Look Homeward, Angel is an elaborate and moving coming-of-age story about Eugene Gant, a restless and energetic character whose passion to experience life takes him from his small, rural hometown in North Carolina to Harvard University and the city of Boston. The novel's pattern is artfully simple -- a small town, a large family, high school and college -- yet the characters are monumental in their graphic individuality and personality.
Through his rich, ornate prose, Wolfe evokes the extraordinarily vivid family of the Gants, and with equal detail, the remarkable peculiarities of small-town life and the pain and upheaval of a boy who must leave both. A classic work of American literature, Look Homeward, Angel is a passionate, stirring, and unforgettable novel.
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Thomas Wolfe was born in 1900 in Asheville, North Carolina, a resort town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. His father was a tombstone cutter from Pennsylvania, his mother a native of the mountain area. Much like Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe spent his youth going back and forth between 92 Woodfin Street, where his father and his sister lived, and The Old Kentucky Home, which was the Dixieland boarding house in Look Homeward, Angel. In 1912, Wolfe became a student at the North State School, a private school, and in 1916 he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After rejecting the offers of various newspaper positions, in 1920 Wolfe entered Harvard Graduate School, from which he received his MA in English. He completed an extra year at Harvard, studying playwriting, but he never had any luck selling his plays in New York.
He became an instructor in English at New York University in 1924, serving intermittently until 1930, writing and traveling extensively in Europe and the Americas. In 1925, while sailing for New York, he met a woman who was to be his constant companion for the next five years, Mrs. Aline Bernstein, who was married and some eighteen years older than Wolfe. In 1927, Mrs. Bernstein persuaded Wolfe to work solely on his novel, rather than to return to his teaching job. She rented a garret for him over a tailor's shop in a run-down building where he wrote his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. After several publishers rejected it, it was finally accepted by Maxwell Perkins at Scribner. In 1929 Look Homeward, Angel was published. Much has been written about the fact that Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel is autobiographical, and its publication met with violent reaction in Asheville. The community was furious that its secrets had been laid bare by one of its own sons. Only later was the literary merit of the book appreciated.
In 1931, Wolfe moved to Brooklyn where he spent the next four years living in poorly furnished apartments with cigarette-burned tables, straight chairs, and dry-goods boxes where he placed his completed pages. He wrote the hard way -- in fits and turns, without chronology, moving from one unconnected episode to another, often revising, often rewriting entirely.
His next book, Of Time and the River was published in 1935. The book was a triumph, and in an effort to capitalize on its popularity, Scribner rushed through a book of Wolfe's short stories, From Death to Morning. Wolfe was now widely known, and it was during this time that he "was set upon by every kind of parasite," as he wrote, "every kind of harpy, every kind of vulture, every kind of female egoist that had a string to pull." Though he wanted merely to be left alone, a number of provoking incidents plagued him: lawsuits, blackmail letters, and a grave quarrel with Scribner. Eventually, his publishing relationship with Scribner was severed when Perkins and Wolfe became divided on ideological issues (the last four chapters of You Can't Go Home Again), Perkins protesting when Wolfe wished to replace his lyrical prose with political and ethical arguments.
Wolfe began a publishing relationship with Harpers which published The Web and the Rock in 1939 and his last novel, You Can't Go Home Again, in 1940.
In early July of 1938, Wolfe, on a trip to British Columbia, contracted pneumonia. When a fever persisted during convalescence, the doctor ordered an X ray which revealed a tubercular lesion on the upper lobe of his right lung. In Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, an operation showed that Wolfe's brain was infected by tubercular germs released during the siege with pneumonia. Thomas Wolfe died on September 15, 1938, eighteen days short of his thirty-eighth birthday.
When Perkins learned of Wolfe's death, he thought of the lines from William Shakespeare's King Lear: He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. "For," wrote Perkins, "he was on the rack almost always, and almost always would have been, and for one reason. He was wrestling as no artist in Europe would have to do, with the material of literature -- a great country not yet revealed to its own people.
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 moment is a window on all time.
