Second Thoughts on Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel

Second Thoughts on Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel

By CosmicGpysy under a Creative Commons license

Celia Bland published Madonna Comix, a poetry and image collaboration with artist Dianne Kornberg, in 2014.  Cherokee Road Kill, a new collection of poetry with illustrations by Kyoko Miyabe, will be published in 2017.  Poems and essays have recently appeared in the National Book Critics Circle column, in Station Hill Press’s new poetry anthology, In/filtration, and in Gulf Coast, Tarpaulin Sky, and Vela.  She is the Associate Director of the Bard Institute for Writing & Thinking. This essay on re-reading Thomas Wolfe appeared in the New York Books Critics Web Circle web series Second Thoughts.

Asheville, North Carolina. By the time my family arrived there in the winter of 1975, the once-grand place was on the skids, a tarnished reflection of Thomas Wolfe’s city of the early 1900s with no hint of the hipster haven it would become in the 21st century. The French Broad River flowed mud-brown under the dirty ice of November. The stores along Haywood Street were husks, only Woolworth’s remaining open to sell the cheap notions the down and out depend upon.

In the 1920s, we might have booked a stay in a boarding house like “Dixieland,” the one Mrs. Gant runs in Look Homeward, Angel, where a demimonde of “kept” women, traveling salesmen (“drummers”), and tuberculars live out their days in rented rooms. Wolfe perfectly describes the down at the heels boarders, along with their hosts: the Falstaffian Mr. Gant, who roars poetic complaints during the day and staggers home, stupefied with drink, at night, stinking of the brothels of “Darkey Town.” Purse-lipped, land-rich Mrs. Gant, meanwhile, forces their shame-faced son Eugene, a prodigy in too-tight shoes, to meet arriving trains with a signboard advertising Dixieland. “That boy’s big enough to do a little work,” she says, even though he’s already busy standing in for Wolfe himself.

Re-reading Look Homeward, Angel at 50, I vividly remember encountering it for the first time in my icy bedroom—the furnace was broken—in the former Asheville Art Museum, a 1920s mansion in a “nice” neighborhood (O dreams of respectability!) where my family lived in the interminable winter of my twelfth year. Our sojourn there was brief— just a few short months—but it nearly ruined us. After Asheville, we were a mere assemblage—my mother, her boyfriend, and myself—locked together by the gravitational pull of my mother’s fickle attentions. The city still lives in my imagination—the city of my childhood and of this childhood book—as a place of thwarted dreams.

It’s as if a scrim were lowering over the page as I experience the novel as a youth and as a matron at one and the same time.  The humiliations and conceits of the self-destructive Gants—creative in chaos—abound in sentences rife with recrimination and regret. Wolfe, I now realize, was weaned on the Song of Solomon and Proust and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and, like Eugene, he was sent (at the reduced rate negotiated by his penny-pinching mother) to learn Latin and Greek at a small private school run by a woman who fed not only his hungry brain but his ambitions.

At its best, Look Homeward, Angel possesses an authoritative command of high and low, joining the “poetic” flights of Shelley to down-home Appalachian seductions and murders. Eugene, like Wolfe, possesses “a savage honesty, which exercised domination over him when his heart or head were deeply involved.” The novel is partner (in shame, in nostalgia) to Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep and, in sheer physical weight and sensate self-consciousness, to Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle.

Imagine opening a library book at the age of 12 and discovering the story of your own life. Open-mouthed I found the “crude, kindly, ignorant, and murderous people” I sprang from, loving, fighting, buying, dying.  I drank it in like cool water.  Here were the flowering dogwoods, “the air…filled with warm-throated plum-dropping bird-notes,” the mountains purple at sunset.  Here were the humiliations of poverty: Levi’s gone at the knees, grocery clerks who wouldn’t take food stamps from my mother’s hand, screaming fights in kitchens and bedrooms and rattletrap VW’s.  I recognized, in wincing detail, Eugene’s mother as she dotes and denies, keeping Eugene close—“Why, say – you can’t grow up yet. You’re my baby”—as she neglects his meals, his health. I dropped one shoulder as Eugene paced “restlessly up and down the hall or prowled through the house a-search for some entrance he had never found, a bright and stricken thing kept twisting about like a trapped bird.”

For me, the novel was an entrance into artifice, an unfound door into the hyper-real.  I lingered in its language, fingers tapping gold stars embedded in the Formica counter, transported from the breakfast rush at the Shake Shop to a raucous breakfast at the Uneeda Lunch—a short ride, admittedly, from the 1970s to the 1920s, but one that jogged my imagination, demanding: Pay attention! You can use this.

Anchoring the action is Altamont, as Wolfe calls Asheville, which was his birthplace. In Look Homeward, Angel, Altamont is a mountain village that, gradually, over the course of Eugene’s childhood, becomes a city.  Mud paths are paved, fields plowed for streets, and shops and houses erected.  Asheville becomes a summer destination; refreshingly cool in a South that sweltered before air-conditioning, and with its fresh mountain air an ideal place for tuberculosis sufferers.  A little Switzerland.

Looking back, I can’t make much sense of why my family moved to Asheville.  My mother, a college professor who’d taken up with one of her students, lost her teaching job and took a post as assistant curator at the Asheville Art Museum.  The museum’s collection was temporarily in storage as it transitioned from its digs in an old mansion in the tony Montford section of town to a new building as yet unbuilt—but the construction money, my mother told her boyfriend and me, had been embezzled, and now everything was up in the air.  We were sitting at the kitchen table in the big room that had once been a beauty parlor, replete with the rickety second-hand furniture that I now see, sturdily reproduced, in my middle-class friends’ kitchens: a “Hoosier” cabinet with perforated tin doors, a long walnut table, a hollowed bread board. She was looking at us with excitement.  She might have been Mrs. Gant, jonesing for another acre of downtown property.

