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. 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. 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. 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.