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Thomas Wolfe’s Reviews

[Asheville Citizen, October 20, 1929]

Stirring First Novel By Local Man Making Big Hit In Literary World
Thomas Wolfe’s Story of Small Town is Unique
Scribner’s Publish Book Which Shows Obverse of ‘Main Street’

“LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL,” by Thomas Wolfe. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1929. $2.50
Reviewed by Lola M. Love

This first novel by Thomas Wolfe of Asheville, is, according to those who have been already privileged to read it, destined to be the sensation of the fall literary season. This young man, born in Asheville and educated at the State University, has taken the world by storm with the rugged and colorful sincerity with which he presents his characters. His publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, asked him to start a second book even before “Look Homeward, Angel” had come from the press. It is also predicted that, before many weeks, the book will be asked for in some of the leading European countries. The book has been eagerly awaited by literary circles in New York and it is expected that it will be one of the most discussed novels of the fall.

“Look Homeward, Angel” was begun while the author was staying in England and the news that his manuscript would be published reached Mr. Wolfe three years later in Vienna. At present he is teaching in New York University and living at the Harvard Club in New York City.

The book is a genius’ combination of reality, which will not shrink from even the most sordid details of everyday life, and of a child-like expression of the most delightful fantasy. Both realism and thought are clothed in a vibrant language which pulses with the joy which life’s ordinary happenings bring to the author. There is delight in reading words which have been used by Mr. Wolfe to cram the book with meaning and with living people.

Many books of today have, like “Look Homeward, Angel,” revealed the life of the small American city. But they have shown it as dull and drab. Mr. Wolfe’s book shows that, under conditions imposed by ethics and “culture,” life burns with the deep colors of human emotions and richly marked characters.

Eat and Drink
The characterizations in the book are excellent-made so by the way in which the author has brought to them the little charms which accompany the day-by-day knowledge of a person’s habits and entirely human thoughts. The hero in real life does not speak in impassioned periods always, nor does he always act after prayerful premeditation. He is like Mr. Wolfe’s characters, who snore and swear, eat and drink, and have their earthy desires as do the best of living men.

In effect, “Look Homeward, Angel” covers the life “of a large family (the Gants of Altamont) for a period of 20 years. It tries to describe not only the visible outer lives of all these people, but even more their buried lives.” But essentially the story is that of the life of Eugene Gant, youngest son of this family. It is his vision and his absorbed attention to the rich detail of life which bring the others of the family into being. After all, each man is his own story in real life, and other people exist only as they seem to him.
They were an intensely alive family-these Gants. They loved, hated, and took each other’s part with all the vigor they possessed. And it was this vigor-translated to the dreamer and visionary of the family-which made the patter of life in all its tragic and meaningful beauty, a thing of wonder.

According to Mr. Wolfe, “This book was written in simpleness and nakedness of soul. When I began to write the book 20 months ago (this from the time when the manuscript was submitted) I got back something of a child’s innocency and wonder. It has in it much that to me is painful and ugly; but, without sentimentality or dishonesty, it seems to me that pain has in inevitable fruition in beauty. And the book has in it sin and terror and darkness-ugly dry lusts, cruelty-the dark, the evil, the forbidden. But I believe it has many other things as well, as I wrote it with strong joy.-”

Fabric of Life
In a note to the reader of the book, the young author tells that: “This is a first book, and in it the author has written of experience which is now far and lost, but which was once part of the fabric of his life. If any reader, therefore, should say that the book is “autobiographical” the writer has no answer for him.-
“This note, however, is addressed principally to those persons whom the writer may have known in the period covered by these pages. To these persons, he would say what he believes they understand already: that this book was written in innocence and nakedness of spirit, and that the writer’s main concern was to give fulness [sic], life, and intensity to the actions and people in the book he was creating. Now that it is to be published, he would insist that this book is a fiction, and that he meditated no man’s portrait here.
“But we are the sum of all the moments of our lives-all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it. If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must.-A novelist may turn over half the people in a town to make a single figure in his novel. This is not the whole method in a book that is written from a middle distance and is without rancour or bitter intention.”

