Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel

Look Homeward, AngelThomas Wolfe’s literary reputation has suffered immensely in the last half-century. As a contemporary of Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner, he was looked upon as a writer of great promise; his books sold well, both in North America and abroad, and he earned the acclaim of noteworthy critics and literary figures, among them Maxwell Perkins. Today, however, his writings are panned by critics (both Harold Bloom and James Wood have found nothing of value in his work) and seldom selected for study in academia. But there is a curious disconnect, noted by poet and novelist Robert Morgan in his Introduction, which is that while critics have increasingly denounced Wolfe as without merit, he has quietly amassed a devoted following among writers, who often blush to admit they hold him in high regard.

Look Homeward, Angel, with its unfortunately cloying subtitle “A Story Of The Buried Life,” recounts the childhood experiences of Eugene Gant, beginning with the meeting of his parents and ending not long after his graduation from university. Eugene’s parents discover shortly after their union that they have little beside self-pity to unite them. Eliza, Eugene’s mother, devotes herself to acquiring land and property, convinced that these are the only investments worth pursuing; Oliver, Eugene’s father, devotes himself to drink, and neither take much interest in their children, except in so far as they can benefit from the relationship. Wolfe’s greatest strengths as a novelist lie in his subtle characterization of these family dynamics and the toll they take on the Gant children, each of whom is irreparably bent under the burden of their parents’ inattentions.

By some strange alchemy, this process of bending is not without compensation. Because his parents have no inclination to attend to him, or even to acknowledge that he needs attending to, Eugene is forced to develop by himself, away from friends and family. He immerses himself in literature, in a life of the mind whose horizons extend far beyond his family’s small hometown, and gradually comes to accept his own eccentricity. The very alienation from others that once felt to him like a curse is recognized at last as a mark of distinction, a source of pride, and this in turn reconciles him, at least in part, to his family.

This is a sweeping, expansive, multi-generational novel, the utmost test of a novelist’s abilities, and on this scale the cracks and imperfections appear all the more glaring. Wolfe’s prose, lyrical and haunting at the best of times, often feels mawkish, its high flights of fancy unsupported by the developments of the narrative. The narrative itself seems a half-complete thing, no doubt due, at least in part, to editor Maxwell Perkins’ generous cutting (said to exceed 60,000 words). And yet the final product is affecting, a rich and profound portrait of a life, a time, a place.