“Look Homeward, Angel” by Thomas Wolfe

As a resident of Asheville, North Carolina, I figured I had to read “Look Homeward, Angel” by Thomas Wolfe, Asheville’s most famous writer. It was something I had meant to do for a while, but other books always seemed to bump their way up on my reading list.

“Look Homeward, Angel” is a fictionalized autobiographical novel about Wolfe’s life growing up in Asheville, which he calls Altamont in the book. Although he created fictional names for the characters, his portrayal of the people he knew was so accurate that the book caused strong anger among residents of Asheville when it was publish, leading to threats against Wolfe.

I consider this book to be the American version of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Wolfe, who was writing around the same period as James Joyce, was clearly influenced by Joyce’s works. Wolfe uses stream-of-consciousness throughout the book, as shown in the following passage:

Four cents a letter. Little enough, God knows, for the work you do. My letters the best. Could have been a writer. Like to draw too. And all of mine! I would have heard if anything–he would have told me. I’ll never go that way. All right above the waist. If anything happens it will be down below. Eaten away. Whiskey holes through all your guts. Pictures in Cardiac’s office of man with cancer. But several doctors have to agree on it. Criminal offense if they don’t. (p. 59)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the use of literary quotes as commentary for events, for example, as when Eugene Gant (the fictional representation of Thomas Wolfe in the book) is reflecting on his life: “not a sparrow fell through the air but that its repercussion acted on his life.” (p. 160) He is clearly seeing his life through Hamlet, referencing the augury of the fall of a sparrow. This is something that I frequently do. I interpret life through the art that I’ve experienced throughout my life, whether literature, music, or film. Events spark memories of snippets of books, of song lyrics, or movies. In this way, art helps me understand the world around me and determine my role in life.

As I neared completion of the book, I visited the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in downtown Asheville. The historic site contains that boarding house where Thomas grew up (Dixieland in the novel). As I toured the house, I was able to enter the various rooms where events described in the novel took place. It really helped bring the characters and the story to life. It was the equivalent of wandering Dublin after reading “Ulysses.”

As I was reading the book and talking to people about it, several persons said they had tried to read the book in the past but couldn’t, criticizing it as being too long, too wordy, to obscure, basically, too boring to work through. This was not my experience. But I got a chuckle as I recalled these comments when I read a passage in the book that almost seemed to me as Wolfe anticipating his future critics: “This must be good writing, because it seems so very dull.” (p 330)

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