book review
Bobzeen > literature > thomas wolfe look homeward, angel

Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel


In my 50s I finally got around to reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. I can only conclude that it took a massive intellect and a massive artistic talent to write this book. It shows on every page.

Look Homeward, Angel reads like a Mellevillian epic saga of great events, focusing on seemingly "little" events: harsh-but-life-affirming everyday struggles of early-20th-century edge-of-the-mountain people in the South. The family seems dysfunctional, mainly because its dysfunctions are different from one’s own. But it is probably no more dysfunctional than most.

The particular Gant/Pentland family characteristics (dysfunctions included) make the people so real it is hard to believe I haven’t met them. Having recently finished the book, I already recall the characters like I remember people in my old neighborhood. The book redefined my illusive eidetic object I call “the past”: it was a flood of discoveries with enough familiarity to make every page an "Aha!" I knew enough about early 20th-century Southern culture to make a lot of connections, with enough uniqueness of place and character to be fascinating series of discoveries from beginning to end.

It takes a gifted and disciplined literary talent to take everyday problems and growing pains of a semi-rural boarding-house family, about a boy growing into manhood, and turn it into a rich, layered, multi-themed compelling "page-turner" like Look Homeward, Angel. The universals and uniqueness and joys and tragedies and victories and failures and quandaries are so seamlessly integrated, it is a moving and exhilarating journey.

As most English majors know, Wolfe’s style influenced later authors like Faulkner, Hemmingway, Walker Percy, Saul Bellow. That legacy alone tells you what a monumental talent was Thomas Wolfe. But that’s an empty credential until you put away the computer and the TV and curl up for the weekend with the book and enter the world of Look Homeward, Angel.