The Sexual and Racial Symbolism in Wolfe's Novel

Throughout Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene displays a somewhat worried attitude toward sexuality. Whether it is the feeling that his loins are "black with vermin" after the frequent visits to Lily Jones's brothel or the deception by Laura James that undermines his extreme passion, Eugene has almost uniformly unhealthy relationships with women. His romance with Louise, the first of his many brief affairs with older women, marks the beginning of a tendency either to unrealistically idealize women or to degrade them, and this habit continues through Eugene's dramatic break from his mother at the end of the novel.

A psychoanalytical reading of Look Homeward, Angel would partially account for this tendency by revealing Eugene's massive and unresolved Oedipal complex. Wolfe, who practiced some dream therapy himself and was certainly aware of the pervasive influence of Freudian theory at the time, seems to acknowledge this quite explicitly in passages such as, "every step of that terrible voyage which his incredible memory and intuition took back to the dwelling of her womb." Freud wrote that degradation of sexual partners was a common by-product of an unresolved Oedipal complex, and he would have seen Eugene as a classic case. The feeling of "incestuous pollution" with Miss Brown is perhaps the clearest example of Eugene's attempting to live out the incest taboo in a different context, and in a more general way, this may account for the vast age differences in all of Eugene's affairs.

Wolfe develops this idea in a variety of contexts. The relationship of Helen and Gant, also clearly Freudian, arouses an outwardly jealous battle between mother and daughter that ultimately results in Eliza's firmer hold on Eugene. And Wolfe connects Eliza's bond with her youngest son inextricably with his other relationships. Eliza is actively jealous of Laura James and Miss Brown in particular; Eugene must confront his mother and kiss her four times before he can finally sneak away to sleep next to Laura for the first time.

Indeed, it is clear that Wolfe is conscious of the Oedipal complex and that he uses it for much of his most important romantic symbolism. The refrain itself, "O Lost," employs the "exile" from the "dark womb" as a metaphor for the human experience, and it is clear that this is a fundamentally important image for Wolfe when he connects it to his grandest and most universal themes: "our earliest ancestors had crawled out of the primeval slime; and then, no doubt, finding the change unpleasant, crawled back in again." Wolfe seems to be developing an idea of the womb as an ambiguous mix of messy slime and uncorrupted perfection, in line with the Freudian concept that the incest taboo is often merged with idealized romantic desire.

Wolfe is very interested in the interdependency between universal and local themes, and, as C. Hugh Holman writes in his essay "'The Dark, Ruined Helen of His Blood': Thomas Wolfe and the South": "this universal experience was for him closely tied up with the national, the American experience." Since these political and symbolic areas are so connected for Wolfe, it is not surprising that personal or even Oedipal connections are so frequently tied to political ideas; this is why Gant represents the North, and Eliza is a fixed symbol of the American South.

This basic association has some interesting consequences. Underneath Eugene's surface conflict—that he must eventually tear himself away from the South (his mother) he loves and wander to the firm intellectual land of the North—there is...

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The Popularity and Merits of Look Homeward, Angel

"Genius is Not Enough," the catchy title of Bernard De Voto's negative review of Thomas Wolfe's essay The Story of a Novel, was not written of Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. Ever since the publication of Wolfe's first and unarguably best novel, it has been a target for critical attack and encomium. But the severest attacks Wolfe suffered were in reaction to his subsequent work. If Wolfe had never written anything else, Look Homeward, Angel would have more stature today. It has been dismissed as a "novel of youth," attractive only to teenagers; it has been excoriated as formless, verbose, shallow, and altogether too personal. While there is some truth in all of those accusations, the novel stands as a unique, perdurable monument of American literature. Richard Walser has called it "the most lyric novel ever written by an American," while Wolfe's principal British champion, Pamela Hansford Johnson, finds it the most "clear-sighted" of his novels, portraying his world "with an objectivity altogether remarkable." These traits of lyricism and realism, along with a Joycean complexity and exuberant good humor, are the most compelling qualities of the work.

