Ted's Reviews > Look Homeward, Angel

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
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it was amazing
bookshelves: lit-american, read-in-20s, classics, beach-mixed, have, americana

Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

John Milton, Lycidas

One of the greatest novels that he had long ago read.

1937 portrait by Carl Van Vechten

Thomas C. Wolfe (1900 – 1938) published this, his first novel, in 1929. He had begun working on it three years before, and intended on calling it The Building of a Wall, then O Lost. The final title includes the subtitle A Story of the Buried Life.

It's the story of Eugene Gant, his growing up, his family - especially his mother and his brother - and the fictional mountain town of Altamont, in the fictional state of Catawba. The boy, the town, the state are thinly disguised versions of the author, his real family, and the town of his youth, Ashville, North Carolina.

As noted above, Wolfe died quite young. While traveling in the American West for the first time, in the summer of 1938, he contracted pneumonia in Seattle. Complications set in, and Wolfe was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in early September; nine days later he was dead.

The New York Times wrote, "His was one of the most confident young voices in contemporary American literature, a vibrant, full-toned voice which it is hard to believe could be so suddenly stilled. The stamp of genius was upon him, though it was an undisciplined and unpredictable genius.... There was within him an unspent energy, an untiring force, an unappeasable hunger for life and for expression which might have carried him to the heights and might equally have torn him down."

Most of Wolfe's writings were fictional autobiography, with a style undisciplined, romantic, lyrical; a penchant for analysis in depth of the individual's (ie, his) confrontation with Life and The World. Alfred Kazin has noted that Wolfe "was always a boy; his significance as a writer is that he expanded his boyhood into a lifetime, made it exciting and important, even illuminated many of the problems that give life its common savor, without ever transcending the pain of his boyhood".

In Robert Morgan's Introduction to my Scribner edition, he remembers first reading Wolfe:
When I took Look Homeward, Angelfrom the bookmobile and began reading it … I felt this was the book I'd always been looking for. It was a novel about me, and it was more than a novel. It was a revelation about how ambitious and thrilled and scared I was, and about how "lost" I felt. Eugene Gant's parents were my own parents, and his anxieties and frustrations and sense of destiny were my own … I discovered a version of myself in [the book] and became intoxicated with the elevated, poetic prose. I felt I had discovered a new poetry in the choral sections, in the soliloquies.
Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
… Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.

…I was sure this was what was meant by epic writing, and by tragic poetry.

What he refers to is the opening of Wolfe's novel:

A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.

Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.

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. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every minute is a window on all time.

Of course it's not all like that … but enough … enough … to excite the passions of a young mind. And thus a mind like young Eugene Gant, a boy growing in that mountain-ringed-in town of Altamont, yearning for life and the world beyond that which he's been given to know.

And how … how did this overwrought prose/poetry capture me in my early twenties? I, after all, have turned out not to be like Gene Gant/Thomas Wolfe became - a writer, a young man ceaselessly on the move to an ever wider view of life and the world? Perhaps I had that wider view of things with three years in a far off land over forty years ago – but just a few years after Look Homeward - and then found that one can go home again, can return Odysseus-like to where he started, satiated with even a modicum of the world, small by Homeric standards, but enough for me to last.

Would Wolfe's novel still pull at me? I long to find out.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 14, 2012 – Shelved
February 14, 2012 – Shelved as: lit-american
February 14, 2012 – Shelved as: read-in-20s
March 12, 2012 – Shelved as: classics
July 6, 2013 – Shelved as: beach-mixed
September 5, 2013 – Shelved as: have
October 13, 2017 – Shelved as: americana

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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Sheridan Hopkins Oh that’s so good I have it in a huge box of books I have just had delivered from Amazon who own Goodreads. I am happy to fund them in delivering to Australia as I am getting a better hit rate here that at my local book shop thanks to all of you

message 2: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Sheridan wrote: "Oh that’s so good I have it in a huge box of books I have just had delivered from Amazon who own Goodreads. I am happy to fund them in delivering to Australia as I am getting a better hit rate here..."

Well happy Reading, Sheridan! 8 )

message 3: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Keep telling us of the great novels he had long ago read, Ted :-)

message 4: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Fionnuala wrote: "Keep telling us of the great novels he had long ago read, Ted :-)"

Heh heh. I got pretty excited about this book last night. And I have this brand new copy (pictured) with no writing in it yet!

Teresa I loved his "overwrought prose/poetry" when I read this book, O, so long ago (early college years). I look forward too to hearing how you find it now.

Not long after reading this, I read Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth and named my daughter after one of its chapter titles.

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