Look Homeward, Angel
Look Homeward, Angel
Look Homeward, AngelIntroduction
A thinly disguised autobiography and a portrait of the early twentieth-century American South, Look Homeward, Angel is the most famous book of an author who used to be regarded as an equal of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner. Published in New York in 1929, Thomas Wolfe's novel was considered striking and important—a work by a genius with a grand, compelling personality. It is a novel in the American romantic tradition, meant to contain Wolfe's own "American experience" as represented by his alter ego, Eugene Gant.
In the seventy-four years since it was published, the novel has received steadily less critical attention. Wolfe's initial editor, Maxwell Perkins, cut sixty thousand words from its original text to make it more readable, but many recent critics and readers continue to find Look Homeward, Angel a hugely sprawling text that is sometimes clearly bombastic. Some are also offended by what it says about race and gender. These elements have led to a decline in Wolfe's reputation and a reevaluation of his importance to the literary movement of his time.
Nevertheless, Wolfe's first novel remains very important to the twentieth-century American tradition, and Wolfe generally retains his contemporary reputation as a unique genius. The best critical approach to his work is one that understands it firmly within its time and place. It is a novel with a strong sense of autobiography, a Bildungsroman (novel of development), an attempt at a comprehensive display of life in the American South from 1900 to
1920, and a response to the modernist movement of American writers who were living and writing in Europe.
Born October 3, 1900, in Asheville, North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe was the youngest of eight children, two of whom died when they were very young. His father, William Oliver Wolfe, traveled around the northern United States, married twice without having children, and then moved to Asheville, where he married Julia Elizabeth West-all. When her youngest son was seven, Thomas's mother bought and moved into a boarding house called "The Old Kentucky Home." The children shuffled between the two homes, and Thomas became interested in the private school he attended at age eleven.
Wolfe entered the University of North Carolina when he was only fifteen. He eventually excelled there, and after he graduated he moved to Boston to complete a master of arts program at Harvard. By this time, he had begun writing plays and short stories, declaring in letters to his mother that he wanted to put "the American experience" on paper. Wolfe traveled to Europe several times, and on the ship back after one journey, he met Aline Bernstein, with whom he began a long relationship. Bernstein supported Wolfe while he worked on Look Homeward, Angel, which Scribner published in 1929 after making some significant cuts to the autobiographical novel.
Wolfe then set out on an ambitious project for a six-part novel series on American themes. Pressure from his publisher contributed to the hurried completion of his second novel, Of Time and the River, in 1935. Wolfe then postponed his large project and began work on a novel about another autobiographical hero, the innocent George Webber. In May 1938, Wolfe gave a draft of this novel to his new editor at Harper's and went on vacation. Days later, he was hospitalized in Seattle with a brain infection from pneumonia. He was taken to Baltimore, where he died after an unsuccessful operation on September 15, 1938.
By the time of this death, Wolfe had become a somewhat legendary American figure. Over six and a half feet tall, he was described as passionate and often moody, and he made a lasting impression on those that knew him. His editor published three posthumous novels out of his unfinished manuscript: The Web and the Rock, You Can't Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond, which describe George Webber's family history and adventures, including his love affair with Esther Jack (Aline Bernstein).
Look Homeward, Angel begins with the journey of Englishman Gilbert Gaunt to Pennsylvania; there he marries a Dutch woman. One of his sons, Oliver Gant (the name was changed upon Gilbert's immigration), becomes a stonecutter and travels through the South until settling with his first wife, Cynthia. After her death, Gant thinks he is dying of tuberculosis and travels west until he reaches the small mountain-valley town of Altamont.
Gant sets up a stonecutting shop and recovers from his restless illness when spring comes. He then meets Eliza Pentland, whom he marries. Then he builds a grand house. Oliver Gant and Eliza have nine children (six of whom survive). Gant begins to go on severe drinking binges, which Eliza vehemently tries to temper.
In 1900, when Gant turns fifty, the conflict between Gant and Eliza comes to a climax. Eliza tries sending him to sanitariums and forbidding saloon owners to serve him drinks, but this only infuriates Gant. One night, he comes home violently drunk. It takes two neighbors, a doctor, and Eliza's brother, Will, to help his daughter, Helen, calm him down. Eliza gives birth that night to her youngest son, Eugene. Gant begs forgiveness from her.
Even as a small child, Eugene thinks deeply about the isolation and loneliness in the world. When he is two, he wanders into his aristocratic neighbors' estate and is almost killed by a horse. His older brother Grover's death from typhoid saddens him deeply. This death causes Eliza to move home from St. Louis, where she was attempting the first of her moneymaking adventures.
Gant continues to grow further from his wife and closer to his daughter Helen. When he is fiftysix, Gant takes a "last great voyage" to California. When he finally returns, he continues his habits of building gigantic fires and making his family eat huge amounts of food.
Eugene discovers his love of books and begins his vibrant inner life at age six. He has several adventures playing with his friends from school (including racist pranks against Jews, African Americans, and poor whites), and once he is almost beaten by the principal for writing insults about him. Eugene's parents make him start a job selling the Saturday Evening Post, like his brothers Ben and Luke.
Before Eugene turns eight, Eliza takes him on her next big project—to purchase and run a boarding house called "Dixieland." Eugene still spends much of his time at Gant's house with Helen. But he has his first major crush at Dixieland, on a married woman who has an affair with Eugene's oldest brother, Steve.
Eugene grows up rapidly. One day he wins the composition contest the new principal, John Leonard, holds. Margaret Leonard convinces Eliza to send Eugene to their new private school. Mr. Leonard teaches the boys rudimentary Latin and his sister Amy teaches math and history. Mrs. Leonard (whom Eugene idealizes) teaches the boys English, a subject she is passionate about.
Eugene becomes closer with Ben and grows to hate Steve more. Luke and Ben hate Steve too. One night, after Steve has been yelling drunkenly at Eliza and has given Luke a bloody nose, Ben angrily beats him up. Helen tours the South singing but moves back to Altamont after her partner, Pearl, gets married. Luke does a lot of hustling and tries to pay his way through school, but he drops out and gets a factory job.
Gant sells Eliza his precious stone angel for a poor woman's grave. He takes Eugene to early movies and visits Dixieland more often, but he is "dying very slowly" of prostate cancer. Gant has a very brief affair with a Dixieland tenant and sexually harasses an African American cook but is rapidly and visibly decaying of old age.
Eugene gets a paper route through the African American section of town and grows wilder, harrying subscribers for payments. He nearly has sex with a mulatto (mixed race) prostitute, Ella Corpening. Eliza goes on a trip to Florida, while Eugene stays with the Leonards and continues reading a great deal of literature.
- Look Homeward, Angel was adapted as a three-act comedy/drama by Ketti Frings, first produced in New York at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1957. It was published by Scribner in 1958, won the Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted by Gary Geld and Peter Udell as the musical comedy Angel, performed on Broadway in 1978.
- John Chandler Griffin's Memories of Thomas Wolfe: A Pictorial Companion to "Look Homeward, Angel" (1996) is a very helpful companion piece to Wolfe's novel, both as a source of contextual information and as a way of bringing the events to life.
With the beginning of World War I, Eugene wants to join the navy and Ben tries to join the army, but neither actually does so. Eugene goes on a trip to Charleston, where he has a fling with an older girl named Louise. When he returns, he wins a medal for an essay on Shakespeare and acts in a pageant as Prince Hal (from Shakespeare's Henry IV cycle). After Helen gets married and moves away, Gant decides inflexibly to send Eugene (at only sixteen) to the state university.
Eugene's first year at university is "filled for him with loneliness, pain, and failure." Although he enjoys the education itself, other students mock him frequently. One of them, Jim Trivett, says he will make a man of Eugene and takes him to see a prostitute. When he goes home for Christmas, Eugene only feels better after he has admitted his exploits to Ben and Dr. McGuire.
