Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
As childhood may be composed, in part, of the recollections and impressions passed along by parents, so it may seem not to have a precisely fixed beginning or end. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, the story of Eugene Gant, commences not with the boy’s first conscious sensations but with the origins of his father and mother.
William Oliver Gant, whose ancestors had settled in Pennsylvania, had been apprenticed to the stonecutter’s trade. He moved eventually to the South and, after two marriages, he came to the rural mountain city of Altamont, the fictional equivalent of the author’s native Asheville. There he met Eliza Pentland, who came from an established, if somewhat eccentric, family of that region, and after some courtship he married her. Even then, Gant was a wild and exuberant sort, who was capable of epic drinking bouts; he also possessed a certain untamed vitality, and by the end of the nineteenth century, when he was nearly fifty years old, his wife had conceived their last child.
By way of this oddly retrospective narrative introduction, the circumstances of Eugene Gant’s early years are set forth, and events from his life even as a small child are then recorded at some length. For example, from the age of six he could recall the many colors of bright autumn days, and he was aware of the many smells of food in all its varieties, and of wood and leather. He was alive to the crisply etched sights of furniture, hardware, trees, and gardens that were to be found around his home and in the city. Once he had learned to read, he became enchanted with tales of travel and adventure, and indeed with the very power of words themselves, but there was also a worldly and earthy element to his character.
At the age of eight he had some vague appreciation for bawdy rhymes and crude jokes told by the older boys. He could also recall the blunt racial slurs that were routinely used by those in his neighborhood. Beyond that, however, there was a contemplative and inward-looking aspect to his cast of mind. He could remember that before he was ten years old he would brood upon what seemed to be tantalizingly unanswerable contradictions that went to the very nature of the human spirit.
Various themes and motifs seem to characterize Eugene’s adolescent years. He has a literary curiosity of prodigious proportions, and he reads books of all sorts, many at a time. He has great energy and considerable zest for sports, even though he is awkward and ungainly on the baseball diamond. An imaginative boy, he is prone to indulge in vividly embroidered daydreams which cast an idealized counterpart of himself as an invincible hero. He has some awkward...
(The entire section is 1108 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Look Homeward, Angel Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Eugene, the youngest child in the Gant family, comes into the world when his mother, Eliza Gant, is forty-two years old. His father, Oliver Gant, goes on periodic drinking sprees to forget his unfulfilled ambitions and the unsatisfied wanderlust that has brought him to Altamont, in the hills of Old Catawba. When Eugene is born, his father is asleep in a drunken stupor.
Eliza disapproves of her husband’s debauches, but she lacks the imagination to understand their cause. Oliver, who was raised amid the plenty of a Pennsylvania farm, has no comprehension of the privation and suffering that existed in the South after the Civil War, the cause of the hoarding and acquisitiveness of his wife and her Pentland relations in the Old Catawba hill country.
Eliza bears the burden of Oliver’s drinking and promiscuity until Eugene is four years old; then she departs for St. Louis, taking all the children with her except for the oldest daughter, Daisy. It is 1904, the year of the great St. Louis World’s Fair, and Eliza intends to open a boardinghouse for her visiting fellow townspeople. The idea is abhorrent to Oliver, and he stays in Altamont. Eliza’s sojourn in St. Louis ends abruptly when twelve-year-old Grover falls ill with typhoid and dies. Stunned, she gathers her remaining children and goes home.
Young Eugene is a shy, awkward boy with dark, brooding eyes. He is, like his ranting, histrionic father, a dreamer. He is not popular with his schoolmates, who sense instinctively that he is different and make him pay the price; at home, he is the victim of his sisters’ and brothers’ taunts and torments. His one champion is his brother Ben, though even Ben has been conditioned by the Gants’ unemotional family life to give his caresses as cuffs.
There is little time, however, for Eugene’s childish daydreaming. Eliza believes that having jobs at a young age will teach her boys manliness and self-reliance. Ben gets up at three o’clock every morning to deliver newspapers. Luke has been a Saturday Evening Post agent since he was twelve, and Eugene is put under his wing. Although the boy loathes the work, he is forced every Thursday to corner potential customers and keep up a continuous line of chatter until he breaks down their sales resistance.
