The Last Disciple.
We had spent the day sightseeing and pulled into the parking lot just in time to catch the last tour of the day. The stars must have been aligned, for our timing was perfect. The previous day we had toured the Biltmore Estate, so coming to the Old Kentucky Home was a bit of a reality check. I could relate to life in the boardinghouse a lot more easily than I could relate to the opulence of Biltmore. It was good to be back on planet Earth after a day in Fantasyland.
Each room came alive as our guide quoted excerpts from Look Homeward, Angel. It was more than a building. It was a living, breathing organism. We could feel the events happening as our guide described them. To actually see the bed in which Ben died! To see the cubbyhole where Tom often ate his meals and the various rooms where he was forced to play musical beds just to find a place to sleep brought it all to life.
Our guide mentioned that he had written several books about Wolfe. I tried to sneak a peek at his name tag, but all it said was "Wolfe Memorial Staff." Not much help there, so I gathered my nerve and asked his name. This was a really bold step for me and totally out of character, but I am so glad I asked. How could I read his books if I didn't even know his name? Our guide said his name was Ted Mitchell. He later said that this was his second day back on the job after a five-year sabbatical. That explained the nameless name tag.
John Borsden, Charlotte Observer travel editor, described Ted in an October 2006 article about Asheville:
Weekend guide Ted Mitchell is just the guy who could get you reading Wolfe's dense and personal prose. He's a Wolfe expert in his own right, an active researcher who knows the people Wolfe knew well.... on a Mitchell-led tour, you get a riveting, real-life soap opera a la "Peyton Place." (qtd. in Bailey 183)
I did not know then how prophetic that statement was--about getting me to read Wolfe, not the Peyton Place part.
As soon as my New York friends left, my first stop was the library. I had always meant to read Look Homeward, Angel, but was always intimidated by its size. I had actually picked it up several times, but when I saw how huge it was and how small the print, I always put it back on the shelf. Well, not this time. I also found Ted Mitchell's book Thomas Wolfe: A Writer's Life, and I took that too.
I read A Writer's Life in one sitting. It took me a little longer to get through Look Homeward, Angel, about nine days. I constantly referred to A Writer's Life as I went, to sort out who was who. All the names had been changed to protect the guilty.
I no sooner finished Look Homeward, Angel, than I discovered O Lost. So just to make sure I didn't miss anything, I read that as well. It helped explain a lot. There is so much editing in Look Homeward, Angel that some people and events seem to come out of nowhere. There is more context in O Lost, so things make more sense, but as it is even longer, it took me two weeks to read. I was on a real quest now. I couldn't get enough Wolfe.
I just had to write to Ted Mitchell and thank him for inspiring me to finally read Look Homeward, Angel. I was almost glad I had waited so long. It was much more meaningful after taking the tour of the Memorial and learning about Wolfe. I didn't really expect Ted to write back, but he did and even shared my letter with Aldo Magi. I guess Ted recognized a potential Wolfe addict when he saw one. We were pen pals until his untimely death. In fact, Jan Hensley tells me I may have one of the last letters Ted ever wrote.
Ted was the most wonderful pen pal. He was so patient with all my stupid questions--and I had a LOT of stupid questions. I was afraid of becoming a pest, but he actually welcomed my questions. Of course he knew all the answers and was kind enough to share them with me. He was so generous. I looked forward to Ted's letters with the enthusiasm of a love-struck teenager. He was always prompt in answering, and it was such a rare treat to receive an actual handwritten letter.
Whenever I ran out of steam attempting to get though another of Wolfe's weighty tomes, I envisioned Ted on my shoulder, the good conscience, urging me on. Not that I needed much urging. I read most of Wolfe's major works in five months. I read Of Time and the River in eleven days and The Lost Boy in one sitting. I read A Writer's Life again. I got my own copy, so I could read it over and over. I still refer to it often.
Then I read The Web and the Rock in twelve days and From Death to Morning in five days. You Can't Go Home Again took me nine days, and then I read The Hills Beyond in seven days. The Good Child's River took me four days. The longest it ever took me to read a Wolfe book was two weeks for O Lost. Being a compulsive maniac helps a lot.
