Look Homeward, Angel

Thomas Wolfe

In his preface to his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe admits that the work is autobiographical. The novel’s main character, Eugene Gant, is his alter ego, and the novel’s setting, the town of Altamont, is meant to represent Asheville, North Carolina; where Wolfe grew up. The novel is set in the early decades of the twentieth century. This book is by no means a Norman Rockwell celebration of small town life. Those who get teary-eyed over old episodes of The Andy Griffith Show or of The Waltons will not care for this work. Among other things, Wolfe depicts, with shocking bluntness, the racism and anti-Semitism of the town’s inhabitants. (The novel’s hero shares these views. This is clearly self-criticism on Wolfe’s part.) Moreover, they often come across as hypocritical. For example, Eugene’s father is a drunkard, yet he is also a noisy advocate of prohibition, because he thinks that will make him appear “respectable” in the eyes of his neighbors. And, of course, his neighbors completely buy it.

The story follows Eugene through high school and into college. Wolfe portrays the pedantry and philistinism of his professors, as well as the complacency of his fellow students. It seems some things never change.

Wolfe’s prose takes some getting used to. He is prone to launch into strings of poetic associations that are not always easy to follow. (This becomes less frequent as Eugene grows older. It seems to me that Wolfe was trying to convey the intense way that children experience things.) There are sudden changes in point-of-view and passages of stream-of-consciousness writing. Overall, the novel has a sprawling, shapeless feel to it, which has earned Wolfe the hostility of some critics. I, on the other hand, actually like its formlessness. To me, it mirrors the messiness of life as we actually experience it. I have too often read finely crafted novels that ultimately seemed to me to be pointless and dull.

I should warn the reader that Wolfe’s language may offend some people’s racial sensibilities. Wolfe was a product of his place and time: the South in the early twentieth century. What’s more, Wolfe, whose father owned a statuary business, was essentially petite bourgeois in his worldview. However, there is evidence that Wolfe was moving leftwards towards the end of his short life. (He died at the age of 38.) The terrible suffering caused by the Great Depression greatly affected him. He often expressed sympathy for socialist politics.

It’s clear to me that Wolfe must have influenced Ray Bradbury. There is a scene at the end of the novel, in which Eugene meets the ghost of his older brother, which was Bradburyesque before there was Bradbury. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is similar to Look Homeward, Angel, although it is sentimental, which Wolfe never is.

Look Homeward, Angel is a rich, hearty meal of a novel. I highly recommend it.

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