Eugene is not yet eight when his parents separate. Eliza has bought the Dixieland boardinghouse as a good investment. Eugene’s sister Helen remains at the old house with her father; Daisy has married and left town. Mrs. Gant takes Eugene with her, and Ben and Luke are left to shift for themselves, shuttling back and forth between the two houses. Eugene grows to detest his new home. When the Dixieland is crowded, there is no privacy, and Eliza advertises the Dixieland on printed cards that Eugene has to distribute to customers on his magazine route and to travelers arriving at the Altamont train station.
Although life at the boardinghouse is drab, the next four years...
(The entire section is 1219 words.)
Chapters 1-2 Summary
Gilbert Gaunt of England travels to America in 1837. He eventually settles in Pennsylvania and changes his name to Gant. He marries a Dutch widow who bears him five children, including his second son, Oliver. Oliver Gant apprentices himself to a stonecutter because he is eager to carve an angel, but he never does so. He marries a girl named Cynthia who dies in the second year of their marriage. Gant moves to Altamont, North Carolina, and sets up his stonecutting business. One day, a woman enters his shop to sell books. Her name is Eliza Pentland, and she soon introduces him to her family. Her Uncle Bacchus roams the town preaching the imminent arrival of Armageddon. Mr. Pentland, Eliza’s father, teases Gant with constant puns....
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Chapters 3-4 Summary
As the year 1900 arrives, Gant turns fifty. Eliza is pregnant at forty-two with her last child. Gant decides that his wild days are nearly over, so he increases his drinking and carousing. He has become the butt of the town joke over the years, although rather than growing immune to it, he has become more sensitive. Only his daughter Helen has any measure of control over him. While Eliza is pregnant, Gant visits the town brothel frequently; often Steve, his oldest son, must carry him home.
As Eliza goes into labor, she despairs of any kind of future with Gant. She has kept the family together both spiritually and financially. On the night when Eliza’s pains begin, Gant is violently drunk and the household hides from...
(The entire section is 428 words.)
Chapters 5-6 Summary
Steve, the oldest Gant boy, is expelled from high school because of his behavior. He begins to follow the path of his father by drinking excessively and spending his money at the brothel. Gant blames his behavior on Eliza; Eliza says Steve might have turned out differently if he had not had to go to every dive in town to drag his father out. Gant berates his other boys for not working, claiming that he is a good provider for the family.
In 1904, Eliza decides she wants to go to St. Louis to see the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. She says she might even decide to stay there and run a boarding house. She eventually takes most of the children, leaving Gant and Daisy behind. Years later, Eugene can remember much of this...
(The entire section is 398 words.)
Chapters 7-8 Summary
Two years after Eliza’s return to Altamont from St. Louis, Gant takes a seven-week journey to California. He feels that this is his last great journey—that his death is already on its way. On the return journey, Gant feels that he is moving swiftly toward his end. As an omen, he learns at his arrival in Altamont that one of its citizens has died while he was gone. Gant feels that he will die soon, though his mother is still going strong at eighty-six. He must write to her more often while there is still time.
As he walks through the town, Gant sees signs of his doom all around him. He reads his own name on the front of his shop and likens it to a tombstone. It is early morning when he reaches his home and startles...
(The entire section is 401 words.)
Chapters 9-10 Summary
As spring arrives, Eugene and the other boys torment the black, Jewish, and poor white people in town. He observes his father at his stone cutting and thinks his father is a master at his work. Gant drives the boys off his front steps, but just as soon as they return he forgets his anger. Eugene feeds his love for books, devouring all the books at home and then proceeding to the town library. At first he reads the adventure stories of the day, especially the Horatio Alger books, which usually depict a poor boy’s rise to fortune. He moves on to more adult fare and eventually discovers the pleasures of romantic fiction. He pictures himself as the hero of the tale, wrapped in the arms of the voluptuous heroine. He takes this passion...
(The entire section is 438 words.)
Chapters 11-13 Summary
Eliza is ever observant of real estate deals and the security that owning property gives, and she learns that a large boarding house is for sale. Oliver no longer cares or tries to have any say about Eliza’s dealings; he tells the real estate agent to make the deed out in Eliza’s name. Eliza and Eugene move into the boarding house, which is named “Dixieland,” while Gant and Helen remain in the former home. They lead separate lives, but Eugene often finds his way back to his father’s house because he is ignored throughout the day while his mother deals with the boarders. At dinnertime, Eliza will call Helen and tell her to send Eugene home. Helen mocks her tone, which makes Eugene laugh hysterically. Eliza has difficulty...