Thomas Wolfe, born in Asheville in 1900, is the youngest son of Mrs. Julia E. Wolfe, of 48 Spruce Street, Asheville, and of the late W. O. Wolfe, who died in 1922. For 35 years the W. O. Wolfe Monument Works stood on the south side of the Square here, on the site of the present Jackson building, which was the first “skyscraper” in the growing town. It was on the porch of this old building that a marble angel stood-“poised on one pathistic [sic] foot”-to watch the weaving destinies of Eugene Gant.

Wife [sic] of Student
According to Mrs. Wolfe, proudly telling of this youngest child of hers who has made such a brilliant mark for himself in the world of literature, “Tom” (the name by which he is known to family and friends) seemed to be destined for the life of a student from the beginning of his life. When he was less than two years old, his happiest moments were when his father or his mother would read stories to him. After the story had been repeated two or three times he would take the book, and, using the pictures as a guide, would repeat the whole tale, even with pauses for punctuation at the right moment! It was this uncanny precision which made many people think that he was really reading the stories. At the same time he could speak very plainly.

When he was little more than five years old, a neighbor lad, who was six, started to school and nothing would do but that Tom should go, too. His mother says that she can still recall how eagerly he ran home to her with his little list of books he needed. In his work he easily kept up with those who were several years his senior. School was his whole life form that time on, and he was ready to enter the University of North Carolina when he was little more than 15 years old.

His rapid progress through the grammar grades can be traced, in no little measure, to his mother, who used to take him with her on many trips through various parts of the country. All the other children were so many years older than he, that his mother found he would carry on with her during their travels. The school books always went with them on these trips and Mrs. Wolfe heard lessons each day just as though Tom would go to school the next morning. In this way, he kept up with his classes and even got ahead of them, for Mrs. Wolfe had a way of hearing much longer lessons than did the teachers.

Perhaps it was the constant association with older people which gave the author of “Look Homeward, Angel” such an insight into the mental life of people of every age, as is manifest in his book.
In 1920, Thomas Wolfe graduated from the University of North Carolina and three years later received his Master of Arts degree from Harvard University, where he worked with George Pierce Baker in the ’47 Workshop, following up dramatic experience as a member of the Carolina Playmakers.

He is over six feet five,-this young author whose eagerness and childlike faith in life have taken him so far. He does not like tailors or large social gatherings. So he wears a suit of warmest brown homespun which came from somewhere on the continent and has seen much service, and he sleeps in the morning, coming out to revel in the busy world which works at night when most people are asleep. He will listen for hours to the conversations of queer characters gathered together in some “Greasy Spoon”. And the roar and bustle of a newspaper plant will give him pleasure all through a night, while his eager mind feeds on a wealth of color and character.
“Look Homeward, Angel” came from the press Friday, October 18, and the eager readers of this bright pageant, so essentially youthful, will doubtless be numbered in the tens of thousands.


[The Asheville Times, Sunday, October 20, 1929]

Amazing New Novel Is Realistic Story Of Asheville People
By Walter S. Adams

An amazing new novel is just off the press which is of great and unique interest to Asheville. This community in fact, is going to be astounded by it. Some few well known residents may be shocked into chills. Others will probably be severely annoyed. Many others will snicker and laugh.
The reason is that the book is written about Asheville and Asheville people in the plainest of plain language. It is the autobiography of an Asheville boy. The story of the first twenty years of his life is bared with a frankness and detail rarely ever seen in print. The author paints himself and his home circle, as well as neighbors, friends and acquaintances with bold, daring lines, sparing nothing and shielding nothing.

Thomas Wolfe son of Mrs. Julia E. Wolfe, of 48 Spruce street [sic], wrote the book, the title of which is “Look Homeward, Angel.” The novel is just off the press of Scribners. The scene of the work is laid in Asheville with only momentary shifts to Chapel Hill and other cities. The major part of the action takes place in Asheville while virtually all the characters are residents of this city.
Young Wolfe now 29 years old and a teacher in New York University, covers the first twenty years of his life in this novel. It is the utter frank story of himself, his home, neighbors and people about town. It is quite apparent from the book that the author was not happy. His life here, as he boldly sketches it, was crowded with pain, bitterness and ugliness.