The more I read, the more I wanted to know about Wolfe. Ted recommended The Window of Memory by Richard S. Kennedy, so, of course, I read that too. Ted was my guide, my mentor in all things Wolfe. Luckily he left us with so many books of his own. Thomas Wolfe: An Illustrated Biography is an encyclopedia compared to A Writer's Life. But then Ted was a walking encyclopedia himself. Tragically, he had several more books he planned to write when we lost him. His book on the old Kentucky Home was near completion at his death, but unfortunately no one has been able to finish it.
He planned to expand his article "Thomas Wolfe's Angels" in the spring 1994 issue of The Thomas Wolfe Review into a book. He wrote that he already had a publisher interested and hoped for its 2008 publication. Another, titled Going Home Again, was planned for publication in 2009, but that was not to be.
In July 2006 Ted invited me to join the Thomas Wolfe Society. I was overwhelmed by his kindness but hardly felt entitled to become a member of such an august group. When I realized the only requirement was to be a Wolfe addict, I figured I was as qualified as anyone.
Then Ted invited me to give a talk at the 2007 Thomas Wolfe Festival on "How I Got Hooked on Wolfe." I was paralyzed at the prospect, but I certainly wasn't about to disappoint Ted. After several months of obsessing, I managed to deliver a presentation without completly embarrassing myself. I guess it wasn't too bad because Ted invited me back to give another talk at the next festival. But alas, that was the last Thomas Wolfe Festival.
I didn't learn of Ted's passing until I received a letter from the Thomas Wolfe Society dated 15 January 2009. What a shock! Too late to attend his memorial service the previous month--which I most assuredly would have attended, had I known. My own father had passed away on December 4th, two days before Ted, but my father was 97. Ted's father lived to be 99, so we certainly didn't expect to lose him at 59. What a loss! To the Wolfe world and to all who knew him. Happily he left behind a legacy of love and devotion that will never be matched.
Ted inscribed his book Antaeus, or A Memory of Earth to me as a "Very special friend." He inscribed Windows of the Heart to me as his "True and valued friend." In his 8 June 2007 letter he called me a treasured friend. I was so honored to be considered Ted's friend. I had always thought of myself as his disciple--the last disciple, as it turned out.
When I received a copy of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial's newsletter, The Ledger, inviting me to sponsor a commemorative brick paver, I couldn't imagine which Wolfe quote to have engraved on it. Ted was the obvious go-to man for the job, but, alas, that was no longer an option. So The Ledger's invitation remained on my desk, unanswered. Then when the next issue arrived, I went through the same turmoil. I was about to ask Deb Borland for suggestions when I had a brainstorm: I would dedicate a brick to Ted. And so I did:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF TED MITCHELL
Perfect! I am so excited to pay tribute to my mentor, while supporting the Thomas Wolfe Memorial at the same time.
Ted Mitchell came into this world on 19 July 1949, the very day the Old Kentucky Home was opened to the public. Coincidence? Or fate? I choose the latter. There will never be another Ted Mitchell. I feel his loss daily. But the least I can do in his honor is carry the torch forward and continue to spread the literary gospel of Thomas Wolfe.
Bailey, J. Todd. "Notes." The Thomas Wolfe Review, vol. 30, no. 1-2, pp. 162-97.
Margie Kashdin was a math major in college and earned a degree from Penn State. She was a computer programmer in a previous life. In 2000 she moved from New York to North Carolina with eighteen animals in tow--all rescues. She is now down to nine furry and feathered roommates. She dedicates this article to the memory of Ted Mitchell.
Caption: Ted Mitchell in Asheville, May 2007, with a just-off-the-press copy of his book Windows of the Heart: The Correspondence of Thomas Wolfe and Margaret Roberts (University of South Carolina Press). Photograph by Jan G. Hensley.
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|Title Annotation:||Ted Mitchell|
|Publication:||Thomas Wolfe Review|
|Article Type:||In memoriam|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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