A campus memorial to Thomas Wolfe ’20 was dedicated Tuesday, honoring Carolina’s most celebrated literary alumnus on what would have been his 106th birthday.
The memorial, moved last spring to a new location, is an 850-pound bas-relief bronze sculpture of an angel, which references Wolfe’s most famous work, Look Homeward, Angel.
The new site, between Greenlaw and Murphey halls, includes landscaping, a brick patio and four benches where students and others may read and converse.
Chancellor James Moeser and Professor Joseph Flora, a noted Wolfe scholar, spoke at the afternoon ceremony at the site. Thomas Wolfe Scholars in creative writing read from Wolfe’s work, and a reception followed in Greenlaw, home to the English and comparative literature department.
The sculpture was a gift to the University from its class of 1966 and previously was largely obscured by greenery in an alcove near New East and Howell. The new site is a well-traveled location near the Pit and Lenoir Hall.
The angel now is mounted on a large new brick frame and faces north, toward the patio and benches. Its wing is inscribed with a noted phrase from the novel, “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” The south side of the brick tableau, facing Greenlaw, bears another Angel passage.
“A home decorator knows that a picture takes the right frame, and it makes a huge difference,” said Flora, Atlanta professor of Southern culture in the English and comparative literature department and a past president of the international Thomas Wolfe Society (1995-97). “The memorial needed the right frame.”
Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929, fictionalizes the author’s childhood in Asheville and years at Carolina. His first book, it led critics to call him the country’s most promising young novelist.
From Chapel Hill, Wolfe went to Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree in English and studied playwriting. He taught briefly at New York University before starting to write full time.
The sculpture was the brainchild of Armistead Maupin ’66, now a celebrated fiction writer who was vice president of UNC’s class of 1966. Richard Kinnaird of Chapel Hill, now a professor of art emeritus, created a mold for the bronze relief; a Richmond, Va., foundry made the angel.
It was unveiled on the south side of Person Hall during Commencement weekend in 1969, at the intermission of a band concert. In 1972, the building and grounds committee had the angel moved to New East.
Flora thinks Wolfe would like the new location. Greenlaw is named for Edwin Greenlaw, the UNC English professor who most influenced Wolfe. And in 1937, Wolfe spoke in Murphey, talking with students about writing and literature.
The plan for the sculpture’s new home was spearheaded by the Thomas Wolfe Society, with financial support from 1950 graduate Ben Jones III ’50 of Hendersonville and Naples, Fla., and many others including Flora. Flora praised Moeser and former Provost Robert Shelton for supporting the effort.
Major donors, whose names are inscribed on the benches, are Dr. Frank C. Wilson, Kenan professor of orthopedics at UNC and Thomas Wolfe Society president from 1997 to 1999; society members William and Nancy Poole of London, Ontario, who knew Wolfe’s mother, Julia; and James H. Noyes Jr. ’61 of Pinehurst, a retired businessman. Asheville lawyer J. Todd Bailey also contributed to name the first bench in Flora’s honor.
Chapel Hill landscape architect David Swanson designed the site. UNC staff members coordinating the effort included project manager Ted Hoskins of the facilities services division; and Jill Coleman, landscape architect, and Paul Kapp, historic preservation manager, of the facilities planning and construction division.
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