(The entire section is 449 words.)
Chapters 14-15 Summary
In the spring, the people of Altamont turn their attention to their various businesses. Ben Gant, who delivers The Saturday Evening Post, talks with the other boys about who gets their customers to pay and who does not, and then they start on their deliveries. The various doctors meet at the diner and discuss their patients. Many have diseases or conditions that are drastic and inoperable. Loss of a patient through death is not uncommon. Gant awakens to the sounds of his chickens in the yard. Judge Webster Tayloe watches his mulatto son with approval. Eliza starts the day, awakened by some strange sound. The Dixieland is full of travelers. Altamont is a popular vacation spot, especially for those seeking relief from...
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Chapters 16-17 Summary
On a school day in spring, Eugene and the other pupils in the upper grades are herded up to the assembly hall. The new principal, Mr. Leonard, presents them with a painting titled “The Song of the Lark.” The painting is to be the subject of a contest: the student who composes the best essay based on “The Song of the Lark” will receive five dollars. Eugene is especially intrigued and begins to write an essay, imagining what motivates the young girl in the painting. Mrs. Leonard, the principal’s wife, takes his essay directly to Mr. Leonard, who announces that Eugene is the winner. It is revealed that the contest is really an entrance exam for a private school the Leonards are founding. Gant dismisses the idea, but Eliza is...
(The entire section is 470 words.)
Chapters 18-19 Summary
Following the move with Eliza to Dixieland, Eugene grows apart from Helen. She is categorized as belonging to the Pentland side of the family, along with Steve and Daisy. She is much closer to Luke. Steve marries a German woman, Margaret Lutz, who is twelve years older than he is. Her father had died and left her nine thousand dollars in insurance money, which to Steve seems a fortune. Margaret comes to Altamont with a friend and Steve seduces her. Eugene finds Steve and Margaret on Gant’s bed; soon after, the two are married. Steve lives off his wife’s money, and eventually the couple returns to Margaret’s hometown in Indiana. From there, Steve occasionally writes of divorce and then reconciliation. Both Gant and Eliza feel...
(The entire section is 455 words.)
Chapters 20-21 Summary
While Helen and Luke are traveling or going to school, Gant frequents Dixieland more than usual despite Eliza’s remonstrance that he has a place of his own. He regales the boarders with tales of his youth—not all of them actually truthful. Despite the obvious embellishments, the boarders look forward to his visits as a way to liven up the dull winter evenings. Gant and Eugene go to the movies several times a week during the winter months. Eugene imagines himself as the hero of all the movies, living a life of excitement and adventure compared to his dull life in Altamont. After the movies, late at night, he and Gant wander the streets of Altamont on their way home. Gant complains of pain from an enlarged prostate. Suddenly...
(The entire section is 431 words.)
Chapters 22-23 Summary
When he is fifteen years old, Eliza complains that Eugene is lazy, so his brother Ben gives him a paper route. Eugene is not really lazy, but he despises everything to do with the boarding house and so resists doing chores. Eugene is given the “Niggertown” route, which is known for being difficult to navigate and even more difficult to collect the fees. He awakens each morning at 3:30 and begins his deliveries. He feels afraid of failure, so he perseveres in delivering the papers on time and in collecting the money for the subscriptions. He is intrigued when another newspaper boy, Jennings Ware, tells him of having sex with black women.
Eugene’s persistence makes him an example to the other newsboys. He brings in...
(The entire section is 419 words.)
Chapters 24-25 Summary
When Eliza goes to Florida for her health, Eugene rooms with some friends from school. They stroll about the town on a spring day, observing the local businesses and residents. The adults in the town represent possibilities of a future life, but all are found wanting. They encounter William Jennings Bryan, the perennial presidential candidate known as the Commoner for his connection and sympathy for the working class of America. It is rumored that Bryan is thinking of retiring to Altamont. When questioned by a local reporter, Bryan is vague; he says simply that, if he had the option, he could have chosen no finer place in which to be born than Altamont. The boys discuss the growing city and the improvements it needs to match its...
(The entire section is 399 words.)
