Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe...the man could write!

Thomas Wolfe was one of the writers who inspired, humbled and stretched me when I was a constant reader in my teens and early twenties.  Now, on the eve of my train trip through the South, his Look Homeward Angel is the third book, and the first re-read, I have chosen in preparation, for novels evoke the spirit of a region far better than any tourist guide. Except I have to keep reminding myself that this is why I am reading this enormous book, TW's first novel, for the second time, decades later. Once again I am being swept away by his passion, his language, his deft ways with character. For example, he has Stevie, the character modelled on his oldest brother in this autobiographical work, speak of himself in the third person, which immediately shows Stevie to be an egotistical, sentimental, self-justifying failure.

Then we have Eliza, the mother, who talks and talks, the kind of tangential narratives that drive big W.O. Gant, the father, mostly referred to just as Gant, to  howl. In addition to describing Eliza's ways, Wolfe mimics Eliza's talk in rambling passages of dialogue that would make anyone howl. There is a lot of howling that goes on in this novel. Gant howls and builds huge spitting blazes in the stove and eats and eats, great steaming platters of everything. And he keeps an angel carved from Cararra marble on the front porch of his stone cutting/monument shop in Altamont, which is Wolfe's pseudonym for his home town of Asheville, North Carolina. The Angel is present in/as the minds of the characters, too, especially Ben Gant, Eugene's (aka TW's) favourite brother.

The way he presents his fictional father, it seems clear that Wolfe inherited much from the man he calls W.O. Gant; his bigness of language, his stature, his occasional broodiness. His self-centredness too, because knowing Thomas Wolfe only through what he wrote, and I am just beginning to refresh my acquaintance, I see few examples of modesty. He begins with the wonder of origins, how chance determined that his English Grandfather ended up reciting Hamlet to Dutch farmers in Pennsylvania, married, begot five children, but bequeathed only to his son W.O. a yen for travel and a tendency to hold forth in a booming voice. Obviously those gifts filtered down to Eugene/Thomas, who held forth to the extent that he published four gargantuan books during his lifetime and left many more that were published after his death at 38.

As a young reader I loved it that Wolfe placed his characters more or less in the cosmos, beginning with "a stone, a leaf, an unfound door". He seems to have felt acutely wrenched from whence we all spring. Forever alone, but in a romantic way that appealed to me, and perhaps him. At one point he writes about the "full delight of loneliness."  I remember kneeling by a window in our upstairs hall, my chin on the windowsill, looking out to the throbbing summer night, throbbing myself with an aimless passion that my age and his words had kindled.

Though his sometimes florid writing style is not to my taste any more, he continues to stretch me, making me want to observe every detail, be aware of the nuances of every thought, think of every character in terms of absolute specifics. come up with lines like this one, about his father... "a fanatical zealot in the religion of chance..." And this about his stand-in Eugene, reacting to an experience at the World's Fair in St. Louis:

..."His mind, just emerging from the unreal wilderness of childish fancy, gave way completely in this Fair, and he was paralyzed by the conviction, which often returned to him in later years, that his life was a fabulous nightmare and that, by cunning and conspirate artifice, he had surrendered all his hope, belief and confidence to the lewd torture of demons masked in human flesh, Half-sensible, and purple with gasping terror, he came out finally into the warm and practical sunlight."