This is a moment:
An Englishman named Gilbert Gaunt, which he later changed to Gant (a concession probably to Yankee phonetics), having come to Baltimore from Bristol in 1837 on a sailing vessel, soon let the profits of a public house which he had purchased roll down his improvident gullet. He wandered westward into Pennsylvania, eking out a dangerous living by matching fighting cocks against the champions of country barnyards, and often escaping after a night spent in a village jail, with his champion dead on the field of battle, without the clink of a coin in his pocket, and sometimes with the print of a farmer's big knuckles on his reckless face. But he always escaped, and coming at length among the Dutch at harvest time he was so touched by the plenty of their land that he cast out his anchors there. Within a year he married a rugged young widow with a tidy farm who like all the other Dutch had been charmed by his air of travel, and his grandiose speech, particularly when he did Hamlet in the manner of the great Edmund Kean. Every one said he should have been an actor.
The Englishman begot children -- a daughter and four sons -- lived easily and carelessly, and bore patiently the weight of his wife's harsh but honest tongue. The years passed, his bright somewhat staring eyes grew dull and bagged, the tall Englishman walked with a gouty shuffle: one morning when she came to nag him out of sleep she found him dead of an apoplexy. He left five children, a mortgage and -- in his strange dark eyes which now stared bright and open -- something that had not died: a passionate and obscure hunger for voyages.
So, with this legacy, we leave this Englishman and are concerned hereafter with the heir to whom he bequeathed it, his second son, a boy named Oliver. How this boy stood by the roadside near his mother's farm, and saw the dusty Rebels march past on their way to Gettysburg, how his cold eyes darkened when he heard the great name of Virginia, and how the year the war had ended, when he was still fifteen, he had walked along a street in Baltimore, and seen within a little shop smooth granite slabs of death, carved lambs and cherubim, and an angel poised upon cold phthisic feet, with a smile of soft stone idiocy -- this is a longer tale. But I know that his cold and shallow eyes had darkened with the obscure and passionate hunger that had lived in a dead man's eyes, and that had led from Fenchurch Street past Philadelphia. As the boy looked at the big angel with the carved stipe of lilystalk, a cold and nameless excitement possessed him. The long fingers of his big hands closed. He felt that he wanted, more than anything in the world, to carve delicately with a chisel. He wanted to wreak something dark and unspeakable in him into cold stone. He wanted to carve an angel's head.
Oliver entered the shop and asked a big bearded man with a wooden mallet for a job. He became the stone cutter's apprentice. He worked in that dusty yard five years. He became a stone cutter. When his apprenticeship was over he had become a man.
He never found it. He never learned to carve an angel's head. The dove, the lamb, the smooth joined marble hands of death, and letters fair and fine -- but not the angel. And of all the years of waste and loss -- the riotous years in Baltimore, of work and savage drunkenness, and the theatre of Booth and Salvini, which had a disastrous effect upon the stone cutter, who memorized each accent of the noble rant, and strode muttering through the streets, with rapid gestures of the enormous talking hands -- these are blind steps and gropings of our exile, the painting of our hunger as, remembering speechlessly, we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, a door. Where? When?
He never found it, and he reeled down across the continent into the Reconstruction South -- a strange wild form of six feet four with cold uneasy eyes, a great blade of nose, and a rolling tide of rhetoric, a preposterous and comic invective, as formalized as classical epithet, which he used seriously, out with a faint uneasy grin around the corners of his thin wailing mouth.
He set up business in Sydney, the little capital city of one of the middle Southern states, lived soberly and industriously under the attentive eye of a folk still raw with defeat and hostility, and finally, his good name founded and admission won, he married a gaunt tubercular spinstress, ten years his elder, but with a nest egg and an unshakable will to matrimony. Within eighteen months he was a howling maniac again, his little business went smash while his foot stayed on the polished rail, and Cynthia, his wife -- whose life, the natives said, he had not helped to prolong -- died suddenly one night after a hemorrhage.
So, all was gone again -- Cynthia, the shop, the hard-bought praise of soberness, the angel's head -- he walked through the streets at dark, yelling his pentameter curse at Rebel ways, and all their indolence; but sick with fear and loss and penitence, he wilted under the town's reproving stare, becoming convinced, as the flesh wasted on his own gaunt frame, that Cynthia's scourge was doing vengeance now on him.