After a slightly less painful second semester, Eugene goes home again and meets twenty-one-year-old Laura James at Dixieland. One night, after Eugene cuts his hand while trying to subdue his drunken father, she kisses him and he falls rapidly in love with her. They go on a picturesque walk through the mountains and make promises to never leave each other.
At the end of June, however, Laura leaves Altamont, telling Eugene she will be gone for a few days. But she never returns. She writes him a letter informing him that she will be married the next day, and Eugene goes through a savage despair—until Ben once again makes him feel better.
Back at college, Eugene becomes popular and joins a great deal of clubs. When he comes home again for Christmas, his family lets him try a drink for the first time. After he pours more secretly, he becomes extremely drunk. He wanders to town. After his friends bring him back, his family finds him drunk in bed. They all bemoan the curse of drink.
In the spring, Eugene goes on a trip to Virginia in search of Laura. He is still in love with her. When he gets there, he cannot bring himself to seek her out and instead squanders all of his money until he has no choice but to find a job. After working hard all summer, he sends Laura a bitter letter and returns to Altamont.
Eugene returns home from college in October because Ben is deathly ill with pneumonia. The family places the blame on Eliza, whose stinginess may have stopped Ben from getting the proper care, and they bicker with each other while they watch Ben die. When Ben can no longer order her away, Eliza holds his hand and watches Ben's last moments with Eugene.
Luke and Eugene have a burst of energy when Ben is dead, and Eliza tells them to make arrangements in town for an expensive funeral. Eugene breaks into ironic laughter when the undertaker, Horse Hines, is very proud of how he has made up the corpse. Eugene finds the funeral superficial and listens to Helen complain about wasting her life taking care of Gant (who is still alive, if barely). That night, Eugene visits Ben's grave, where he has an eerie discussion with Miss Pert, Ben's companion from Dixieland. Eliza had thrown her angrily from their house during Ben's illness, although Miss Pert was the only person who took care of Ben when he was becoming very sick.
Eugene has a busy and proud final semester at college. After a conversation with his favorite teacher about Harvard, he goes back to Altamont for the last time. Eliza has become completely obsessed with her real estate ventures, but Eugene's anger makes her agree to pay for a year at Harvard. Before Eugene leaves home forever, he visits the town square and sees Ben's ghost. They talk about why Eugene is leaving, and the experience becomes more mystical, with images of the past and of fantastical visions appearing all over the square. Then Ben disappears "without an answer," and Eugene prepares to leave.
Armstrong, a fat, "delicate" man, is Eugene's first school principal.
Hugh is Helen's husband, an eloquent salesman ten years older than she. Although he takes her to Sydney, where Gant lived during his first marriage, Hugh eventually moves back to Altamont, where Helen can once again take care of Gant. Hugh complains that Gant takes advantage of his closest daughter, but eventually he is silent in response to Helen's strong will.
Although this is unlikely to be her real name, "Miss Brown" is a tenant of Dixieland from the Midwest who sleeps with Eugene. Eugene does not have any money, so she accepts his medals from Leonard's school as payment.
Dr. J. H. Coker
Coker is the doctor who comes, too late, to deal with Ben's pneumonia. He is always smoking a cigar and is characterized by a profound weariness.
Ella is a poor mulatto resident from the African American section of Altamont. Eugene comes very close to losing his virginity to her when collecting for his paper route.
Guy is Eugene's roommate at the Leonard's school during Eliza's trip to Florida. He is one of the few northerners in the book and has "a sharp, bright, shallow mind, inflexibly dogmatic."
Ben is Eugene's closest brother, who dies of pneumonia at the end of the novel. He is a scowling and independent child not very close with anyone in the family except Eugene. His success at the newspaper office makes him money, with which he is generous, and he always disparages Eliza for being cheap. The family is devastated that Eliza's hesitation in spending the money for medical attention may have been responsible for Ben's death.
Although he wants to join the army, Ben is never allowed to because of his ill health, and this makes him more cynical and frustrated about the purpose of his life in Altamont. Ben is always making the comment, "Listen to this, will you," to an imaginary witness (an "angel") that understands the ridiculous situation he believes himself to be in. His closest companion is Miss Pert, who nurses him when he starts to become very sick.
Eugene feels so close to Ben partly because he is outside the dynamic of the family. Ben teaches his younger brother a great deal and always looks out for him despite masking this feeling in cynicism. He buys Eugene presents, gives him far more money than Eliza or Gant, and thinks in broader terms than most people in Altamont. He does not answer Eugene's tortured questions at the end of the novel, but his scowling honesty about the purpose of life is very important to how Eugene grows up.
Bessie is Gant's cousin, who grimly nurses Ben during his pneumonia.
A "timid, sensitive girl, looking like her name," Daisy is Eugene's oldest sister. Since she is much older than Eugene and gets married when he is still young, he never becomes very close to her.
Eliza Pentland Gant
Eugene's mother, Eliza, is a stubborn woman who manages her family through many difficult years. An extremely hard worker, able to organize the family's finances much better than her husband, Eliza is also characterized by her stinginess and property hoarding. She almost always pretends not to have very much money, and this is a constant source of regret and annoyance for her family. At the same time, this determination helps her drive herself and the family through years of conflict.
Her relationship with her husband is a huge battle, one that she eventually seems to win. Gant frequently launches tirades against her for having ruined his life and tied him down, but at certain points he becomes very tender towards her; for example, when he sells her his sacred stone angel. They often do not live together and cannot reconcile the profound antipathy of their natures, but they and the family have a lasting bond nonetheless.
Eugene has mixed feelings for his mother. He is repulsed by her stinginess, yet he feels very strongly drawn to her and ultimately finds it extremely difficult to leave her. Her youngest son is particularly important to her; they have an inexplicable bond, and through the novel she always insists that he live with her no matter where she moves. Eliza has very high expectations of Eugene that he means to fulfill, and ultimately she is the one to pay for all of his schooling.
Eugene is the protagonist of the novel, an autobiographical version of Wolfe himself. He is drawn as a very dramatic and self-conscious hero, a "dreamer," who changes drastically through the overview of his first twenty years. One of the main subjects of the novel is how Eugene is formed by his family and by Altamont in general, and what of the wide experience of growing up there he wants to take with him as an adult. For example, the conflict between Gant and Eliza also takes place within Eugene: how much to push forward rashly as a "lost" adventurer (like his father) and how much to dwell conservatively at home with his mother.
A lanky child with no athletic ability, Eugene's talent is in reading and writing literature. Margaret Leonard is so important to his development because she teaches him the classics of English literature and a love for writing that will presumably continue throughout his life. At college, Eugene is very awkward at first, which is why he is ridiculed. He eventually compensates for this lack of social grace with overconfidence in his intellect. He is sometimes babied within his family and is often treated as the "last hope" of success; Gant wants him to be a politician, and the others have less defined ideas of money and fame.
The development of Eugene's sexuality is a very important theme in the novel. He has no relationships with girls of his own age but many with older women, including prostitutes. His only feelings of love are directed towards Laura James and his mother, but Eugene feels betrayed and shameful when Laura leaves to get married, and it is clear she has deceived him. In general, he is only capable of becoming boundlessly romantic, as with Laura, or of detaching sex from emotion entirely, as with any of the older prostitutes.
Eugene has some friends, but his closest and most lasting relationships are with adults, including Ben, who is quite a bit older. He is a lonely child who goes out of his way to prove himself and maintain his pride. When Ben dies, Eugene reaches the height of being alone and no longer feels bound to Altamont.
Ben's twin, Grover is Eugene's "gentlest and saddest" brother. When he dies of typhoid at only twelve years old, Eliza moves back to Altamont from St. Louis, profoundly saddened.
Her father's daughter, Helen has an "insatiable" and tireless motherly impulse. She has always been close to Gant. She takes care of many men, especially Gant, but also her husband, Hugh, and her brothers, by taking complete control of the situation and babying them to the point of stifling them with food, comfort, and warmth. Often she erupts in anger when they seem to fall out of line—when Gant becomes recklessly drunk or Eugene displays "Pentland queerness"—but after she releases her anger, Helen goes back to her controlling motherly impulse.
