Sunday, June 07, 2015

A Young Man's Destiny

Look Homeward, AngelLook Homeward, Angel 
by Thomas Wolfe

"That we are born alone—all of us who ever lived or will live—that we live alone, and die alone, and that we are strangers to one another, and never come to know one another." (p 32)

Alone. This is a difficult concept to consider when thinking about the greatness both in size and content of Thomas Wolfe's first novel, Look Homeward Angel. The inclusion of so much of the world and so many other voices almost drowns out the voice of Eugene Gant, the narrator of this immense and impressive novel. But perhaps we should begin a consideration of this novel with the question of destiny. This is what we read in the first paragraph:
"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 smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world."

Is this destiny that of Eugene as well? And is it mere chance or will Eugene have a will to make his way in this world? This shows the direction of the story and, as it expands to take in the Gant family of Father, Mother, and siblings in Altamont, I was impressed with the translation of a country's manifest destiny into a town's and into a family's and beyond that the personal story and destiny of one Eugene Gant.

This translation of destiny is a story of coming of age told in what we today might call a "mash-up" of styles that leave the reader looking for structure among the historical commentaries, classical allusions, family rows, and soaring beauty of many more lyrical passages. The last of these alone made the book worth reading. Yes, it is worth persevering the Whitmanesque size of the narrative for some further passages of the beauty in the world that destiny had bequeathed to young Eugene Gant. While he is young and pursuing an education that seems unconventional, in spite of his attendance at the traditional schools, he is living a life of isolation from most of the world around him. There are exceptions, his relationship with his brother Ben is particularly poignant; yet there is a yearning for escape, from family and from Altamont to a world where Eugene may not feel quite so alone.

His estrangement from his own family is both exacerbated and caused by unlikable qualities from his father's boorish drunkenness to Steve's abusive behavior to his mother Eliza's self-centeredness. She is focused on a miserliness that builds a material fortune but does nothing for Eugene. With all his struggles Eugene remains detached from family and home; he seeks some solace with another family, the Leonards, and finds an "angel" in Margaret Leonard. But the stone angels outside his home remain a symbol that has warmth only in an ironical sense.

Wolfe writes near the end of the book that Eugene "stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch . . . 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" (p 508). This is where his true destiny lies. This, perhaps, is a place where he will no longer feel the pangs of isolation or, perhaps, it is merely a dream of a destiny denied as yet. For this reader it is not unlike the statement of another young man, Stephen Dedalus, who at the end of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man says, "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

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Brian Joseph said...

The combination of styles that you describe seems curious and little disorientating.

Based on your commentary it sounds as if there is a lot going on in this book. Perhaps the varying syles and the denseness is also reminiscent of James Joyce.

I love the quote that you opened your post with.

James said...


Wolfe is somewhat in the mode of Joyce with a lot of stream of consciousness. The varying styles are not as obviously didactic as in Joyce. Overall this is a very American novel mirroring the width and breadth of our country.