He was only past thirty, but he looked much older. His face was yellow and sunken; the waxen blade of his nose looked like a beak. He had long brown mustaches that hung straight down mournfully.
His tremendous bouts of drinking had wrecked his health. He was thin as a rail and had a cough. He thought of Cynthia now, in the lonely and hostile town, and he became afraid. He thought he had tuberculosis and that he was going to die.
So, alone and lost again, having found neither order nor establishment in the world, and with the earth cut away from his feet, Oliver resumed his aimless drift along the continent. He turned westward toward the great fortress of the hills, knowing that behind them his evil fame would not be known, and hoping that he might find in them isolation, a new life, and recovered health.
The eyes of the gaunt spectre darkened again, as they had in his youth.
All day, under a wet gray sky of October, Oliver rode westward across the mighty state. As he stared mournfully out the window at the great raw land so sparsely tilled by the futile and occasional little farms, which seemed to have made only little grubbing patches in the wilderness, his heart went cold and leaden in him. He thought of the great barns of Pennsylvania, the ripe bending of golden grain, the plenty, the order, the clean thrift of the people. And he thought of how he had set out to get order and position for himself, and of the rioting confusion of his life, the blot and blur of years, and the red waste of his youth.
By God! he thought. I'm getting old! Why here?
The grisly parade of the spectre years trooped through his brain. Suddenly, he saw that his life had been channelled by a series of accidents: a mad Rebel singing of Armageddon, the sound of a bugle on the road, the mule-hoofs of the army, the silly white face of an angel in a dusty shop, a slut's pert wiggle of her hams as she passed by. He had reeled out of warmth and plenty into this barren land: as he stared out the window and saw the fallow unworked earth, the great raw lift of the Piedmont, the muddy red clay roads, and the slattern people gaping at the stations -- a lean farmer gangling above his reins, a dawdling negro, a gap-toothed yokel, a hard sallow woman with a grimy baby -- the strangeness of destiny stabbed him with fear. How came he here from the clean Dutch thrift of his youth into this vast lost earth of rickets?
The train rattled on over the reeking earth. Rain fell steadily. A brakeman came draftily into the dirty plush coach and emptied a scuttle of coal into the big stove at the end. High empty laughter shook a group of yokels sprawled on two turned seats. The bell tolled mournfully above the clacking wheels. There was a droning interminable wait at a junction-town near the foot-hills. Then the train moved on again across the vast rolling earth.
Dusk came. The huge bulk of the hills was foggily emergent. Small smoky lights went up in the hillside shacks. The train crawled dizzily across high trestles spanning ghostly hawsers of water. Far up, far down, plumed with wisps of smoke, toy cabins stuck to bank and gulch and hillside. The train toiled sinuously up among gouged red cuts with slow labor. As darkness came, Oliver descended at the little town of Old Stockade where the rails ended. The last great wall of the hills lay stark above him. As he left the dreary little station and stared into the greasy lamplight of a country store, Oliver felt that he was crawling, like a great beast, into the circle of those enormous hills to die.
The next morning he resumed his journey by coach. His destination was the little town of Altamont, twenty-four miles away beyond the rim of the great outer wall of the hills. As the horses strained slowly up the mountain road Oliver's spirit lifted a little. It was a gray-golden day in late October, bright and windy. There was a sharp bite and sparkle in the mountain air: the range soared above him, close, immense, clean, and barren. The trees rose gaunt and stark: they were almost leafless. The sky was full of windy white rags of cloud; a thick blade of mist washed slowly around the rampart of a mountain.
Below him a mountain stream foamed down its rocky bed, and he could see little dots of men laying the track that would coil across the hill toward Altamont. Then the sweating team lipped the gulch of the mountain, and, among soaring and lordly ranges that melted away in purple mist, they began the slow descent toward the high plateau on which the town of Altamont was built.