While the characters in the book are undoubtedly painted true to life, according to the author’s idea of it, the names are changed and juggled around. However, any resident of Asheville who knew this city and its people during the period 1900 to 1920, will not have the slightest trouble in filling in the names of the real persons whom Wolfe made characters in his book. Asheville in this novel goes by the name of Altamont.
The sub-title of the novel terms it “A Story of the Buried Life.” The character and quality of this unusual book is indicated with considerable clearness by an excerpt from a letter by the author which accompanied the manuscript when it was submitted to the publishers:

“The book covers the life of a large family (the Gants of Altamont) for a period of twenty years. It tries to describe not only the visible outer lives of all these people, but even more their buried lives.
“The book was written in simpleness and nakedness of soul. When I began to write the book I got back something of a child’s innocency and wonder. It has in it much that to me is painful and ugly, but without sentimentality or dishonesty it seems to me that pain has an inevitable fruition in beauty. And the book has in it sin and terror and darkness-ugly dry lusts, cruelty-the dark, the evil, the forbidden. But I believe it has many other things as well and I wrote it with strong joy, without counting the costs, for I was sure at the time that the whole of my intention-which was to come simply and unsparingly to naked life, and to tell all of my story without affectation-would be apparent.
“What merit the book has I do not know. It sometimes seems to me that it presents a picture of American life that I have never seen elsewhere.”

Has Real Literary Merit
To the outlander, “Look Homeward, Angel” is an outstanding novel possessed of unquestioned literary merit. The portraiture is vivid, the style is incisive, the narrative flows with a freedom that sweeps along the most resisting reader.
In the preface, Wolfe raises the question whether the work is really autobiographical and then hastens to beg the questions with clever twists of phrase. The net result is that the reader is left to make his own decision and the verdict of the Asheville readers will be unmistakably decisive. The intrinsic proof is overwhelming that Wolfe is relating the story of his own life and of those other lives which interlaced with his own.
This young man who is called Eugene Gant (in reality, Thomas Wolfe, the author) is of a highly sensitive nature. He suffers much from misunderstanding at home, at school and in his relations with other boys. This misunderstanding which seems to be his unvarying lot gives to his life all the aspects of a tragedy which culminates in the death of his brother.

Scandal Dragged Forth
Most of the Asheville people who appear in the novel wear their most unpleasant guises. If there attaches to them any scandal which has enjoyed only a subterranean circulation, it is dragged forth into the light. If they have nay weaknesses which more tolerant friends are considerate enough to overlook, these defects are faithfully described. In describing them, the author must often convey the impression to the unknowing that these weaknesses were the distinguishing characteristics of the persons.
The novel will be acclaimed to literary critics as a work of real distinction. But the suspicion is strong that Asheville people will read it not because of its literary worth but rather in spite of any artistic merit which is may possess. They will read it because it is the story, told with bitterness and without compassion, of many Asheville people.

The author of “Look Homeward, Angel,” which is his first book, was born in 1900. In 1920 he was graduated from the University of North Carolina and three years later received his Master of Arts degree from Harvard University, where he worked with George Pierce Baker in the ’47 Workshop, following up dramatic experience as a member of the Playmakers at North Carolina.
After leaving Harvard, Wolfe traveled and taught. He adopted the plan of teaching a year and traveling a year. He had traveled extensively in Europe. At New York University he teaches English literature and composition.


[Charlotte News, December 15, 1929]

Wolfe Pictures Men And Carolina Scenes
Chapel Hill and Asheville Appear As Background and Bully Bernard and Other Notables As Characters In Novel By Carolina Graduate.

LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL. By Thomas Wolfe. 626 pp. New York. Scribner’s; $2.50
Reviewed by Richard L. Young

North Carolinians should be proud of Thomas Wolfe, for soon the nation will doubtless hail him as one of our greatest contemporary writers. “Look Homeward, Angel,” his first novel, stamps him as a true interpreter of human ambitions and passions.

In fine literary style, which frequently swings into the most appealing sort of writing, the book sets forth the deep seated emotions that disturb the heart and soul of a restless youth and portrays the tragedy, the sorrow, the pathos of just an ordinary family in a small town. Contrary to most similar attempts, Tom Wolfe records these every day happenings with a sympathetic understanding and reveals that humdrum living in such locations is not all sham and Babbittism but is full of strong human emotions. The dark, dry lust, the mean and the ugly are treated as the beautiful, the appealing and the gentle are.