Like her father, Helen is an alcoholic, but she does not admit this to herself and finds her alcohol in various, more dangerous, medicines and tonics. She goes on singing tours and toys with various men but ultimately marries a safe choice, a salesman ten years older named Hugh Barton. Hugh loves her deeply but eventually begins to feel jealous of Helen's consuming affection for her father. When the Bartons move back to Altamont, Helen complains more frequently of wasting her life away taking care of Gant, but she continues to do so through to the end of the novel. Helen competes with Eliza to be the true mother of Eugene and ultimately loses, although her youngest brother does find her to be a sort of "goddess" of the home.
Luke, closest to Eugene in age, is the town's favorite among the children. He is not a good student, but his social skills are excellent and he has a talent for selling and hustling in a variety of contexts. He has a stutter but still manages to order around younger boys and win the affection of older people. After dropping out of college and finding a successful job, Luke joins the navy and is stationed at different bases around the country. When Ben dies, Luke and Eugene take care of many of the arrangements.
Eugene characterizes his brother Steve as a heartless outcast from the family. Steve drops out of school at fourteen and travels around without a job, occasionally coming home, where he is grudgingly received, sometimes with fighting among the brothers. Gant has always hated his eldest son, and Eliza is the only one in the family who thinks he is a good person.
William Oliver Gant
Gant is the tall, grandiose, passionate father of the family. Known to everyone, even his wife, as "Mister Gant," Eugene's father is a somewhat mysterious figure as well as a constant and important presence throughout the novel, even when he is sickly with old age. Look Homeward, Angel follows his steady degeneration from a violent, powerful, intimidating man with an unquenchable thirst for adventure into a senile and ineffectual old man stricken with cancer and on the brink of death.
When Eugene is young, Gant is characterized as a master of loud rhetoric, often directed against his wife, who eats huge amounts and constantly creates mammoth fires. An often unreliable and brutal alcoholic, he epitomizes excess and limitless desire, and he provides a complete opposite to his overly frugal, property-hoarding wife. Gant loves his house, but he hates the idea of accumulating property and blames all of his problems on Eliza, in part because this is her obsession. He is much closer to his eldest daughter Helen, who eventually comes to resent him for requiring that she take care of her father all his long life.
Gant wants Eugene to become a senator or president, and he insists that Eugene go to college at only sixteen. He instills in his son a boundless desire for new experiences. Gant begins to get sick early in Eugene's life and gradually loses his energy (with occasional alcoholic releases) for opposing Eliza. By the time Eugene is ready to leave home, Gant has faded from the main thrust of the novel and the family is waiting for him to die.
Gant's father, Gilbert Gaunt, is an Englishman who comes to America before the Civil War begins. He marries a Pennsylvanian woman after immigration authorities change his name to "Gant."
Horse is a friend of the family and is the undertaker who dresses Ben for burial. He takes his craft very seriously, and the pride he takes in the "natural" job he has done on Ben's corpse makes Eugene laugh with "pity" and disgust.
Pearl is Helen's friend and singing companion. When Pearl gets married to a man from Jersey City whom she met during their travels, Helen moves back home.
Laura is Eugene's first love, whom he meets at Dixieland. She is not a pretty girl, and Eugene does not realize he loves her right away, but soon he falls for her subtlety and aristocratic charm. Although she says she meant all of the vows they made to each other, Laura had been engaged for a year before she met Eugene, and this sparks a great deal of resentment.
Eugene sees Laura as a paradox of virtue and deception. Although he writes her two letters and follows her to Virginia, Eugene never sees Laura after she returns home to get married. Nevertheless, Laura is the only woman with whom Eugene falls in love and is one of his only opportunities to avoid being, as he says, "alone."
Gant's large and muscular close friend, Jannadeau is the family's Swiss neighbor.
Lily is the owner of a brothel near Eugene's college, and he loses his virginity to her during his first year.
Sinker, an adventurous wartime worker, is Eugene's only friend and fellow money-waster during his adventure in Norfolk, Virginia.
Miss Amy Leonard
Miss Amy, John Leonard's sister, is a large, "powerful" woman who teaches mathematics and history.
John Dorsey Leonard
Leonard is a strong, somewhat dull but "honorable" man who runs Eugene's private school. Formerly the principal of the public school, he teaches athletics and Latin, but Eugene learns little from him as compared with what he learns from Leonard's wife.
Margaret is Eugene's frail teacher with a vast knowledge of literature that she teaches passionately. She is the one who chose him to be in the Leonards' school, and he feels very close to her even when he is regularly misbehaving. Eugene idealizes both Margaret and the literature she finds so important, and she thinks of him as a son.
Louise is Eugene's first romantic partner. A "plump" twenty-one-year-old waitress, she meets Eugene on a school trip to South Carolina when he is fifteen.
Miss Irene Mallard
An "elegant" woman "mixed of holiness and seduction," Miss Mallard teaches Eugene to dance. Like Miss Brown, except without any physical relationship, she is a tenant of Dixieland to whom Eugene turns after Laura James leaves.
A tenant of Dixieland whom Gant says is a Cherokee Indian, Mrs. Morgan receives the rare benefit of Eliza's generosity because she is struggling and pregnant.
Will, Eliza's entrepreneurial brother, represents the "insatiate love of property" that characterizes the Pentland family.
Nicknamed "Fatty," Miss Pert is Ben's closest companion, and he visits her room at night in Dixieland for many years. Although their relationship is obscure, it is clear that she was the only person to help Ben in the early and dangerous stages of his pneumonia. Eliza kicks her out of Dixieland while Ben is dying, and Ben's death leaves her somewhat incoherent. At the end of the novel, she meets Eugene by Ben's grave and tells him she is moving back with her granddaughter in Tennessee.
"Pap" is one of Eugene's closer friends from the Leonards' school. He has a kindly look and partakes in many of Eugene's wandering adventures through Altamont.
Mrs. Selborne is a married tenant of Dixieland who sleeps with Steve. She is also a friend of Helens and briefly a "living symbol of desire" for Eugene.
Jim is the student who lives near Eugene's college boarding house and takes him to a brothel. Resentful because Eugene will not write a paper for him, Jim says he will make a man out of the sixteen-yearold student and brings him to the prostitute Lily Jones.
An old philosopher who enjoys having Eugene in his class, Mr. Weldon is Eugene's most important teacher at college. He encourages Eugene to study further at Harvard.
See William Oliver Gant.
The American Experience
Wolfe is interested in portraying a representative American experience and an allegory of American youth in his novel. Although Wolfe is often associated with expatriate American writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and made several long trips to Europe while he was writing Look Homeward, Angel, the author saw himself within the American tradition. Wolfe would not have deemed his writings "modernist" in the international sense of the term. He is better classified as an American romantic.
Topics For Further Study
- Thomas Wolfe was a legendary figure in his time. Read some primary source historical material to examine how his contemporaries viewed him. For example, read The Journey Down by Aline Bernstein, which remembers their passionate relationship from her point of view. How do you think Wolfe's personality affected his reputation?
- What do you think Look Homeward, Angel says about race relations? Did the novel's treatment of African Americans offend you? What do other critics say about Wolfe's racial views? Do some reading about the African American experience in early twentieth-century North Carolina and discuss how accurately the novel portrays these circumstances.
- One of Wolfe's intentions in writing his first novel was to create a new tradition of southern literature. Did he succeed? Read some other books classified as "literature of the South," such as William Faulkner's novels. What kind of tradition do these books follow? Do you think recent books by Toni Morrison, such as Beloved, follow Wolfe's idea of a southern tradition?