Chapters 26-27 Summary
In the fall of his last year at the Leonards’ school, Eugene is invited to go with a group of other young people to Charleston. At first Eliza is reluctant to let him waste money, but she eventually encourages him to go. The train trip to Charleston is uncomfortable and Eugene gets little sleep. The next day he is quickly tired out and stays at the hotel. When one of the girls, Louise, comes to wake him, the two begin talking freely. Eugene tells her that he finds girls with nice legs attractive. Louise raises her skirts to show her legs, and the two begin necking. Eugene asks her if she wants to have sex and she agrees but tells him not to hurt her. This makes Eugene think she is a virgin, but she insists that she is not. Eugene...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Chapters 28-29 Summary
When Eugene is sixteen years old, he leaves Altamont to attend university. He has grown to a height of over six feet three inches but weighs just one hundred thirty pounds. He still feels like a child as he departs his home. He would rather go to a more prestigious school, but he gives way to Gant’s wish that he go to the state university. Margaret Leonard gives him an emotional send-off; she tells him that she and her husband think of him as a son.
During the summer, Eugene grows closer to Ben. Luke has returned to Pittsburgh following Helen’s wedding. Gant still lives in his sitting room, having rented the rest of the house to a widow who takes care of him. Eugene tells Ben that he would like to work his way...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
Chapters 30-31 Summary
During the summer following his freshman year, Eugene meets Laura James, a rich, unattractive, twenty-one-year-old woman who is boarding at Dixieland. Despite her looks, Eugene falls in love with her. He defends her against Helen, who calls her “ugly.” The two young people soon spend every night sitting on the front porch of Dixieland.
One evening, Eliza calls Eugene inside to tell him that Gant is on a rampage and headed this way. She begs him to head Gant off because she fears the effect Gant’s drunken rage might have on the boarders. Eugene tries to hold him back but is injured in the struggle. The next morning, Gant feels remorse—as usual—and returns home in a subdued state. Eliza rages about him but...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
Chapters 32-33 Summary
When Eugene returns to school for his sophomore year, he sees that the student body has grown younger and smaller because the upperclassmen have headed off to the war in Europe. Eugene rooms with a boy from Altamont named Bob Sterling. Bob, however, has heart problems. Eugene finds him one day on the stairs with his heart barely beating. Bob goes home, and Eugene writes him regularly until he learns that Bob has died. After Bob’s widowed mother comes to pick up Bob’s things, Eugene vows to live alone, but he soon acquires two more roommates.
At Christmas, the entire Gant family gathers in Altamont because they expect this to be the last Christmas they have together. Gant is slowly but inexorably dying from cancer....
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Chapters 34-35 Summary
Eugene returns to Altamont two weeks before the beginning of his junior year. The war has taken its toll on the tourist industry, and Dixieland has only a few boarders. Ben has come home, having been rejected again by both the army and the navy because his lungs are too weak. Ben is appalled at Eugene’s appearance. Eugene has come home with some money at last, but he is emaciated from being near starvation. Eliza remonstrates with them for wasting electricity; all must economize. While Eliza and Ben argue, Eugene urges them to try to get along because nothing is going to get any better. In despair, Ben tells Eugene that he is a failure. The military does not want him, and he has been a disappointment to his family.
(The entire section is 428 words.)
Chapters 36-37 Summary
Eliza puts Ben’s body to rest as he lies on the bed. She cuts a lock of his golden hair and remembers that Grover, Ben’s twin, had dark hair. Gant tells her that he wishes he could go back and do things over again, and then perhaps they might have gotten along together. The family agrees to spare no expense for Ben’s funeral because it is the last thing they can do for him. Eugene, who has not eaten since he got home, goes to the kitchen for some food.
Eugene and Luke walk to town and tell people of Ben’s death as they pass. All the people express their respects, stating what a fine boy Ben was. Later in the morning, the brothers go to Horse Hines’s to pick out a coffin. Hines shows them his best and says he...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Chapters 38-40 Summary
Eugene returns to school following Ben’s death, and three weeks later the war ends. Eugene feels cheated out of a chance to participate in what will be the greatest adventure of his generation. He drives around the countryside; he is slowly getting over his grief over the loss of his brother, Ben. He feels he has become a great man on campus until he overhears some of the other boys talking about him and saying he stinks because he does not bathe. He is struck by this perception of himself and feels an increasing loneliness and separation from the other students. He develops a sore on the back of his neck; no matter what he does it will not go away. He grows his hair long to cover it. Soon Eugene begins to feel a joy in his...
(The entire section is 506 words.)