The story centers about the Gants of Altamount [sic], a large family, and extends over a period of 20 years. To Tar Heels, Altamount can readily be recognized as Asheville, the birthplace of the author. Carolinians will be particularly interested in the book because of its picturesque Carolina atmosphere and the reader with knowledge of the State will be intrigued in spotting real places and characters in his fiction. Chapel Hill is designated in the book as Pulpit Hill and his description of the place and the life there is enthralling to those who know that charming center of the State’s culture and enlightening to those who do not.

University students will easily recognize the sympathetic Greek professor of Freshman Gant. He is none other than the well-known and beloved “Bully” Bernard.

Knowing Tom Wolfe as a student at Chapel Hill and coming in daily intimate contact with him in the same fraternity chapter house, we are constrained to believe that in some elements, Eugene Gant is none other than Wolfe himself. The author will doubtless deny this. Yet the restless, moving, idealistic Gant appears a counterpart of Wolfe, the young student, fresh from the mountains. The groping for the beautiful, the soulful, the big and great of life was Wolfe’s as well as Gant’s.

Chapel Hill and to hundreds of University graduates he is well known. He was prominent in the Carolina Playmakers and some eight or nine years ago appeared here at the old auditorium in “The Return of Buck Gavin,” which he wrote.

At the University he was initiated into the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity and the members of that chapter have received from the author an autographed copy of “Look Homeward, Angel,” containing a personal greeting from their distinguished brother.


[New York Evening Post, Saturday, November 16, 1929]

A First Novel of Vast Scope
“Look Homeward, Angel” an American Saga in Southern Setting

LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL. By Thomas Wolfe. Scribner’s. $2.50
Reviewed by Kenneth Fearing

For any variation in the few elementary patterns from which the majority of contemporary novels are cut, there is apt to be stirred in the reader, depending upon his conviction to such things, a feeling of either gratitude or annoyance. And because even a little variation is felt as extraordinary, the gratitude or annoyance will perhaps be exaggerated beyond a point merited by the performance in itself.
“Look Homeward, Angel” is such a performance, an unusual novel, almost an eccentric one. The author, Thomas Wolfe, is an amateur, partly in the sense that “the artist is always an amateur,” and partly in the sense that he has written a thing innocent of structural perfection. He has attempted to give life to a vast, illusive American experience, using whatever language or form he was able to devise to meet the moment’s need, rather than adhering throughout to a simpler, neater, but less ambitious formula. And this is not to say that “Look Homeward, Angel” is wholly an original. The book is closely related to a familiar genre, the family saga, and in its writing shows influences that are well known, notably those of James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson.

The story is of the Gant family, Oliver and Eliza, and of their seven children, Eugene Gant in particular. Back of them is the story of the town of Altamont, in North Carolina. And in back of Altamont, the story is of the whole South from the latter part of the nineteenth century until the present. Oliver Gant, the Wanderer, driven by savage appetites and by dreams only half-understood, settled at last in Altamont and married the stolid, property-loving, patient, half-shrewd Eliza Pentland, and there began a life-long battle between them. “Eliza came stolidly through to victory. As she marched down these enormous years of love and loss, stained with the rich dyes of pain and pride and death, and with the great wild flare of his alien and passionate life, her limbs faltered in the grip of ruin, but she came on, through sickness and emaciation, to victorious strength.”

But her victorious strength, if it sustained Oliver and herself and the children, at the same time blighted them all. Eliza’s blindness to everything save the need for property and money drove the children into harsh, incessant contacts with the world at early ages, and in the home the struggle between Eliza and Oliver, assuming insane proportions, dulled or humiliated or embittered all feeling of the family relationship.

Of them all, Eugene Gant is the only one of the children to escape in the end, partially at any rate, the Gantian struggle and seeming spiritual self-destruction. Here the novel becomes two novels. With the adolescence of Eugene, “Look Homeward, Angel” gradually ceases to be a family saga, and becomes slowly the semi-autobiographical story of a sensitive youth. This, too, is closely related to a familiar type, but the author is still extraordinarily lavish, in the fullness with which he portrays Eugene’s life, in the scope of the background and in his own interjections, taking the form of ironic, romantic or realistic comments that sum up the given situation, and suggest some Gantian relationship with the universe as a whole. “Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?…O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost!…” Such writing may come uncomfortably close [to] becoming merely fine writing, but it is sincere, and suggests the author’s ambitious attempt, sustained in the book as a whole by the far reach of the actual story.


