on the legacy of Thomas Wolfe in the canon of American literature.
"The 1920s happened to be the great era of the American naturalistic novel," he said, citing Thomas Wolfe as one of the great writers of the period, along with William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. "He became notorious for the fact that he could not depart from fact."
In addition to praising his lyrical novels, Wolfe spoke on Thomas Wolfe, the man.
"Wolfe was 15 years old when he first came to Carolina," he said. "He was not baffled by the hurly-burly of campus life for one second. It was really quite amazing. He was the sort of person that was absolutely sure he was a genius."
Wolfe also lamented the absence of literature in contemporary mainstream American culture, attributing its decline to the rise of competing literary movements.
"During the heyday of the American novel, students were inveterate moviegoers, too," he said. "But (they) were also following something more exciting - they were following Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck.
"I think (the novel as an art form) is in bad shape. It's not dying of obsolescence, but it is dying of anorexia. We need young novelists with the voracious hunger for American life."
Wolfe spoke personally to some potential young novelists earlier in his visit. As the 2000 Morgan Writer-in-Residence, Wolfe held a question-and-answer session for creative writing students Tuesday morning. The event took place in the chambers of the Dialectic Society, a UNC literary and debate society of which Thomas Wolfe was a member from 1916 to 1920.
"The biggest problem in creative writing is content," Wolfe told students. "`What am I going to write about?' The typical response is, `Write about what you know.'"
But he urged students not to interpret that advice too narrowly. Instead, he encouraged them to follow the example of writers like Stephen Crane, who wrote "The Red Badge of Courage" after conducting extensive interviews with veterans.
"Young writers can go outside of their own lives, find out amazing things and turn them into compelling fiction," Wolfe said.
He attributed his own success to "the conviction that I was right - my approach was the right one. That's a good conviction to have, whether you are right or wrong."
Since the 1960s, Tom Wolfe has led a movement known as the new journalism, a literary portrayal of highly factual subject matter with works like "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and "The Right Stuff."
His novels, 1987's "Bonfire" and 1998's "A Man in Full," both of which share a large scope and intense realism with the novels of Thomas Wolfe, were enthusiastically received by the public and critics. His newest work, an anthology of fiction and nonfiction titled "Hooking Up," will be available later this month.
With the reputation earned by these and other works, Tom Wolfe encountered admirers on a simple walk across Polk Place.
"I find it immensely flattering," he said, pausing to sign an admissions application for a high school senior on a campus tour. "It's such a compliment for someone to ask you for an autograph. I really can't understand people who bridle at the idea."
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