- Wolfe was obsessed with the idea of "the American experience." What would Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau say about this idea? Read some of their writings to find out. Compare and contrast Wolfe and these American romanticists to a current writer like Phillip Roth and his version of the American experience in his novel American Pastoral.
This is not to say that Wolfe's first novel is not innovative or daring; indeed, no one would publish it except Charles Scribner's Sons (a firm famous for publishing innovative modernist works). Even though Wolfe worked within the American tradition and was compared to writers such as Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, he was attempting to establish a new form of American romantic writing in a modern context.
Much of Look Homeward, Angel is frankly sexual in nature, and much of it relies on a concept of a stark break with the past to achieve a radical new understanding of the truth of the world. These concepts would be associated with modernism. Simultaneously, however, the aching desire to return home and to elaborately establish a vision of the traditional South are common romantic themes. There are also naturalist tendencies in certain long and seemingly disjointed passages about life in Altamont. Wolfe and his contemporaries would have understood him as using characteristics of the new style to develop a traditional American form.
This German term for "novel of development" is popular among critics, such as Richard S. Kennedy, in describing the form of Look Homeward, Angel. The opposing forces of adventurous departure and conservative return to the home, represented by Gant and Eliza, the northern man and the southern woman, reveal the struggle in Eugene's growing process. Indeed, the theme of growth is important not only to Eugene's character; it serves as a metaphor for the "American experience" discussed above. Wolfe is interested in the ways America develops through the first decades of the twentieth century, and his novel details the rise to maturity of the South in particular.
Born in 1900, Eugene is an appropriate symbol for the infancy of the South in a new century. Wolfe spends a considerable amount of time discussing old southern values, including racial superiority, Confederate patriotism, and landowning. In the novel, these ideas develop and change based upon Eugene's understanding of them, and their compatibility with such drastic political events as World War I. After Ben dies, Eugene finds that he must leave, although not without a certain affection, and go to the North. Wolfe seems interested, as displayed in his long passages about the way southern life is changing, in bringing the South itself along on this journey of modernization while still retaining a certain amount of tradition. A break is ultimately necessary, however, as the division grows sharper and Eugene can no longer idealize his home.
Although Eugene needs to break away from his home in order to develop into an adult, Wolfe does not make it clear that a break from southern values is the single key to successful maturation. The idea of development in the novel also requires an understanding of and even a longing for the past. While Eugene seems to have reached a certain kind of maturity when he is ready to depart for the North, he is perhaps not so far away from the romantic tradition of the southern experience and the "look homeward" of the title.
Wolfe's style has often been called "romantic," both because of the emotional extremes of its sprawling style and because of the American tradition it is not entirely outside. American writers like Walt Whitman, who among other achievements captured a broad sense of American life, were very influential over Wolfe's authorial intentions. Wolfe frequently wrote that he loved America and wished to represent its "grandness"; part of this process in Look Homeward, Angel consisted of melding traditional American and modern European techniques, similar to his melding some of their important themes (discussed above).
This results in a unique and varied style. Often Wolfe goes on at great length in what seems to be a "stream of consciousness" style, something present in modernist writers such as James Joyce, and sometimes he exhibits some of the frankness about sexuality that is common in modernist style. But his work simultaneously reads like a southern epic, with involved natural description and even invocations of dramatic verse such as the "O Lost" refrain. These styles sometimes conflict, and in particularly melodramatic passages such as a description of Helen and Gant preparing food, for example, are unrestrainedly romantic. This allows Wolfe a certain dexterity in describing certain events by the technique he finds most suitable; and it suggests what Wolfe would have liked to create: a new stylistic tradition in southern writing that melds old and new methods.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, America was rapidly developing into a modernized country with a consumer economy. Southern towns, like their northern counterparts, were quickly expanding, and new jobs and industries were resulting from the continued growth of the leisure class. A resort town such as Asheville, North Carolina (the double for Wolfe's Altamont), was a popular site for investment during these years. Successful careers in real estate and property management were not uncommon during this time of expansion.
World War I was a key drive to American production. America's entry into the war in 1917 marked the beginning of an unprecedented period of production and economic prosperity. The Roaring Twenties continued until the massive stock market crash of 1929. Meanwhile, in the North, a cultural upheaval had been occurring since the war; "flappers" challenged the domestic constraints of women, while jazz and modernist literature were drastically changing artistic tradition.
In general, the South was much slower to adopt these new ideas. Race relations were extremely poor; lynching remained a frequent occurrence from 1900 well through the publishing of Look Homeward, Angel, and discrimination was overt and debilitating throughout the South. Although the long Reconstruction period after the Civil War had finished by the turn of the century, southerners retained their traditional values well into the twentieth century.
American writers, such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, frequently traveled to Europe in the 1920s, where they joined an expatriate literary movement known as modernism. Characterized by its rejection of the previous generation's value system and its experimentation in form, modernism was the cutting-edge style of the era. Modernism is generally considered to have begun around the beginning of World War I in 1914, because of the connotation of a rupture from the past that the Great War signified; but Americans came somewhat later upon the scene.
Wolfe lived in Europe for some time during the writing of Look Homeward, Angel, and he certainly employed some modernist ideas. But his interest in the American tradition of romanticism lay outside the mainstream goals of his contemporaries. Other American authors diverted from the course of modernism, but most either continued in the naturalist tradition of Edith Wharton or experimented in new forms entirely. Wolfe was somewhat unique in his desire to form a neo-romantic tradition.
Compare & Contrast
- 1900–1920: The infant mortality rate in the United States is 140 per 1,000 live births.
Today: Infant mortality has shrunk dramatically to below 8 per 1,000 live births.
- 1900–1920: The races in the American South are notoriously unequal. Segregation and discrimination are widespread, and most blacks live in poverty. During these two decades, there are 1,413 recorded lynchings of African American males, compared with 156 of whites.
Today: All races are equal under the law. There is increasing effort made to address economic inequities among African Americans and other non-whites in the South, and segregation is generally unacceptable.
- 1900–1920: Real estate and investment is becoming very popular among those who can afford it, given the rapid expansion of American cities.
Today: Buying property and real estate has once again become a popular way to get rich. Investment has taken on many new forms, and it is not so clear that the economy is expanding at any given moment, but developers and investors continue to try to exploit the market.
Although it sparked some resentment in Asheville, North Carolina, Look Homeward, Angel received a considerable amount of praise in the both the North and the South when it was published in 1929. As
John Earl Bassett writes in his essay "The Critical Reception of Look Homeward, Angel": "Four favorable articles in important New York newspapers were instrumental to the success that Look Homeward, Angel did have."
Some critics, most notably Bernard DeVoto in his 1936 article from the Saturday Review, argued that Wolfe has a tendency towards "bombast, and apocalyptic delirium." This group tends to disparage "romantic" American novels generally. But even DeVoto writes that parts of Look Homeward, Angel show "intuition, understanding, and ecstasy, and an ability to realize all three in character and scene, whose equal it would have been hard to point out anywhere in the fiction of the time." In 1951, William Faulkner rated Wolfe the highest (the only person above himself) among contemporary American writers.
Look Homeward, Angel remains Wolfe's most popular and respected work, but it has gone through a significant decrease in critical attention. This is partly due to the novel's views on race and gender and partly due to what John Hagan calls "the still prevailing notion that Wolfe's first novel, though undeniably powerful in some respects, is mere 'formless autobiography,' the product of a naïf who had no 'ideas' and only a rudimentary technique."
The majority of criticism on Wolfe is strongly biographical; John Lane Idol Jr. writes in A Thomas Wolfe Companion that the "tallest heap would be labelled 'The Life and Legend of Thomas Wolfe,' since it focuses on his reputation as a kind of American giant." Idol suggests that many critics are interested in psychoanalytical reading of Wolfe's works because his novels are only understood after "seeing him in his time and place." Critics such as Richard S. Kennedy, on the other hand, are interested in how Wolfe's life and its relation to art represent the early twentieth-century American experience.
