Places: Look Homeward, Angel

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1929

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Impressionistic realism

Time of work: 1900 to early 1920’s

Places DiscussedAltamont

Altamont. Look Homeward, AngelNorth Carolina town in which most of the action takes place. Modeled on Thomas Wolfe’s own hometown, Asheville, in western North Carolina, Altamont is a mountain resort town that serves as a frequent stopover for travelers commuting between eastern Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina.

Gant often visits his sister at her home in the state capital of North Carolina. Eventually, she returns to Altamont to care for their dying father. Her experiences serve as a vivid reminder of how Altamont retains a hold on all of its inhabitants–a hold that author Thomas Wolfe–in the fictional guise of Eugene Gant–was determined to escape.

Dixieland

Dixieland. Altamont boardinghouse owned by Eliza Gant, protagonist Eugene Gant’s mother, in which Gant spends most of his childhood. There he develops a deep disdain for boarders. Described as “America’s Switzerland” by his mother, Eliza, who owns the house, it is situated in a bustling and growing section of Altamont. The house contains at least twenty rooms; throughout the novel, additions are made to include additional living and dining spaces for the family, bathrooms, a sleeping porch, and a larger dining room for the boarders.

As in many family-owned boardinghouses, members of the Gant family are relegated to small, often damp and dark, living quarters, leaving the finest rooms for paying guests. The house is often not used in winter seasons, and the young Gant prefers to spend time at his father’s home because it is smaller, more intimate, and always has a roaring fireplace. Throughout the entire novel, Eliza Gant is obsessed with the acquisition of property, and while she continues to reside at Dixieland, several scenes unfold around her burgeoning real estate business.

Pulpit Hill

Pulpit Hill. North Carolina town that is home to the state’s leading university serves as the primary setting for part three of the novel. Its name is an obvious play on Chapel Hill, site of the University of North Carolina. Located in the central part of the state, the university stands in an area of remote pastoral wilderness. The center of Pulpit Hill itself is dominated by faculty houses and university buildings that reflect some of the excesses associated with post-American Revolution neo-Greek architecture, with oversized columns and pillars. Gant often compares Pulpit Hill to an outpost of the Roman Empire, but amid its ivied walls, ancient trees, and gallantly decorated fraternity houses, the town is a tangible reminder of state power and authority in the South.

At age fifteen, Gant, now an articulate gifted student, enters the university filled with romantic notions of academic life. However, these are quickly shattered by abusive older classmates. This setting plays a pivotal role in Gant’s growing desire for a life of isolation and contemplation after experiencing the brutal harshness of peer pressure and the social caste system at Pulpit Hill.

As World War I escalates and the United States is drawn in, the university setting reveals the nation being captivated by patriotism and the heroic pageantry often associated with war.

Norfolk

Norfolk. Virginia port city to which Gant goes to seek work after the United States enters World War I. This setting is filled with character sketches of men who fascinate Gant. The bustle of the piers, the movement of ships, and the forbidden nature of brothels contrast sharply with the places Gant is previously familiar with. Streets strewn with military materiel and the rustling trucks commandeered by stevedores provide scenes suggesting great wealth, large-scale spending, and forbidden pleasures.

While in Norfolk, Gant lives in cheap hotels, heat-infested boardinghouses, and the YMCA, where he shares sleeping quarters with forty drunken sailors. After exhausting his savings, he attempts to find work as a carpenter or mason, but because he possesses no skills, he eventually works as a numbers checker for work gangs that clear land of tree stumps and fill swamps. Perhaps predictably, he blows his earnings during a week of debauchery in Norfolk and again finds himself penniless.

Although eras of wartime production are often depicted as prosperous periods in American history, Gant’s experiences in wartime Norfolk are filled with horrific scenes of poverty, hunger, and despair. In the end, Gant uses these experiences to justify his rejection of politics, moving him to forsake materialism and utopian causes for a solitary life of literary pursuits.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Bloom, himself a distinguished critic, gathers in his book eight essays by seven different writers, suggesting that the collection is what he considers “the most useful criticism of Thomas Wolfe’s fiction.” A bibliography of critical pieces on Wolfe is included.Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Donald prepared this admired biography of Wolfe with the aid of the novelist’s voluminous papers, lodged at Harvard University. The preface announces that, in addition to Wolfe’s biography, an attempt is made to offer “a group photograph . . . of what can properly be called the Great Generation in American literature.”Idol, John Lane, Jr. A Thomas Wolfe Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. A very useful handbook for the study of Wolfe. It includes a selected bibliography of Wolfe publications, an annotated bibliography of criticism, and a short list of information sources. A helpful glossary of characters and places identifies many characters and places fictionalized by Wolfe.Rubin, Louis D., Jr. Thomas Wolfe: The Weather of His Youth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955. Rubin considers Wolfe’s first novel as autobiographical fiction and then moves on to examine “the meaning of the time structure” in Wolfe’s fiction.Wolfe, Thomas. The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe. 2 vols. Edited by Richard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970. The first in this two-volume set includes the entire period when Wolfe was at work on Look Homeward, Angel. Editors’ notes help relate Wolfe’s various jottings to incidents in his book.
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