the second (1957) Modern Library cover of Look Homeward, Angel - the version I own

Look Homeward, Angel

  • Author:  Thomas Wolfe  (1900  –  1938)
  • Rank:  #57
  • Published:  1929
  • Publisher:  Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Pages:  626
  • First Line:  “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.”
  • Last Line:  “Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father’s porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say “The town is near,” but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges.
  • ML Edition:  ML Giant #16  (two dust jackets – 1934, 1957)
  • Film:  two television versions – 1961 German and 1972 U.S.
  • First Read:  February, 1996

The Novel: In one sense, it was one of the oddest omissions from the Modern Library’s list of the best novels of the 20th Century.  Here we have one of those classic 20th Century American novels – developed on that great American theme of growing up in a small town, written by an acclaimed author from that great time period of the late 20’s and 30’s that also produced Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Dos Passos.  Yet, on the other hand, it seems fitting.  Critical opinion has veered away from Thomas Wolfe and while Look Homeward, Angel at least still gets read, as much can not really be said for his later novels: The Web and the Rock, Of Time and the River and You Can’t Go Home Again.  Indeed, in an era when even little-known mediocre novels have full descriptive articles on Wikipedia, Angel doesn’t get any description past the first part of the book, River and Home have marginally small entries and Web doesn’t even have one.  One of the things I most miss about my lost chance to be a professor is the chance to introduce younger generations to a work like this, one that deserves to be remembered but seems increasingly likely to be forgotten.

Much of the critical discussion on this book centers around its production.  I don’t mean the writing.  Wolfe wrote the novel (titled at first O Lost) and then brought it to famed editor Maxwell Perkins.  It was the work of Perkins and Wolfe together editing it down and making it more accessible.  Before long, it would be Perkins who would get much of the credit, supposedly saving an unreadable work and turning it into a masterpiece.  But for those who have read O Lost (it was published under the original name and text in 2000), the underlying genius of the work is already there.  Yes, there is no question that Angel is a better work and it is definitely more accessible, but that kind of difference between a manuscript and the final printed version can be seen in many great works and it unfairly tarnishes Wolfe’s reputation as a writer.

The novel is a classic from the very start.  And I mean the very start.  There might not be a novel with a better title.  And then, in the very first page, we have the glorious description of how everything across the ages brings us to where we are: “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.”  Through many of these wonderful descriptions, Wolfe makes us understand how all of human history brings us to where we are.  It is a sociological description on the scale of Dos Passos, but with a distinctly personal nature.  Wolfe is unconcerned with the world at large, but rather how the world at large produces young Eugene Gant.  He is not even averse to humor along the way: “Finally, only thirty or forty million years before, our earliest ancestors had crawled out of the primeval slime; and then, no doubt, finding the change unpleasant, crawled back in again.”

In spite of all my reading of Faulkner, my own novel, written in parts over long years, takes its style from Winesburg, Ohio, but its main story arc is a gift passed down from Look Homeward, Angel (even to the extent that one part of it is titled Come Now, Angel).  This story of Eugene Gant’s journey from the early days of his family through his own youth and burgeoning adulthood (“He had won his first release from the fences of home”) is what inspires my own.  This is the classic American story: growing up in a small town and (usually) escaping.  But of all the examples of this, this is the best (the only two American higher novels higher on the list that fit this are Portnoy’s Complaint – which is a different kind of book in a different kind of setting and Winesburg – but Winesburg is really about the town and not the character).

You could turn to nearly any page in the book and find magnificent sentences: “His eyes fixed on the clean concrete walk, Gant strode on, muttering dramatically, composing a narrative of the picture.” – page 271.  Yet, of all the books on this list, it might very well be the least read.  As it was not on the All-TIME list, the Modern Library list and didn’t win any awards and is taught less and less, it must rely on those who love it to pass it on.  Certainly there are those who do love it (Pat Conroy for one and there is no question of its influence on William Styron when he wrote Sophie’s Choice).  But for those of who do love it, we say to those of you who have not read it, it is time for you to do so.

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