Trudell is a freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In this essay, Trudell discusses the sexual and racial symbolism in Wolfe's novel.
Throughout Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene displays a somewhat worried attitude toward sexuality. Whether it is the feeling that his loins are "black with vermin" after the frequent visits to Lily Jones's brothel or the deception by Laura James that undermines his extreme passion, Eugene has almost uniformly unhealthy relationships with women. His romance with Louise, the first of his many brief affairs with older women, marks the beginning of a tendency either to unrealistically idealize women or to degrade them, and this habit continues through Eugene's dramatic break from his mother at the end of the novel.
A psychoanalytical reading of Look Homeward, Angel would partially account for this tendency by revealing Eugene's massive and unresolved Oedipal complex. Wolfe, who practiced some dream therapy himself and was certainly aware of the pervasive influence of Freudian theory at the time, seems to acknowledge this quite explicitly in passages such as, "every step of that terrible voyage which his incredible memory and intuition took back to the dwelling of her womb." Freud wrote that degradation of sexual partners was a common by-product of an unresolved Oedipal complex, and he would have seen Eugene as a classic case. The feeling of "incestuous pollution" with Miss Brown is perhaps the clearest example of Eugene's attempting to live out the incest taboo in a different context, and in a more general way, this may account for the vast age differences in all of Eugene's affairs.
Wolfe develops this idea in a variety of contexts. The relationship of Helen and Gant, also clearly Freudian, arouses an outwardly jealous battle between mother and daughter that ultimately results in Eliza's firmer hold on Eugene. And Wolfe connects Eliza's bond with her youngest son inextricably with his other relationships. Eliza is actively jealous of Laura James and Miss Brown in particular; Eugene must confront his mother and kiss her four times before he can finally sneak away to sleep next to Laura for the first time.
Indeed, it is clear that Wolfe is conscious of the Oedipal complex and that he uses it for much of his most important romantic symbolism. The refrain itself, "O Lost," employs the "exile" from the "dark womb" as a metaphor for the human experience, and it is clear that this is a fundamentally important image for Wolfe when he connects it to his grandest and most universal themes: "our earliest ancestors had crawled out of the primeval slime; and then, no doubt, finding the change unpleasant, crawled back in again." Wolfe seems to be developing an idea of the womb as an ambiguous mix of messy slime and uncorrupted perfection, in line with the Freudian concept that the incest taboo is often merged with idealized romantic desire.
Wolfe is very interested in the interdependency between universal and local themes, and, as C. Hugh Holman writes in his essay "'The Dark, Ruined Helen of His Blood': Thomas Wolfe and the South": "this universal experience was for him closely tied up with the national, the American experience." Since these political and symbolic areas are so connected for Wolfe, it is not surprising that personal or even Oedipal connections are so frequently tied to political ideas; this is why Gant represents the North, and Eliza is a fixed symbol of the American South.
This basic association has some interesting consequences. Underneath Eugene's surface conflict—that he must eventually tear himself away from the South (his mother) he loves and wander to the firm intellectual land of the North—there is a complex web of desire. For example, Eliza's obsession with property represents a variety of ideals for her son. Although Eugene finds his mother stingy and petty, and the Pentland family seems to be more of a lowborn "clan" than an established or elitist family, Eliza's obsession with hoarding property is nevertheless connected to Wolfe's notion of the majestic, traditional, southern aristocracy.
It is no coincidence that the name of Wolfe's hero means "well born"; the fantastical and romantic vision of the book seeks to ascribe the traditional superior values of the upper class to Eugene's character while he leaves his home. It turns out to be difficult or impossible for Eugene to retain these values; he seemingly must reject the South altogether by the time he leaves Ben's ghost. But the desire and the idealization of establishment and property remain; indeed, the best example comes from the allegorical story of the Hilliards' estate during Eugene's infancy. While attempting to move towards the aristocratic house which is "crudely and symbolically above him," Eugene is punished with "the mark of the centaur"; Wolfe is clearly implying some nobility of nature in Eugene that is suppressed by circumstance.
In this example, the aristocratic ends happen to be thwarted by a "slovenly negress" and a "Goddamned black scoundrel," two African Americans whose laziness and dirtiness seem to place them at blame for the situation. Since the episode is so highly allegorical, it seems quite unlikely that this is a coincidence. Poor whites and African Americans seem to curse Eliza and her son's search for established wealth. A quick search through the text finds a number of supporting examples; the poor, unreliable African American section of town makes Eugene's paper-collecting route notoriously difficult, prostitutes and degenerates make Dixieland an extremely difficult place to run, and Eliza is constantly having problems with the African American girls who work at Dixieland—eventually none of them will work for her because she is so cruel. Indeed, Eugene's subverted desire for aristocratic privilege sullied because of the "inferior" classes.
Returning, then, to the theme of subverted sexual desire towards the Oedipal symbol for the South, it begins to become clear how exactly this works out in a political and social allegory. The aristocratic, traditional South, represented by Eugene's mother, is continually in danger of sexual, economic, and social degradation. Wolfe finds a suitable allegory here because, by its very definition, the desire for the mother is an incestuous, unclean taboo. Eugene cannot possess his mother, or the South, in its pure form, so he finds a series of older women (reminiscent of his mother) whom he must degrade, according to Freud's formula, in order to have them as sexual partners.
In the process of this symbolism, however, Wolfe continually returns to his most convenient and overt symbol of sexual impurity and incestuous danger. African Americans are associated in Look Homeward, Angel not only with laziness and dirtiness; they are characterized as a disease of poverty and incest that endangers the pure white race. When Eugene rides on his paper route, "past all the illicit loves, the casual and innumerable adulteries of Niggertown," he is depicted as a romantic hero on the brink of an abyss of despair, gathering money from a black menace in service to an idealized white paradise. The novel is extremely invested in developing this idea of an incestuous and forbidden threat to the pure South and the white mother. Wolfe is not casually racist, or racist as a product of his time and place; the allegory of his first book actively advocates an urgent program of racial superiority.
Eugene's encounter with Ella Corpening, whose name resembles the Latin word for "body" (corpus), is perhaps the best example of the base physical and sexual threat that African Americans pose to Wolfe's idea of white purity. Seemingly a prostitute of sorts, whose moaning makes her appear completely crazy, Ella seems to inspire a desire in Eugene that he sees as forbidden and evil to a romantic extreme. But what is particularly significant about Ella is her "mulatto," or mixed African and Caucasian, blood. It is precisely this (to Wolfe) deceptive mix of purity and impurity that constitutes the allegorical danger in the situation. Wolfe is careful to highlight "the rapid wail of sinners in a church" after this near brush with racial mixing that, in the allegorical logic of the novel, is even more dangerous than the consummated encounters with poor white prostitutes.
The dense web of Eugene's submerged desire for the South seems to be rejected by the end of Look Homeward, Angel. Eugene breaks with his mother in an episode of emergence from the Oedipal complex and moves north, and Wolfe seems to abandon the type of racist allegory described above. But a deep longing remains for the values of the South, including racial superiority and purity from incestuous or "slovenly" sexual ideas represented by African American women. The title itself commands the pure white, "lost" soul to look homeward, back towards a mythical purity in constant threat of what Wolfe represents as pollution by racially mixed sexual desire.
Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on Look Homeward, Angel, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.
Nancy Carol Joyner
In the following essay, Joyner discusses the popularity and merits of Look Homeward, Angel.
"Genius is Not Enough," the catchy title of Bernard De Voto's negative review of Thomas Wolfe's essay The Story of a Novel, was not written of Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. Ever since the publication of Wolfe's first and unarguably best novel, it has been a target for critical attack and encomium. But the severest attacks Wolfe suffered were in reaction to his subsequent work. If Wolfe had never written anything else, Look Homeward, Angel would have more stature today. It has been dismissed as a "novel of youth," attractive only to teenagers; it has been excoriated as formless, verbose, shallow, and altogether too personal. While there is some truth in all of those accusations, the novel stands as a unique, perdurable monument of American literature. Richard Walser has called it "the most lyric novel ever written by an American," while Wolfe's principal British champion, Pamela Hansford Johnson, finds it the most "clear-sighted" of his novels, portraying his world "with an objectivity altogether remarkable." These traits of lyricism and realism, along with a Joycean complexity and exuberant good humor, are the most compelling qualities of the work.
