(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)