61 pages • 2 hours readThomas Wolfe
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Thomas Wolfe’s largely autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929. A coming-of-age story divided into three parts, Wolfe’s novel chronicles the life of the Gant family and, particularly, the growth of Eugene Gant, a character whom critics consider an extension of Wolfe. Wolfe, like Eugene, was born in the year 1900. The lives of Eugene’s parents mirror the lives of Wolfe’s own parents, who were also named William Oliver and Eliza. Look Homeward, Angel is set in the fictional town of Altamont as inspired by Wolfe’s hometown of Asheville, North Carolina.
Often compared to William Faulkner and James Joyce, Wolfe is known for his sprawling writing style and lengthy descriptions. He is one of North Carolina’s most renowned writers. Written from a third-person omniscient perspective, Look Homeward, Angel is a stream-of-consciousness narrative that focuses on the first two decades of the 20th century, including the beginning and end of World War I.
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Part 1 begins with a look into the history of the Gant family and their origins in the migration of patriarch Gilbert Gaunt to America from England. William Oliver Gant, Gilbert’s son, grows and journeys away from the family home in the Pennsylvanian Dutch countryside and, allured by a stone angel created to adorn a graveside, finds a passion for stone-cutting in Baltimore. After the death of his first wife Cynthia in the town of Sydney, Gant settles in the town of Altamont, where he sets up a stone-cutting business. Gant marries Eliza Pentland and they have six children: Steve, Daisy, Helen, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and Luke. Throughout their marriage, Gant struggles to overcome his reliance on alcohol and is sent away for recovery multiple times.
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In 1900 Eliza gives birth to the final Gant child, Eugene. When Eugene is four years old, Eliza, in pursuit of a new adventure, moves the family to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair. Grover eats a contaminated pear at the fair and dies tragically. The family moves back to Altamont.
As Eliza invests in more properties despite Gant’s disapproval, Helen, now 15, becomes a caretaker for her father. Gant takes his final solo trip to California at the age of 56. Eugene, misunderstood by his siblings and peers, finds solace only in his brother Ben. As Eugene grows, he escapes into the fictional fantasy worlds he finds in books. At the request of his parents, Eugene begins working as a newspaper delivery boy, while Eliza purchases a boardinghouse, which she calls Dixieland. Eliza and Gant separate, and Eugene moves to Dixieland with his mother.
Steve falls into the same patterns as his father and forges multiple checks in his father’s name. Daisy marries a grocer and moves to Henderson. Eliza and Gant, both suffering from rheumatism, travel separately throughout the South in search of relief. By the end of Part 1, 11 years have passed since Eugene’s birth.
In Part 2 Ben works at a local newspaper and grows weary with the town of Altamont. Eliza pays off all of Dixieland and continues to pursue other investment properties. Eugene, after writing a contest-winning essay, is offered the opportunity to attend a new private school called the Altamont Fitting School, started by Principal John Dorsey Leonard and his wife Margaret. Eugene begins his classical education at the Altamont Fitting School.
Steve marries a woman from Indiana and continues his self-destructive pattern of behavior. Helen travels throughout the country as part of a singing duo called “The Dixie Melody Twins,” while Luke unsuccessfully pursues a career as an electrical engineer. An aging Gant sells the stone angel from his shop to the owner of a local brothel he used to frequent. Ben has multiple affairs with older women, primarily with a married Dixieland boarder named Mrs. Pert. Eugene, now working at Ben’s newspaper, explores his sexuality with a customer but runs away in shame; he continues to learn from the Leonards and becomes inspired by the works of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.
World War I begins, and Ben receives an examination from a local doctor who alludes to a problem with Ben’s lungs. Eugene begins his last year at the Altamont Fitting School and travels with some peers to Charleston, where he engages sexually with a young woman; once again, Eugene is unable to consummate the experience. Helen and Ben travel to Baltimore with their father and receive his cancer diagnosis; they do not tell Gant.
Helen, who no longer sings, marries a cash register salesman from Henderson who is 10 years her senior. Despite the Leonards’ advice to wait a year before attending college, Gant insists Eugene attend the State University.
Part 3 commences with Eugene’s departure for university. Eugene suffers greatly from isolation and loneliness in his first year. He attends a brothel in a nearby town and has sex with a prostitute. The draft begins, and all men over the age of 21 are enlisted; Ben attempts to enlist but is rejected due to his weak lungs. Helen, who had moved to Sydney with her new husband, moves back home and resumes caring for her father.
Home for the summer, Eugene falls in love with a 21-year-old boarder named Laura James. Despite her promises to wait for Eugene, Laura returns to her hometown of Norfolk and sends Eugene a letter stating her intention to marry her fiancé of one year. Although heartbroken, Eugene excels during his second year at university and becomes active in the campus social life. During winter break, after getting drunk for the first time, Eugene confronts his family over their judgment of him and declares that he will now live for himself.
Eugene spends the next summer alone, working various jobs in Virginia. He lives paycheck to paycheck and almost starves, but he emerges at the end of the summer fully intact and proud of his ability to survive on his own. Upon returning to university, Eugene receives a telegram from his mother requesting him to come home as Ben has fallen ill with pneumonia. Eugene returns home, and Ben quickly dies from pneumonia. He is buried in a beautiful ceremony, and Eugene visits Ben’s grave for the final time before he departs again for university. There he meets Ben’s friend and lover Mrs. Pert, who also shares that she will never return to Ben’s grave again.
Two years pass, during which Eugene thrives at university and escapes to nearby towns to the ring the bells of unsuspecting citizens in the middle of the night as he pretends to be lost or the friend of deceased Romantic poets. Eugene graduates and contemplates attending Harvard, while Eliza continues to reap the reward of her investments as she sells Gant’s home and business, which will now be the home of Altamont’s first skyscraper.
Helen, unable to bear children, continues to care for her father and resents her mother’s success. She drafts a will for her father that grants an inheritance of $5,000 to his children. Eugene decides to attend Harvard only a few days before he must depart and willingly signs away his future inheritance at the request of his siblings, who resent the money that has been invested in his education.
Eugene wishes Eliza farewell as he prepares to leave Altamont forever and, while traveling through the town one last time, sees the figure of Ben. As he speaks with Ben, Eugene, confused and amazed, observes the stone angels that surround his father’s stone-cutting shop moving and dancing. He realizes that he has been searching for happiness in all the wrong places and resolves to search for happiness within himself.
By Thomas Wolfe