An unabashedly autobiographical Bildungsroman, the book recounts the inner and outer life of the first twenty years (1900–20), of Eugene Gant. Eugene is the youngest of seven children of W. O. and Eliza Gant, a couple who live in the mountain village of Altamont. W. O., a Pennsylvanian with a penchant for rhetoric, alcohol, and prostitutes, owns a stonecutter's shop; his wife is a native of the area with a well-developed head for business and an interest in real estate. After a brief stint in 1904 in St. Louis, where one of her twins dies, she opens a boarding house in Altamont named Dixieland. The precocious Eugene starts school, aged five, against his mother's wishes. He spends his high school years in a private academy and at 15 enrolls in the university at Pulpit Hill. On his first summer vacation he has a brief romance with Laura James, a boarder at Dixieland. During the next summer he works as a laborer in Norfolk and that fall his favorite brother, Ben, dies of influenza. He graduates from college and leaves Altamont to study in the north.
All of the events of the preceding paragraph are exactly parallel to Thomas Wolfe's life. Only the names of the living characters and some place names have been changed. Altamont is the fictitious name for Asheville, North Carolina; Pulpit Hill is Chapel Hill. Floyd C. Watkins, after identifying 250 or 300 names of characters and places in Thomas Wolfe's Characters, maintains that there is not a single entirely fictional character or incident in the novel.
Anticipating negative reactions from the easily identifiable characters he portrays, Wolfe explains in a prefatory note that "all serious work in fiction is autobiographical" and that "he meditated no man's portrait here." Many of his readers did not accept that disclaimer, however, and were enraged when the book appeared (coincidentally in the same month as the stock market crash). That reaction is incorporated into his later work in two ways: fictionally in You Can't Go Home Again and factually in The Story of a Novel.
In The Story of a Novel Wolfe observed that "the quality of my memory is characterized … in a more than ordinary degree by the intensity of its sense impressions, its power to evoke and bring back the odors, sounds, colors, shapes, and feel of things with concrete vividness." Wolfe's special talent, then, is not a reportorial one but one which exercises almost total recall of sensory images. It is important to remember that he produced the bulk of his enormous manuscript, originally 350,000 words, while he was living in London during 1926–28. That he was far removed in space and time from the events he describes makes the sense of immediacy in his writing all the more impressive.
In spite of charges of formlessness, Look Homeward, Angel is carefully constructed. It attains unity and shape through the focus on Eugene, the chronological sequence of events, the preservation of the theme of the search for identity, and the balance, in Chapters 5 and 35, of the death scenes of the twins.
The tombstone in the form of an angel is a significant unifying device. "An angel poised upon cold phthisic feet, with a smile of soft stone idiocy" is first mentioned on the second page of the novel. It is the focus of Chapter 19, "The Angel on the Porch," an excellent vignette published in slightly different form in the August 1929 issue of Scribner's Magazine. A similar angel is present in the last scene of the book when Eugene has a conversation with his dead brother, Ben. As all symbols must, this one holds a multitude of meanings: death, remembrance, existence on a spiritual plane, W. O. Gant, and the stone-like quality of people in their inability to communicate with each other. When the original title of the novel, O Lost, was changed to the inspired borrowing from Milton's "Lycidas," the angel imagery was further strengthened.
Finally, one should not overlook the pervading humor of the novel. Bruce R. McElderry, Jr., in fact, has found it to be the funniest book in American literature since Huckleberry Finn. One manifestation of the humor may be seen in the comedic appeal of the characterizations—W. O.'s bombast, Luke's stuttering, Eliza's habit of pursing her lips and nodding her head. Another element of humor is found in the tone and timing. One instance involves the scene early on when the baby Eugene's face is stepped on by a dray-horse, Eugene having escaped from his yard into an adjoining alley and the driver of the encroaching wagon having fallen asleep. A physician is called: "'This looks worse than it is,' observed Dr. McGuire, laying the hero upon the lounge…. Nevertheless, it took two hours to bringhim round. Everyone spoke highly of the horse."
Look Homeward, Angel was published in the same year as William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. While it does not currently enjoy the prestige of those other landmarks of American letters, it has never been out of print and continues to attract popular and critical attention. If Wolfe's genius was not enough to sustain a universally acclaimed writing career, it was ample for the creation of a genuine literary achievement.
Source: Nancy Carol Joyner, "Look Homeward, Angel: Novel by Thomas Wolfe, 1929," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 4th ed., edited by Thomas Riggs, St. James Press, 2000, pp. 1015–16.
Hugh H. Ruppersburg
In the following essay, Ruppersburg examines narration in Look Homeward, Angel, concluding that it "is a first-person novel, narrated retrospectively by a narrator who clearly sympathizes and identifies with the young protagonist."
The authors of such semiautobiographical novels as Remembrance of Things Past and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man relied on narrative point of view to maintain a critical, objective distance from their text. Thomas Wolfe, another autobiographical novelist, did the same. Though often criticized for his apparently narcissistic inability to remain separate from his story, Wolfe used point of view in Look Homeward, Angel (1929) to exploit the experiences of his own life for artistic rather than merely egotistical purposes. As a significant component of narrative form and meaning, point of view in Wolfe's first novel thus merits careful examination.
Curiously, critical opinion on the subject has been sparse and divided. Expressing the traditional attitude, Richard S. Kennedy describes the novel's point of view as third person. C. Hugh Holman believes the narrator is "some unidentified person—not Eugene Gant (unless he is telling the story in the third person)." In contrast, Louis D. Rubin observes that readers "come to identify the authorial personality with that of Eugene when older, … recreating the events of his childhood in order to understand them." Joseph Millichap calls the narrator an "older and wiser" Eugene, while Carl Bredahl suggests that the narrator is Eugene metamorphosed from his old, cast-off self into an artist. Fortunately, this divergence in opinion can be resolved. The novel provides sufficient evidence to support a specific identification of the narrator and his role in the narrative process.
Look Homeward, Angel reflects many of the typical characteristics of third-person narrative. Physically uninvolved in the action, the presiding external narrator calls little attention to himself. Instead he focuses on Eugene, the Gants, and Altamont. Eschewing the indifference of most third-person narrators, however, he often seems so interested in telling the story that many readers identify him with Wolfe, widely known to have based the novel on events and people from his own life. Such an identification is incorrect. The narrator possesses an existence and personality distinct from the author's—so distinct that we can regard him as a "third person" only with difficulty. Gérard Genette argues that third-person narration is physically impossible to begin with. Every narrative is, he writes, "by definition, to all intents and purposes presented in the first person … The real question is whether or not the narrator can use the first person to designate one of his characters." Accordingly, Genette would regard Wolfe's novel as narrated by a physical being who speaks it aloud or writes it down—a "first-person" narrator. But is this theoretical being an actual character?
Concrete evidence in the published text and the "O Lost!" typescript reveals that he is a character, a first-person speaker, and an actual participant, of one sort or another, in the story he tells.
