An alert reader of Look Homeward, Angel does not have to go very far into this long book before realizing that it is largely autobiographical. Though many details are imaginatively transformed, the hero, Eugene Gant, is Thomas Wolfe himself. The Gant family is Wolfe’s family, and Altamont is Asheville, North Carolina, through the first two decades of the twentieth century. When the story concludes with Eugene’s preparations to leave home for graduate study at Harvard, it has in effect come to a transitional moment in Wolfe’s life. Wolfe finished at the University of North Carolina with the desire to become a playwright, and he went to Harvard primarily to study playwriting under George Pierce Baker.
All of this background is useful to know because it helps to explain the inception of Look Homeward, Angel and the curiosity of its form. After Wolfe completed a master’s degree at Harvard he went to New York to live; there he taught composition at New York University while attempting to launch the career on which he was intent: playwriting. Success did not come quickly; readers of Wolfe should be able to see without difficulty that his peculiar gift was not one to fit easily with the tight discipline of the stage. He began to write the prose narrative that was published as Look Homeward, Angel in 1929.
Publication of Wolfe’s manuscript followed substantial revision under the tutelage of Maxwell Perkins, a remarkable editor who saw in Wolfe an enormous but undisciplined talent. With the almost fatherly guidance of Perkins, Wolfe was able to bring a measure of order out of the sometimes brilliant chaos that frequently attended his writing. Upon the publication of Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe more or less forsook playwriting to become a novelist and continued on this track until his early death in 1938.
This brings us back to the form of Look Homeward, Angel, which is called a novel because that seems to be the most convenient term, even if it is only approximate. The book is a prose narrative, and it is too imaginative to be called an autobiography. It is too enthusiastic to be called a meditation; too unsentimental, for all of its emotion, to be called a reminiscence. It has sometimes been called a bildungsroman, a term that is used to describe a novel that gives an account of the education of someone, usually a young man or woman. For lack of a better term to describe its...
(The entire section is 1004 words.)