Thomas Wolfe was born in 1900 and raised in Asheville, North Carolina. When he was twenty-nine, he published Look Homeward, Angel, his debut novel set in a fictional version of his hometown. The autobiographical work is about a young man who longs to leave the provincial mountain town of his youth and pursue the life of an intellectual. I was a college student living in Asheville the first time I read it in the mid-nineties. In the years that followed, I left the town many times—for graduate school in Louisiana, a teaching job in West Virginia—before making what I assumed would be a permanent move to the North Carolina coast in 2013. Wolfe spent his life trying to escape Asheville; I often feared I would spend mine trying to return.
It is no surprise that Wolfe and I have such conflicting feelings about the same city. The pre–World War I Asheville Wolfe wrote about in Angel was a place buoyed by investment and bouncing on the bubble of its citizens’ confidence, but that bubble had burst long before I discovered the city. Back then, when I was studying creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, the once-thriving downtown housed as many boarded-up businesses as open ones. A commercial district that had been gilded during the Golden Age was grounded in the grunge that defined the nineties music scene. Bars like Vincent’s Ear and coffee shops like Beanstreets catered to the well read and poorly dressed. Be Here Now and 31 Patton hosted bands like Jump, Little Children and Drivin N Cryin. Fueling the intellectual and cultural engine was a small independent bookstore—still in business today—called Malaprop’s. Asheville felt authentic, which is virtually the opposite of how it must have seemed to Wolfe in the early part of the century when outside investors built a city that catered to the wealthy elite.
And, of course, Asheville continues to change. Today, the bustling downtown’s eclectic range of shops and nationally renowned restaurants like Curate and Rhubarb have become tourist attractions that rival the Biltmore Estate. It seems Asheville has taken the gritty, local feel it perfected in the nineties and merged it with the elegance that defined the city in the twenties. The hippie who made your coffee in 1993 now owns high-end coffee shops. The brewery founded in the basement of a pizza joint in 1994 has led the city’s beer revolution, which lured national breweries like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium to town. The young writer slumped over Look Homeward, Angel in the back of Malaprop’s in 1996 is now penning New York Times bestselling novels. The little town that went from being the jewel of the Appalachian chain to serving as a symbol of economic misfortune has risen like a phoenix with all of hipsterdom seemingly strapped to its burning wings.
Last year, UNC Asheville invited me to return as writer-in-residence. I turned forty in September, and with two young daughters and a mortgage, I am a very different person than I was when I was hanging out at Vincent’s Ear and scouring the shelves at Malaprop’s a couple of decades ago.
A few days after our return, my wife and I found ourselves free for the afternoon while my sister spent time with our daughters. We drove downtown, and over coffee at Malaprop’s, we talked about what it felt like to return to Asheville after years away. When we got up to leave, I put on my new glasses—the first pair I have ever owned—and perused the fiction section until I found what I was looking for: a paperback copy of Look Homeward, Angel. As I put it back on the shelf, I wondered who would read it next and what city they would find inside and outside its pages.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last Ballad, A Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Asheville, North Carolina.