The strongest such evidence is the narrator's occasional habit of referring to himself with first-person pronouns. Singular and plural first-person pronouns occur throughout the book in literary allusions, stream-of-consciousness passages, and indirect discourse. The antecedents of these pronouns are usually clear. In at least five instances, however, the antecedent of the pronoun "I" proves to be none other than the narrator himself. These self-references occur on pp. 4, 29, 204, 223, and 522. In each case the narrator uses the "I" while explaining or qualifying something he has said. In Chapter 1, he interrupts an account of W. O. Gant's life in Baltimore by remarking: "—this is a longer tale. But I know that his cold and shallow eyes had darkened with the obscure and passionate hunger that had lived in a dead man's eyes, and that had led from Fenchurch Street past Philadelphia" (my emphasis). In Chapter 18, he describes the emotions of Eugene and his brothers after they have fought among themselves: "They were like men who, driving forward desperately at some mirage, turn, for a moment, to see their footprints stretching interminably away across the waste land of the desert; or I should say, they were like those who have been mad, and who will be mad again, but who see themselves for a moment quietly, sanely, at morning, looking with sad untroubled eyes into a mirror." A similar metaphor concludes the novel: "as [Eugene] stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say 'The town is near,' but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges." These self-conscious first-person references reveal the narrator's undeniable presence and establish his relationship to the narrative. They show that he knows a great deal, for with self-confident omniscience he relates the thoughts and feelings of the people he describes. More importantly, they show his desire to explain the events of the story according to his own knowledge of time and human nature.
The narrator also occasionally refers to himself with objective and possessive case pronouns, and with the first-person plurals "we," "us," and "our." The latter often simply indicate a narratorial we (like the royal we, or the narrator of many nineteenth-century British novels) which does not differ significantly from the five singular references. An example occurs as the narrator begins to discuss Eugene's infancy: "We would give willingly some more extended account of the world his life touched during the first few years" (my emphasis). Aside from indicating his presence, the narrator uses these plural pronouns to evoke in the reader a sense of kinship with the protagonist, whose experience becomes metaphorically representative of all human experience. He also uses them to confirm his own kinship to the reader, whom he groups with himself and the protagonist in the mutually inclusive category of the human race. The novel's proem introduces the kinship, which the opening paragraphs of the first chapter emphasize: "Each of us is all the sums he has not counted … The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung." The narrator further cements the relationship by habitually addressing the reader as "you." The plural "we" and pointed "you" literally compel the reader's identification with the narrative, Eugene, and the narrator. They invest the reader with a sense of participation in, and commitment to, events he is only reading about. They likewise denote the narrator's active presence in the novel.
A number of the narrator's self-references were evidently edited from the "O Lost!" typescript by Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins. According to Francis Skipp, Perkins deleted twenty-two cases of what he considered inappropriate "authorial comment" (which were really narratorial comment), a total of 442 lines. In a description of these cuts, Professor Skipp has identified at least four instances of the plural "we" (for example, "We believe, reader, we told you some time ago that Julia [Eliza] had begun to think of Dixieland") and one of the singular "I" ("But pardon, reader, I diverge"). In other deleted passages the narrator expresses his opinions (he calls "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" the "greatest romantic poem that has ever been written in the English language," for instance, and attributes the lynching of Negroes for rape to the hypocrisy of the "deacon retreating up the alley towards his black wench").
Similar expressions of opinion occur in the published novel. Despite them, the narrator generally assumes an objective attitude towards the story. His first-person singular references are rare; first-person plural pronouns usually occur only in the most lyrical passages. He also tends to distance himself from the main characters by focusing a semiomniscient viewpoint most often on Eugene, less frequently on such characters as W. O. and Eliza. Within these restrictive perspectives, the narrator speaks with insight and intimacy about the characters' feelings, thoughts, and reactions to the world. As a result, we come to believe that we know a great deal about Altamont, though we see it only through the eyes of a few inhabitants. Because of the contrast between the limited perspectives of characters and the narrator's more broadly encompassing view, the novel gives the impression of being related by an omniscient voice, when in fact it is told mainly through its characters.
The narrator is also distanced from his story by time. In several instances he notes what the protagonist will think or remember "years later." Commenting on Eugene's zealous loyalty to Southern tradition, he explains: "Years later, when he could no longer think of the barren spiritual wilderness… he still pretended the most fanatic devotion." When Eugene notices Margaret Leonard's deformed index finger, the narrator observes that "it was years before he [Eugene] knew that tuberculars sometimes have such fingers." Skipp cites three similar examples in the material cut from the "O Lost!" typescript. One even describes a trip which Eugene makes to Europe well after the time of the last chapter. Thus, the narrator tells the story retrospectively, and he remains acquainted with what Eugene thinks and does long after the novel's conclusion.
At times, however, the narrator abandons his objectivity and involves himself emotionally in the narrative. His separation from the protagonist then seems to vanish almost entirely. One such moment occurs at the end of Chapter 30, the climax of the Laura James episode. In a lyric eulogy to lost youth and love, the narrator exclaims, "Ghost, ghost, come back from that marriage that we did not foresee, return not into life, but into magic, where we have never died, into the enchanted wood, where we still lie, strewn on the grass" (my emphasis). The eulogy first appears to employ another example of the universalizing "we," inviting the reader to compare his own memories of lost youth and love with Eugene's. Repeated examination, however, suggests that the narrator has given this particular "we" a special ambiguity. Taken literally, the passage foreshadows Laura's revelation of her engagement. The narrator calls her marriage one "we did not foresee." His reference in this context to a specific event in the protagonist's life implies unmistakably that he is describing his own grieving memories of lost love. Indeed, circumstantial evidence suggests that the narrator is an older, more mature Eugene, that the "we" refers both to his older and younger selves.
The argument for this identification merits review: the first-person narrator reveals intense emotional involvement with what he describes, though he remains physically separate from the action. He speaks from a future vantage point in time, often sympathizing strongly with his protagonist. When he comments on what Eugene will remember in later years, he draws an implicit comparison between the past-time character and what he became in the future. First-person pronouns not only imply that the narrator is a character but also reveal at rare moments that both he and Eugene have the same experiences in common. Finally, in several scenes Eugene remarks pointedly, "I shall remember"—as if to remind himself and the reader that in narrating the novel he has done just that, preserving his memories in the story he relates, confirming his life's significance in the reflexive structure of a narrative which bends ever back towards a past that itself moves steadily towards the future moment when he begins to remember.
The narrator-protagonist's role fits smoothly into the structure of Look Homeward, Angel. To the chronicle of a young man's life and society it adds the story of the narrator's, and the protagonist's, self-discovery. It also imbues the book with a certain symmetry: in the final chapter Eugene sets out towards his destiny. Years later, he tells his life story in order to rediscover the events and people who made him what he was then, what he has now become. The lyrical dithyrambs of Chapters 30, 35, and 37 thus dramatize the older Eugene's emotions as he remembers his younger self. His identity also explains the predominant use of Eugene's perspective in narrating the novel. An uninvolved third-person narrator's reliance on a single character's perspective would require no justification. But with a narrator who pronounces himself a character—a limited, fallible inhabitant of a world governed by natural laws—we inevitably must question how he knows what he knows. Who but a narrating Eugene could better remember, describe, and analyze his own experiences?
Unfortunately, Eugene's role as narrator does not explain his ability to reveal the innermost thoughts of such individuals as Eliza and W. O., or to give the description of town life in Chapter 14 (during which Eugene is asleep). Perhaps these apparent inconsistencies point to a structural flaw in the novel. Or maybe Eugene learned about what they describe from family members and townspeople. Yet such contrived explanations only partially satisfy, and they fail to recognize the narrator's motives for telling Eugene's story. Look Homeward, Angel is no dry, historical chronicle whose narrator must document his every statement with footnote and bibliographical entries. It is art, literary fiction, an excursion into the buried lives of its characters—and the narrator's quest to discover his past by remembering and reconstructing it.
The narrator seems most interested in discovering and understanding his father. Chapter 19, for instance, records in detail the thoughts and feelings of W. O. Gant during his talk with the prostitute Queen Elizabeth. Eugene does not witness this encounter, and it may never have actually occurred. But no factual biography could so vividly illuminate an aging man's inner being, his awareness of impending senescence "in a world of seemings." Though such a scene does not present known facts, it nonetheless uncovers reality—the truth which transcends fact—as the narrator succeeds in reconstructing it. Discovery through creation also occurs in the seventh chapter, a "stream-of-consciousness" narrative focused on W. O. Gant's half-formed thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as he walks through town. Here again the narrator recreates his father, attempting to view hint objectively, yet also with the subjective prejudice and admiration of a son. By explaining Gant to the reader, he simultaneously explains the man to himself. Discovery through creation (or recreation) is the fundamental force which compels the narrator-protagonist to tell his story in the first place.
