I’m sorry I read the back cover of Look Homeward, Angel as I believe it unduly influenced my reading of this renowned work. To be clear, the following quote by Wolfe is what turned me off before I even opened the book,
“I don’t know yet what I am capable of doing,” wrote Thomas Wolfe at the age of twenty-three, “but, by God, I have genius–I know it too well to blush behind it.”
Perhaps my bias kept me from fully appreciating this read and I do wonder had I not been clued in to Wolfe’s overly inflated ego if I may have enjoyed it more. But alas, the stage was set and I must confess it was not the treasure I had hoped it to be.
Considered autobiographical, it would likely be published as a memoir today. It is Wolfe’s coming of age saga. Quite well written, it was most convincing when characters other than himself were portrayed. We meet the Gant family and their six surviving children living in the early 1900’s American south and get up close and personal with the family’s unrestrained lifestyle. Central is Eugene Gant, Wolfe’s alter ego, who is introduced at birth and followed through age 19.
The Gant family patriarch, Oliver, is an alcoholic stone cutter who believes life has treated him unfairly. In alcohol infused rages, he rants obscenities and insults at his wife and children. He never steps back to see that his family has overcome many of life’s struggles and so never enjoys the fruits of his labor. A sad and self-pitying man who turned to the bottle rather than to his family.
Eliza (Pentland) Gant is Oliver’s punching bag, but she is a strong and overly resourceful woman who somehow keeps going no matter what life throws at her. Her panacea is the accumulation of real estate, which she has a keen eye for. She keeps pace with her husband’s drinking with these purchases and in her zealousness, sometimes fails to see her family’s difficulties.
Helen Gant favors her father and comes to his rescue time and again. She is able to calm him and sip some soup after attacking his wife or another family member. She is tough and no-nonsense, and for reasons unknown, adores her father. As she grows up, she nearly replaces her mother in the caring of her father, not in a sexual way, but in a supportive and caring role. Years of this duty, however, takes its toll and she becomes resentful and bitter.
The youngest Gant, Eugene, portrays Mr. Wolfe. From infancy, he exhibits the belief that he is superior to all in his family and begins to look down upon them. To say this character was inchoate would be sarcastic, as this word appeared many, many times, yet it would also be accurate. Eugene takes full advantage as the youngest in the family and his self motivation ensures he is the first to attend university. When this little bird flew the coop, perhaps he knew he could not go home again (could not resist). A self-absorbed man whose view of women, including his mother, was distasteful, even given the time.
I think an appropriate meeting locale with Mr. Wolfe would be at a university. Perhaps we could sit in their library in big comfortable chairs and eye each other suspiciously and then head outdoors for a stroll. Knowing I’d need to stroke this oversize ego, I’d do so gingerly and ease into questions regarding his writing habits.
My rating for Look Homeward, Angel is a 7 out of 10.
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