Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe

Look Homeward, Angel

Look Homeward, Angel is the classic first novel by a young Thomas Wolfe. From what I understand, it is an only slightly fictionalized account of the childhood and youth in North Carolina in the early 1900s of the author, in the person of protagonist Eugene Gant. (According to Wikipedia, some of the characters were so little fictionalized, and the descriptions of them so unflattering, that Wolfe received death threats from their real life counterparts in his actual hometown of Asheville.)

Look Homeward, Angel is moderately long for a novel—though not even in the same ballpark as, say, War and Peace or Infinite Jest—but to me it feels even longer than it is and was something of a chore to get through due to the writing style. It’s one of those novels that’s as much poetry as prose. The ornate language is something that many sophisticated readers will experience as beautiful, but unfortunately I have little ability to understand and therefore appreciate this mode of expression. It’s the kind of book that in order to really get the most out of I would have had to keep a dictionary handy for all the unfamiliar words, Google various phrases and references to fill in the gaps in my relevant background knowledge, and read and reread passages very slowly until I’ve worked out their meaning as best I can. I really just don’t have the patience for that as a reader. As I say, this is a pretty long book as it is; I suspect it would have taken me three or four or five times as long to go through it as painstakingly as I would have needed to in order to give it its due.

Though its structure is not as incomprehensible as that of a postmodern novel, its adds another layer of difficulty to the language. Long sections of the book are written in a stream-of-consciousness manner. Passages routinely are not explained through description or punctuation as they conventionally would be, so you have to take an educated guess if what you’re reading is someone speaking, Eugene’s thoughts, or the narrator’s own observations.

Look Homeward, Angel feels like psychoanalysis, or like a therapeutic exercise where a person writes an account of his childhood in order to better understand his adult self. My guess is this relates to the title, too. The book seems to be a project based on the theory that if you really want to understand why you are as messed up/depressed/angry/ineffectual/alcoholic/violent/whatever as you are as an adult, and you want to do something about it, you need to dig into your past, your origins, your “home,” as honestly and thoroughly as possible. And when you get to the most traumatic things that hurt the most to confront, rather than avoid them you need to go to the opposite extreme and dwell on them and even exaggerate them.

The exercise feels like one with the highest stakes. It’s not just some kind of intellectual inquiry and analysis; it reads like it was written by a desperate person in great pain who sees this exploration into his past self as his only remaining chance to salvage some kind of sanity or escape from some kind of overwhelming depression.

Again according to Wikipedia, one of Wolfe’s working titles for the book before he came up with Look Homeward, Angel was O Lost. The latter phrase, or close variants of it, occurs multiple times in the book, as if marking those turning points for the worst in the life of a character—usually the protagonist—when hope was seemingly crushed, when the seeds for the brutal present were sown. As I say, it’s a book of pain.

I surmised above that some of the trauma may be exaggerated for therapeutic reasons. I’m driven to that conclusion largely by how extremely passionate and emotional Eugene is, and to a lesser extent the other characters in the novel are. He’s seemingly constantly wailing in despair, laughing maniacally at inappropriate times, terrified, overwhelmed by panic, giddy with joy, etc. He makes Dostoyevsky’s characters seem subdued.

But somehow I can accept that kind of thing more readily in a Dostoyevsky novel. Whether it’s because I for whatever reason don’t expect or require realistic degrees of passion in the Dostoyevsky world, or because he’s just extraordinarily skilled at persuading one that he’s recounting exceedingly rare circumstances in which such extreme passions wouldn’t in fact be unrealistic, I don’t know. But I feel more willing to come along for the ride through the one-existential-crisis-after-another style adventure of a Dostoyevsky book. With Look Homeward, Angel, I sometimes got caught up in it like that and really felt for the traumatized child, and at other times just rolled my eyes at what a drama queen he was.

Certainly being a kid can be traumatic and emotional, but something about what the author attributes to Eugene strikes me more as an adult projecting adult emotional reactions onto a child.

And not just emotional reactions, but intellectual analysis as well. The most extreme (extreme in the sense of implausible, to me at least) example of that is the portion of the book that takes place when Eugene is a baby. Wolfe attributes a high level of self-consciousness to his infant protagonist.

The baby Eugene is bemused at the way people act toward him and the various foibles he observes in them. He speculates about language and analyzes his efforts to learn it in a way that presupposes he already understands the concept of language, like if an English-speaking person were plopped down in some foreign country where people spoke some other language and he was trying to figure out this other language.

Who is this kid? Stewie Griffin?

The Gant family members are striking, memorable characters. Sometimes their good and bad traits are as outsized as Eugene’s emotions, but perhaps that’s intended to represent how larger-than-life and dominating the adults in a sensitive child’s life can seem.

The father is perhaps the most arresting character. He’s a sad, scary drunk, but the portrait painted of him is so full that as important a characteristic as that is he’s never reduced to just that. He’s also someone that Eugene has very favorable feelings about—someone you can like, admire, respect—and detest and fear.

All the family members are eccentric and messed up in various ways. But you can’t say “and therefore the family is dysfunctional, the end,” any more than you can say, “And yet somehow they find a way to make it work,” because while both assessments would have some degree of truth to them, they would be equally or more misleading.

It’s a family that is indeed more dysfunctional than not, more apt to cause each other pain—intentional or otherwise—than not, but with flashes of genuine love and connection. Maybe it’s because of those flashes that Eugene is unable or unwilling to detach from them. Instead it’s as if in spite of seeing just how injurious life in this family is, he can’t help himself from keeping himself fully open and vulnerable to it, maximizing its—good and (mostly) bad—impact on him.

As damaged and damaging as the father is, he can also be a comic figure.

“When I was your age, I had milked four cows, done all the chores, and walked eight miles through the snow by this time.” Indeed, when he described his early schooling, he furnished a landscape that was constantly three feet deep in snow, and frozen hard. He seemed never to have attended school save under polar conditions.

There are other occasional moments of sharp humor as well, including the mother’s tendency to have premonitions after the fact (i.e., to convince herself retroactively that she had predicted something or at least had a strong clairvoyant feeling about it, when clearly she hadn’t), and the World War I propaganda news insisting the Germans were being constantly routed and forced to retreat—until in some inexplicable way they had apparently retreated all the way to Paris.

Actually there may be considerably more humor in the book than I picked up on, since a lot of the references that surely meant more to intellectuals of the 1920s when the book came out went over my head.

Really I’m just not a very good audience for this book. But what I will say is that it feels in the end like it got through to me more than I thought as I was reading it. There were so many individual trees that I couldn’t make sense of, with all the poetic language, fancy turns of phrases, obscure narrative devices, etc. that I figured I wouldn’t understand or care about the forest. But even if the details often lost me, the psychological journey itself, this obsessively detailed, desperate exploration of childhood with all its intensity and pain, drew me in and spoke to me to some degree.

In terms of how much I enjoyed the actual process of reading Look Homeward, Angel, I’d put it in the bottom 20%, and maybe bottom 10%, of novels I’ve read in my life. In terms of how much it made me think and made me care, and made me glad in retrospect that I’d read it, I’d rank it somewhere around the middle.

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