Look Homeward, Angel

by Thomas Wolfe

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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 misadventures with women, which seem later to arouse further longings in him. During this period there occur some richly comic episodes, as when Eugene’s father prepares an elegant stone angel as a burial monument for a prostitute. There are also some hints of events in the wider world beyond them; on one occasion William Jennings Bryan visits the town and makes some suitably politic replies to questions from local admirers.

As the youngest member of his family, Eugene feels more closely drawn to his brother Ben than to others around him. Another brother, Steve, turns out to be a ne’er-do-well. Their brother Luke has a particular talent for earning money from odd jobs of any kind but has little aptitude for academics; after some study at a college and a technical school he becomes a...

(This entire section contains 1108 words.)

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worker in a boiler factory. Meanwhile, their father has become sallow and aged; prostate cancer has set in, and his vigorous, exuberant manner seems to have become subdued and petulant. In Eugene’s life, a major change comes when he enrolls in the state university and for the first time lives away from home. By this juncture it is recorded that, just short of the age of sixteen, he remains still very much a child at heart; great but vaguely felt ideals of beauty and order are still largely untempered by contact with the world beyond.

The university has a distinctive, unforgettable charm and resembles an oasis of learning in a provincial wilderness. Here Eugene’s education begins in earnest; while previously he had been simply a precocious, somewhat pampered boy with vast and undefined ambitions, during his college work his impulse to read widely and in depth assumes somewhat clearer contours. At the outset he feels isolated and disoriented, but he eventually becomes initiated in college ways. He visits a prostitute in a neighboring city and comes down with a verminous affliction which must be cured by a local doctor when he returns home for Christmas. Later he feels stirred by impulses that are both romantic and erotic. During a summer he spends back home in Altamont, he meets Laura James. She is a pert, attractive woman five years older than Eugene, and she has already become engaged to another man; for the time being she has come to stay at the Gants’ boardinghouse. Eugene has a brief but intense affair with her which, while loosely based on events in Wolfe’s life, seems here to have been reworked considerably in order to emphasize the romantic prowess of the protagonist.

For a period during World War I, Eugene, who is too young for active service, goes to work at a Navy yard in Virginia, not too far from Laura James’s original home; he is disappointed that, after their brief sojourn together, he does not hear anything further from her. Other and more distressing troubles soon confront Eugene and his family, for Ben, Eugene’s favorite brother, who had defended him during family disputes, has been stricken with a fatal illness of the lungs. As his all-too-brief life draws to a close there are scenes that are alternately petty and poignant. At the hospital, their father suddenly begins complaining about medical costs, to the discomfiture of the others. On the other hand, Eugene, who has never been particularly religious, fervently begins to pray when it appears that Ben has passed beyond recovery. He reflects unhappily that somehow in death Ben has meant more to the family than when he was alive. Toward the end, when Eugene has graduated from college and is preparing to go on to Harvard University, it seems to him in some imagined way that out of the past Ben’s ghost has come back and is asking him where he is going on his life’s journey.

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