An unabashedly autobiographical Bildungsroman, the book recounts the inner and outer life of the first twenty years (1900-20), of Eugene Gant. Eugene is the youngest of seven children of W. O. and Eliza Gant, a couple who live in the mountain village of Altamont. W. O., a Pennsylvanian with a penchant for rhetoric, alcohol, and prostitutes, owns a stonecutter's shop; his wife is a native of the area with a well-developed head for business and an interest in real estate. After a brief stint in 1904 in St. Louis, where one of her twins dies, she opens a boarding house in Altamont named Dixieland. The precocious Eugene starts school, aged five, against his mother's wishes. He spends his high school years in a private academy and at 15 enrolls in the university at Pulpit Hill. On his first summer vacation he has a brief romance with Laura James, a boarder at Dixieland. During the next summer he works as a laborer in Norfolk and that fall his favorite brother, Ben, dies of influenza. He graduates from college and leaves Altamont to study in the north.

All of the events of the preceding paragraph are exactly parallel to Thomas Wolfe's life. Only the names of the living characters and some place names have been changed. Altamont is the fictitious name for Asheville, North Carolina; Pulpit Hill is Chapel Hill. Floyd C. Watkins, after identifying 250 or 300 names of characters and places in Thomas Wolfe's Characters, maintains that there is not a single entirely...

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The Narrator in Look Homeward, Angel

The authors of such semiautobiographical novels as Remembrance of Things Past and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man relied on narrative point of view to maintain a critical, objective distance from their text. Thomas Wolfe, another autobiographical novelist, did the same. Though often criticized for his apparently narcissistic inability to remain separate from his story, Wolfe used point of view in Look Homeward, Angel (1929) to exploit the experiences of his own life for artistic rather than merely egotistical purposes. As a significant component of narrative form and meaning, point of view in Wolfe's first novel thus merits careful examination.

Curiously, critical opinion on the subject has been sparse and divided. Expressing the traditional attitude, Richard S. Kennedy describes the novel's point of view as third person. C. Hugh Holman believes the narrator is "some unidentified person—not Eugene Gant (unless he is telling the story in the third person)." In contrast, Louis D. Rubin observes that readers "come to identify the authorial personality with that of Eugene when older, . . . recreating the events of his childhood in order to understand them." Joseph Millichap calls the narrator an "older and wiser" Eugene, while Carl Bredahl suggests that the narrator is Eugene metamorphosed from his old, cast-off self into an artist. Fortunately, this divergence in opinion can be resolved. The novel provides sufficient evidence to support a specific identification of the narrator and his role in the narrative process.

Look Homeward, Angel reflects many of the typical characteristics of third-person narrative. Physically uninvolved in the action, the presiding external narrator calls little attention to himself. Instead he focuses on Eugene, the Gants, and Altamont. Eschewing the indifference of most third-person narrators, however, he often seems so interested in telling the story that many readers identify him with Wolfe, widely known to have based the novel on events and people from his own life. Such an identification is incorrect. The narrator possesses an existence and personality distinct from the author's—so distinct that we can regard him as a "third person" only with difficulty. Gérard Genette argues that third-person narration is physically impossible to begin with. Every narrative is, he writes, "by definition, to all intents and purposes presented in the first person.... The real question is whether or not the narrator can use the first person to designate one of his characters." Accordingly, Genette would regard Wolfe's novel as narrated by a physical being who speaks it aloud or writes it down—a "first-person" narrator. But is this theoretical being an actual character?

Concrete evidence in the published text and the "O Lost!" typescript reveals that he is a character, a first-person speaker, and an actual participant, of one sort or another, in the story he tells.