In the haunting eternity of these mountains, rimmed in their enormous cup, he found sprawled out on its hundred hills and hollows a town of four thousand people.
There were new lands. His heart lifted.
This town of Altamont had been settled soon after the Revolutionary War. It had been a convenient stopping-off place for cattledrovers and farmers in their swing eastward from Tennessee into South Carolina. And, for several decades before the Civil War, it had enjoyed the summer patronage of fashionable people from Charleston and the plantations of the hot South. When Oliver first came to it it had begun to get some reputation not only as a summer resort, but as a sanitarium for tuberculars. Several rich men from the North had established hunting lodges in the hills, and one of them had bought huge areas of mountain land and, with an army of imported architects, carpenters and masons, was planning the greatest country estate in America -- something in limestone, with pitched slate roofs, and one hundred and eighty-three rooms. It was modelled on the chateau at Blois. There was also a vast new hotel, a sumptuous wooden barn, rambling comfortably upon the summit of a commanding hill.
But most of the population was still native, recruited from the hill and country people in the surrounding districts. They were Scotch-Irish mountaineers, rugged, provincial, intelligent, and industrious.
Oliver had about twelve hundred dollars saved from the wreckage of Cynthia's estate. During the winter he rented a little shack at one edge of the town's public square, acquired a small stock of marbles, and set up business. But he had little to do at first save to think of the prospect of his death. During the bitter and lonely winter, while he thought he was dying, the gaunt scarecrow Yankee that flapped muttering through the streets became an object of familiar gossip to the townspeople. All the people at his boarding-house knew that at night he walked his room with great caged strides, and that a long low moan that seemed wrung from his bowels quivered incessantly on his thin lips. But he spoke to no one about it.
And then the marvellous hill Spring came, green-golden, with brief spurting winds, the magic and fragrance of the blossoms, warm gusts of balsam. The great wound in Oliver began to heal. His voice was heard in the land once more, there were purple flashes of the old rhetoric, the ghost of the old eagerness.
One day in April, as with fresh awakened senses, he stood before his shop, watching the flurry of life in the square, Oliver heard behind him the voice of a man who was passing. And that voice, flat, drawling, complacent, touched with sudden light a picture that had lain dead in him for twenty years.
"Hit's a comin'! Accordin' to my riggers hit's due June 11, 1886."
Oliver turned and saw retreating the burly persuasive figure of the prophet he had last seen vanishing down the dusty road that led to Gettysburg and Armageddon.
"Who is that?" he asked a man.
The man looked and grinned.
"That's Bacchus Pentland," he said. "He's quite a character. There are a lot of his folks around here."
Oliver wet his great thumb briefly. Then, with a thin grin, he said:
"Has Armageddon come yet?"
"He's expecting it any day now," said the man.
Then Oliver met Eliza. He lay one afternoon in Spring upon the smooth leather sofa of his little office, listening to the bright piping noises in the Square. A restoring peace brooded over his great extended body. He thought of the loamy black earth with its sudden young light of flowers, of the beaded chill of beer, and of the plumtree's dropping blossoms. Then he heard the brisk heel-taps of a woman coming down among the marbles, and he got hastily to his feet. He was drawing on his well brushed coat of heavy black just as she entered.
"I tell you what," said Eliza, pursing her lips in reproachful banter, "I wish I was a man and had nothing to do but lie around all day on a good easy sofa."
"Good afternoon, madam," said Oliver with a flourishing bow. "Yes," he said, as a faint sly grin bent the corners of his thin mouth, "I reckon you've caught me taking my constitutional. As a matter of fact I very rarely lie down in the daytime, but I've been in bad health for the last year now, and I'm not able to do the work I used to."
He was silent a moment; his face drooped in an expression of hangdog dejection. "Ah, Lord! I don't know what's to become of me!"
"Pshaw!" said Eliza briskly and contemptuously. "There's nothing wrong with you in my opinion. You're a big strapping fellow, in the prime of life. Half of it's only imagination. Most of the time we think we're sick it's all in the mind. I remember three years ago I was teaching school in Hominy Township when I was taken down with pneumonia. Nobody ever expected to see me come out of it
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