My mother, it should be noted, was hired to fill a position ditched by a criminal on the run from the FBI, and her job was to curate art crated in a warehouse.  “We won’t be able to pay you right away,” the director of the museum had warned her. But, my mother told us, her voice warm with hope, they would pay her eventually, they would build a museum, eventually, and we would find a new and better life in Asheville. Eventually.

Did I mention that, when we got to Asheville, we had no place to live? My mother talked us into a church-run house for homeless families alongside a highway that roared by its front door and disappeared into the Beaucatcher Mountain tunnel. The priest who met us with the key greeted us dubiously; we didn’t look respectable (my mother’s boyfriend’s hair was long and unkempt) but we didn’t seem homeless either (my mother’s accent and diction were educated, irritable). Still, they let us stay until my mother secured another squat: in the old art museum.

In my struggle to ignore my family’s struggle, I hunkered down with Look Homeward, Angel for weeks. O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, Lost!  As I read, my dog Beau paced from couch to door, desperate for a walk, but I was paralyzed by this written world of raucous patter, long-winded diatribes, and frustrating sexual encounters.  I had just read Catcher in the Rye and loved its rage and humor. But while the emotional landscape of New York hotels and Connecticut boarding schools was exotic, the shapeless narrative of Look Homeward, Angel provided a blueprint of a world I knew: fecund, futile, and violent.

Nosing frantically, Beau jumped his paws on to the windowsill and, straining for the outdoors, peed against the wall.

O lost! and by the wind grieved!

Wolfe’s linguistic gestures are addictive.  Even as characters labor in obscurity and despair, lyrical descriptions bring to life, for instance, brother Luke, the salesman of the family, who possesses “superlatively that quality that American actors and men of business call ‘personality’—a wild energy, a Rabelaisian vulgarity, a sensory instinct for rapid and swinging repartee, a hypnotic power of speech, torrential, meaningless, mad and evangelical.” Brother Ben, Eugene’s champion, “is like a piece of slightly yellow ivory; his high white head is knotted fiercely by his old man’s scowl; his mouth is like a knife, his smile the flicker of light across a blade.  His face is like a blade, and a knife, and a flicker of light; it is delicate and fierce, and scowls beautifully forever.” Luke’s “whah-whah” of “idiotic laughter” becomes a signature motif, Dickensian in effect, as does the doomed Ben’s face “like a blade and a knife and a flicker of light.”

I can’t say I would recommend Look Homeward, Angel to today’s reading public.  Do people still care about the exhaustive inner workings of a white man’s coming of age—Knausgård aside? Could they find the patience for 660 pages of anecdote and observation? An abridged version, shorn of repetition and casual racism, focused on the machinations of the Gant family versus Eugene’s slow self-awakening, might sell.  Success might be likelier if it contained scenes such as the one in which Mr. Gant, fire and rage almost extinguished, sells the mysterious stone angel – that symbol of longing from the book’s title—which prompted his odyssey southward to his former love, the local brothel keeper. Or Ben’s heartbreakingly tragi-comic death (which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?), an event that fortifies Eugene’s desire to flee his family, Altamont, the South. The novel’s last 200 pages detail his slow migration north prompted by the Stranger writhing within—that is, Eugene’s inheritance from his stonemason father, an undisciplined clown with secret depths:

This bright thing, the core of him, his Stranger, kept twisting its head about unable to look at horror, until at length it gazed steadfastly, as if under a dreadful hypnosis, into the eyes of death and darkness.

As with Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s rediscovered novel, Look Homeward, Angel may be most valuable as an historical record of enduring cultural assumptions and prejudices. Wolfe assumes the reader’s culpability and approval as he outlines with surprising sympathy the paranoia of lower middle class whites. Mrs. Gant treats the “help” like shiftless thieves. Young Gene feels sympathy for these maids and cooks, and yet they remain interchangeable, unindividuated. Jews, targeted for offhand jabs, are implicated in some nameless Semitic threat. Even the construction of Biltmore House, a mansion built in Asheville by a young Vanderbilt, is mistaken as the folly of a “rich Jew.”

Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? 

Ultimately, I recognize in Look Homeward, Angel my own shame at exposing my seedy past to a world that values success in all its forms.  I know, too, Wolfe’s stealthy pride in the failures of “little” people. That life may have been rough – O lost! – but it was mine, intangible as that unfound door we—miraculously— discover in our dreams.

My mother finally packed it in and we “up and moved back to Whitney,” as my Depression-weathered grandmother would say. We retreated down the mountain to a tiny village where we could survive in poverty, our Asheville adventure, our foray into modern America and its possibilities for success and respectability, dashed. It was months before we paid off our Asheville debts, and the resentments forged in those frigid rooms never thawed into forgiveness or acceptance. My own trek to New York was still years away, and when I did make my way north to college, it was with the same dragging of feet Wolfe describes, the same ambivalent longing for escape and longing for Dixieland.

It’s been decades since the poem that begins Look Homeward, Angel propelled me over sidewalk cracks and subway tracks, past smelly bundles sleeping in foyers, and up 22 flights to the trading floor in the World Trade Center where I temped, entering data above the Atlantic tip of Manhattan long before the dark day when the buildings crumpled. Naked and alone, we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face. Can you hear in those words the longing for home, the blue air of evening, the clay and wet stone? Can you sense the bitter disgust prompted by such absurd words as mother? That poem still echoes in my ears, years after I have made a family of my own. A stone, a leaf, an unfound door. And all the forgotten faces.