Eugene's narratorial role thus provides an appropriate vehicle for exploring the effects of the past—one's individual past, his family heritage, and world history—on the present. The continuity of linear time links the present moment to all others. In his opening "Note to the Reader," Wolfe introduces this theme: "we are the sum of all the moments of our lives—all that is ours is in them." The theme's structural metaphor lies in the novel's reflexive narrative structure, which moves inevitably towards the final chapter's climax and Eugene's decision to leave Altamont and seek "in the city of myself, upon the continent of my soul" the "forgotten language, the lost world, a door where I may enter, and music strange as any ever sounded." Chapter 40 marks the critical moment of the narrator-protagonist's life. The destiny towards which Eugene embarks the narrator achieves in his narration. The consequences of this episode ultimately enable his telling of the story, hence the creation of the novel itself.
Additional evidence for the narrator's identity lies in his relationship to the author. Wolfe made his book in his own image, modeling the protagonist on his younger self. Yet he found significance in Eugene's life not became it was his own but because he saw it as the metaphoric embodiment of every human life. Not possessed of the compulsion for impersonality prominent in the fiction of Conrad, Joyce, and Faulkner, Wolfe wanted to insure that his readers understood him, that they shared his vision. He thus makes his personality everywhere apparent in his novel. The narrator is his persona, through whom he can dispassionately relate the protagonist's life, and who at rare moments allows him to participate directly in Eugene's experience. Both Wolfe and the narrator-protagonist undergo the same contemplative process of remembering as they produce the novel. The narrator evaluates the impact of his early life on his present. Through the narrator, Wolfe does the same. Yet in no sense does he narrate. The narrator is his alter-ego, the authorial personality who narrates for him. If the narrator is an older version of the young Eugene, and Eugene a fictional version of the young Wolfe, then it seems logical to regard the narrator as a fictional version of the author. Wolfe himself never speaks, and the illusion of fiction is never violated. What Max Perkins took for intrusive "authorial commentary," what critics mistake as Wolfe's voice, is actually the voice of the narrator, Wolfe's fictional counterpart and persona.
Perhaps because of the close link between Wolfe and his protagonist-narrator, the narrative source of the emotional lyrical passages has often puzzled readers. C. Hugh Holman speculates that they are produced by "a person located in the time of writing rather than the time of action yet intimately bound up with the action of an intense emotional bondage," but he implies that this person is Wolfe, speaking through the veil of third-person narrative. Richard S. Kennedy suggests that in one instance, the apostrophe to Laura James in Chapter 30, Wolfe speaks unabashedly in his own voice: "You who were made for music, will hear music no more: in your dark house the winds are silent. Ghost, ghost, come back from that marriage that we did not foresee, return not into life, but into magic, where we have never died, into the enchanted wood, where we still lie, strewn on the grass." Kennedy believes these lines "refer to death and the grave. The marriage that we did not foresee is death. Since there is nothing in Look Homeward, Angel about Laura James' death, … it seems evident that Wolfe has reference to Clara Paul [his model for Laura James], who really did die in the influenza epidemic a year or so after young Tom Wolfe knew her." Professor Kennedy properly identifies the episode from Wolfe's life which exerted a major influence on the diction and intensity of the passage, but the novel's preoccupation with memory and the past suggests another interpretation: the narrator-Eugene is remembering his first romance. He recalls it as clearly as if it had just ended, but he realizes painfully that it belongs to the lost and dead past. Laura James is a "ghost," a ghost of his past, a memory. Her "marriage" is simply that—the marriage which ended her romance with Eugene. His wish to return "into magic, where we have never died, into the enchanted wood" is his desire to return to the past and resurrect the love affair dead for so long. Knowing that Clara Paul died a few years after her summer romance with Wolfe may enrich our appreciation of the episode, but in no way is that knowledge necessary: the episode makes complete sense without it. Narrative structure suggests a far more likely voice for the episode than Wolfe's—Eugene Gant's. Wolfe obviously used some of his own memories to write this chapter, but he did not grant them precedence over his primary interest in Eugene.
Intense, emotional moments such as the conclusion of Chapter 30 form the poetic center of Look Homeward, Angel. Almost always they mourn the irrecoverable past, as in the apostrophe to Laura James, Gant's vision of the town square in Chapter 19, and Ben's death. Plural first-person pronouns fuse the perspectives of the protagonist, narrator, and author and invite the reader to share their sense of loss. The most effective lyrical passages merge all four viewpoints into one cathartic, cohesive vision of the world. In this way narrative point of view reinforces the universality of Eugene Gant's experience.
Despite proof of a first-person narrator and abundant evidence of his specific identity, Eugene's role as narrator must remain only speculative. The novel's structure, the narrator's emotional involvement, Wolfe's desire to make art from his life—all strengthen its likelihood. But the novel offers no proof more substantial than the evidence I have cited. In my opinion, however, this was the book Wolfe was trying to write, the book for which his nature suited him, for which he had spent years of preparation: a young man's story, told retrospectively by that young man grown older. Wolfe's desire to be an artist in the modern sense, his awareness of methods used by such modern writers as Joyce, whom he admired, convinced him to resist his impulses and attempt a different sort of work. To a great extent he succeeded, but the narrative form to which he was instinctively drawn remains evident in his novel's point of view, the narrator's personality, and the interrelationship between past and present.
Look Homeward, Angel, then, is a first-person novel, narrated retrospectively by a narrator who clearly sympathizes and identifies with the young protagonist. Evidence in the text further suggests that the narrator and his protagonist are the same person, that the narrator of Thomas Wolfe's first novel tells the story of his own life.
Source: Hugh H. Ruppersburg, "The Narrator in Look Homeward, Angel," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter 1984, pp. 1–9.
Bassett, John Earl, "The Critical Reception of Look Homeward, Angel," in Critical Essays on Thomas Wolfe, G. K. Hall, 1985, pp. 21–26.
DeVoto, Bernard, "Genius Is Not Enough," in Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie Field. University of London Press, 1969, pp. 131–38, originally published in the Saturday Review, April 25, 1936.
Hagan, John, "Structure, Theme, and Metaphor in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel," in Critical Essays on Thomas Wolfe, G. K. Hall, 1985, p. 32.
Holman, C. Hugh, "'The Dark, Ruined Helen of His Blood': Thomas Wolfe and the South," in Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie Field, University of London Press, 1969, pp. 17–36, originally published in South: Modern Southern Literature in its Cultural Setting, edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr. and Robert Jacobs, Doubleday, 1961.
Idol, John Lane, Jr., A Thomas Wolfe Companion, Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 63–73.
Wolfe, Thomas, Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, 1929, reprint, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952.
Donald, David Herbert, Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, Harvard University Press, 2003.
This new edition of Wolfe's biography gives a thorough overview of the mystique surrounding the author.
Ensign, Robert Taylor, Lean Down Your Ear upon the Earth, and Listen: Thomas Wolfe's Greener Modernism, University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Ensign's critical study identifies the modernist elements of Wolfe's work but stresses the naturalism and romanticism of the author's technique.
Field, Leslie A., ed., Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, University Press of London, 1969.
This collection of critical essays provides a broad spectrum of analytical context for Wolfe's work.
Wolfe, Thomas, O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life, edited by Arlyn Bruccoli and Matthew Joseph Bruccoli, University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
This new version of Wolfe's first novel is based on the original manuscript, from which Maxwell Perkins cut about sixty thousand words. Although similar to Look Homeward, Angel, the new version has sparked a debate about what should be the standard text as well as about the current value of Wolfe's work generally.