The strongest such evidence is the narrator's occasional habit of referring to himself with first-person pronouns. Singular and plural first-person pronouns occur throughout the book in literary allusions, stream-of-consciousness passages, and indirect discourse. The antecedents of these pronouns are usually clear. In at least five instances, however, the antecedent of the pronoun "I" proves to be none other than the narrator himself. These self-references occur on pp. 4, 29, 204, 223, and 522. In each case the narrator uses the "I" while explaining or qualifying something he has said. In Chapter 1, he interrupts an account of W. O. Gant's life in Baltimore by remarking: "—this is a longer tale. But I know that his cold and shallow eyes had darkened with the obscure and passionate hunger that had lived in a dead man's eyes, and that had led from Fenchurch Street past Philadelphia" (my emphasis). In Chapter 18, he describes the emotions of Eugene and his brothers after they have fought among themselves: "They were like men who, driving forward desperately at some mirage, turn, for a moment, to see their footprints stretching interminably away across the waste land of the desert; or I should say, they were like those who have been mad, and who will be mad again, but who see themselves for a moment quietly, sanely, at morning, looking with sad untroubled eyes into a mirror." A similar metaphor concludes the novel: "as [Eugene] stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say 'The town is near,' but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges." These self-conscious first-person references reveal the narrator's undeniable presence and establish his relationship to the narrative. They show that he knows a great deal, for with self-confident omniscience he relates the thoughts and feelings of the people he describes. More importantly, they show his desire to explain the events of the story according to his own knowledge of time and human nature.

The narrator also occasionally refers to himself with objective and possessive case pronouns, and with the first-person plurals "we," "us," and "our." The latter often simply indicate a narratorial we (like the royal we, or the narrator of many nineteenth-century British novels) which does not differ significantly from the five singular references. An example occurs as the narrator begins to discuss Eugene's infancy: "We would give willingly some more extended account of the world his life touched during the first few years" (my emphasis). Aside from indicating his presence, the narrator uses these plural pronouns to evoke in the reader a sense of kinship with the protagonist, whose experience becomes metaphorically representative of all human experience. He also uses them to confirm his own kinship to the reader, whom he groups with himself and the protagonist in the mutually inclusive category of the human race. The novel's proem introduces the kinship, which the opening paragraphs of the first chapter emphasize: "Each of us is all the sums he has not counted . . . . The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung." The narrator further cements the relationship by habitually addressing the reader as "you." The plural "we" and pointed "you" literally compel the reader's identification with the narrative, Eugene, and the narrator. They invest the reader with a sense of participation in, and commitment to, events he is only reading about. They likewise denote the narrator's active presence in the novel.

A number of the narrator's self-references were evidently edited from the "O Lost!" typescript by Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins. According to Francis Skipp, Perkins deleted twenty-two cases of what he considered inappropriate "authorial comment" (which were really narratorial comment), a total of 442 lines. In a description of these cuts, Professor Skipp has identified at least four instances of the plural "we" (for example, "We believe, reader, we told you some time ago that Julia [Eliza] had begun to think of Dixieland") and one of the singular "I" ("But pardon, reader, I diverge"). In other deleted passages the narrator expresses his opinions (he calls "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" the "greatest romantic poem that has ever been written in the English language," for instance, and attributes the lynching of Negroes for rape to the hypocrisy of the "deacon retreating up the alley towards his black wench").

Similar expressions of opinion occur in the published novel. Despite them, the narrator generally assumes an objective attitude towards the story. His first-person singular references are rare; first-person plural pronouns usually occur only in the most lyrical passages. He also tends to distance himself from the main characters by focusing a semiomniscient viewpoint most often on Eugene, less frequently on such characters as W. O. and Eliza. Within these restrictive perspectives, the narrator speaks with insight and intimacy about the characters' feelings, thoughts, and reactions to the world. As a result, we come to believe that we know a great deal about Altamont, though we see it only through the eyes of a few inhabitants. Because of the contrast between the limited perspectives of characters and the narrator's more broadly encompassing view, the novel gives the impression of being related by an omniscient voice, when in fact it is told...

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Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel as a Novel of Development

The German term, Bildungsroman, which can best be translated as "novel of development" or "novel of growth" has never, to my knowledge, been adequately defined or characterized as a sub-category of the novel. We recognize in the term itself the core of its meaning. It refers to a novel which has as its subject the story of a young man or young woman who goes through the struggles of growing up and in the end reaches maturity, a point at which he has sufficient understanding of life that he can bring his career somewhat under control, free from the mistakes of the past. This kind of novel has a very strong appeal for readers because the experience is common to us all and is important to us all. The appeal is not only to young...

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