This past week, my wife Liz and I took advantage of her school’s fall break to make a brief trip to Asheville, N.C.
If you haven’t been there, you should go. It’s a terrific, artsy little city nestled among the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.
We’d been through Asheville, but there were a couple of sights I hadn’t seen: the Biltmore estate and writer Thomas Wolfe’s homeplace.
Liz had seen both landmarks before we knew each other. She was game to go again.
Built between 1889 and the mid-1890s by George Vanderbilt, the Biltmore chateau remains the largest private house in the United States. Its 250-odd rooms cover more than 175,000 square feet.
Citing those massive dimensions doesn’t do the place justice. The mansion is incredibly ornate, with leather wallpaper and hand-carved woodwork and historic Flemish tapestries and paintings by masters such as John Singer Sargent. It’s nothing if not a monument to Gilded Age excess.
The amount of work Vanderbilt put into building the mansion and refining its surrounding grounds—125,000 acres—staggers the mind. Construction of the main house alone required 1,000 workers, including 60 stonemasons. Vanderbilt traveled abroad extensively, searching for furnishings.
Not far away, in downtown Asheville, sits the preserved boyhood home of Thomas Wolfe. Less than a century ago, he reigned among America’s great fiction writers.
The son of a stone carver and a boarding house owner, he entered the University of North Carolina at 15, graduated at 19, and then went to Harvard to study playwriting.
Before long, he’d turned from plays to novels and short stories. He was still in his 20s when he published “Look Homeward, Angel,” his first novel, an autobiographical work about an aspiring writer desperate to escape his stifling upbringing and discover a life of the mind.
It marked Wolfe as a genius, became a classic and influenced a generation of subsequent authors.
Liz and I had a delightful time at his home, which was also his mother’s boardinghouse. We lucked into a tour for which we happened to be the only two customers. Our guide, Tom, was a walking encyclopedia. He filled our heads with arcana about Wolfe, his family and his books, and patiently answered our questions.
But I came away from our trip thinking about the same thing I always come away from such trips thinking about. I guess it’s a glitch in my neural pathways.
I rode home to Kentucky thinking about Ecclesiastes.
“I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind,” wrote the Preacher long ago.
Vanderbilt worked years to design, erect and furnish the nation’s largest and most spectacular dwelling — and succeeded.
Then just a few years later he died suddenly, in 1914, at only 51, of complications from an appendectomy.
Wolfe’s story is sadder. On a sightseeing trip out West he contracted pneumonia. Eventually he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which already had invaded his brain. A massive manuscript that would become three posthumously published novels remained unfinished in his apartment. He died 18 days shy of his 38th birthday.
He’s still recognized as a fine writer, but no longer regarded as the giant he was considered decades ago.
I always come away from landmarks such as the Biltmore estate or the Wolfe house feeling a bit downcast.
Both Vanderbilt and Wolfe achieved mighty things. They turned their visions into reality and gave pleasure to many. Long after their deaths they’re remembered, which is more than most of us mortals will ever accomplish. They’re indeed to be praised.
Yet in the end they were only human. They appeared for a moment in the vast sweep of history, then like dead grass were swept away.
That’s a central theme of Ecclesiastes: no matter how great or small your ambitions or achievements, time invariably wins. You lose. All of it is vanity and striving after wind.
Yet, paradoxically that same message can be taken as good news. Ecclesiastes tells us that, too.
If very little of what we accomplish matters — we’re free, the Preacher says. The pressure is off. Just do the best you can. If you’re gifted and energetic, pursue great deeds.
If you don’t want to do that, or you don’t have great visions or sufficient resources, then simply go to work every day and find pleasure in the job you do have. Enjoy an excellent dinner and a tasty glass of wine. Spend time happily with your wife and kids.
In the end, it’s all the same, the Preacher says. Famous or obscure, successful or unsuccessful, you’ll return to the dust from whence you came. You soul will ascend. The world will go on.