[The World, Saturday, October 26, 1929]

The First Reader
Ah, Life! Life!

Among the first novels that give me an impression of strength and promise is “Look Homeward, Angel,” by Thomas Wolfe, an instructor in New York University. It is a big, fat novel in the Thackeray manner about a common-place American family in a drab American town. There is rich emotion in it, there is understanding sympathy in it, and there is in it the presence of an author who is aware of himself and his theme, who is more than a recorder.

Many new novels reject everything that this author includes. The young men and women who are making a record of life as it is, whether of actions or mental attitudes (Gertrude Diamant, Jean Riordan, Josephine Herbst, for example), are not interested in taking the roofs off houses and looking in, or in taxing the tons off skulls and watching the convolutions of the brain. They report, for the most part, objectively; they eliminate non-essentials; they take for granted that ages of novel-writing have put the reader in the possession of aspects, points of view, attitudes that we take for granted. Not so Thomas Wolfe.

When I opened “Look Homeward, Angel,” and read the author’s apology for using real people out of the old home town-transmuted, of course, for his novel-I knew that he would have his say. He used a whole page to announce what most authors put into a sentence: “Many of these characters are reminders of actual people, but although all are reminiscent, none is an actual portrait.” Even that has been simplified by many authors to a line that protects them from libel suits: “The characters in this book are entirely imaginary.”
But Mr. Wolfe is determined to do a full portrait. He has behind him, as internal evidence shows, the range of English literature. He knows Thackeray’s manner (in his worst writing) of jumping into the text. He knows George Meredith’s musings over destiny, fate, love, ah me! ah me! He is able to sprinkle phrases out of English authors into his pages without quotation marks, without reference to footnotes, and thereby paying his reader the compliment of intelligence. He observes behavior, but to him behavior is not enough.
So “Look Homeward, Angel” becomes a rather formidable book, loaded down with details about the family of the Gants-about Gant, the father, who made tombstones in the provincial town of Altamont; and Eliza, the mother, who, after a protracted period of childbearing, opens a boarding house; and Eugene, the son. All egotists in their own way, all going forward to what? “Look Homeward, Angel” is a negation of any plan in life. This family sprawls, uses up its best talents without discretion, finds its vitality spent in frustrated efforts, gets nowhere. On the wife’s side were the Pentlands-“that strange, rich clan, with its fantastic mixture of success and impracticality, its hard moneyed sense, its visionary fanaticism.” To this end the elder Gant, who had drowned in liquor his protest at the imprisonment of the spirit, did not belong. His son Eugene felt its irony and futility in greater measure, as neither of his two adolescent ambitions-to be loved and to be famous-proved the origin of lasting happiness.

All those varied forces that make for the success and the failure of American life are here brought to bear on the fortunes of a single family, and on one man, Eugene, the lad whose romantic appraisal of life was gradually worn down by defeat. We follow him in his Odyssey, half of the mind, half of the body, and watch him beating on the great door that imprisons life. What message has life to give him? The best of his discovery comes with the words of his dead brother, who appears to him to say that there is no happy land, no end to hunger. “You are your world,” says Ben. The only lesson Eliza gains from life comes also at the end when she parts with Eugene: “We must try to love one another.” In his Meredithian prose Wolfe continues: “The terrible and beautiful sentence, the last, the final wisdom that the earth can give, is remembered at the end, is spoken too late, weakly. It stands there, awful and untraduced [sic], above the dusty racket of our lives. No forgetting, no forgiving, no denying, no explaining, no hating. O mortal and perishing love, born with this flesh and dying with this brain, your memory will haunt the earth forever.”

Moralizing such as this has been absent from novels these thirty years. In the days of James Lane Allen it became a bit cloying. To-day it is something of a surprise. Mr. Wolfe’s commendable strength makes criticism seem captious. He has glaring defects, chief of which seems to be a lack of clearness at the beginning. He treats Oliver Gant so sympathetically that we have difficulty believing his excesses when they occur. But apparently his aim is to portray life without directing the feelings of the reader against any one character. Toward the whole he has the forgiveness that comes with understanding. His second novel will tell us whether he has staying power as a novelist, whether he will be more than a one-book man.