Look Homeward, Angel

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For the play adapted by Ketti Frings, see Look Homeward, Angel (play).
Look Homeward, Angel
First edition
Author Thomas Wolfe
Country United State
Language English
Genre Bildungsroman
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 544 pp
OCLC 220422413

Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life is a 1929 novel by Thomas Wolfe. It is Wolfe's first novel, and is considered a highly autobiographical American Bildungsroman.[1] The character of Eugene Gant is generally believed to be a depiction of Wolfe himself. The novel covers the span of time from Eugene's birth to the age of 19. The setting is the fictional town and state of Altamont, Catawba, a fictionalization of his home town, Asheville, North Carolina. Playwright Ketti Frings wrote a theatrical adaptation of Wolfe's work in a 1957 play of the same title.


Thomas Wolfe's father, William Oliver Wolfe, ordered an angel statue from New York and it was used for years as a porch advertisement at the family monument shop on Patton Avenue (now the site of the Jackson Building). W. O. Wolfe sold the statue to a family in Hendersonville, North Carolina in 1906.[2]

The title comes from the John Milton poem Lycidas:

"Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth."


Wolfe's original title was The Building of a Wall,[3] which he later changed to O Lost.[4]

Wolfe began the novel in 1926, intending to delve into "the strange and bitter magic of life." The novel was written over 20 months. On the novel's completion, Wolfe gave the vast manuscript to Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins. Though Perkins was impressed with the young author's talent, he demanded that the novel be revised and condensed to a publishable size. The two sat down and worked through it together. After being trimmed by 60,000 words, the novel was published in 1929. Wolfe became insecure about the editing process, feeling that the novel was Perkins' almost as much as his own. This led to an estrangement between the two, resulting in Wolfe leaving Scribner. Wolfe later made amends with Perkins, prior to the former's death in 1938. The original unedited version was published in 2000.[4][5]

Descriptions of Altamont, Catawba, in Wolfe's autobiographical novel are based on Asheville, North Carolina[6] and the descriptions of people and family led to further estrangement, this time between Wolfe and many in his hometown of Asheville. He has even been reported to have received some death threats from residents of Asheville.

The boarding house run by Eugene Gant's mother, based on one run by Wolfe's mother, has been called "the most famous boardinghouse in American fiction."[1]


Wolfe is often characterized as a romantic due to the power of his emotionally charged, sprawling style. Look Homeward, Angel is written in a "stream of consciousness" narrative reminiscent of James Joyce.


The book is divided into three parts, with a total of forty chapters. The first 90 pages of the book deal with an early biography of Gant's parents, very closely based on the actual history of Wolfe's own mother and father. It begins with his father, Oliver's decision to become a stone cutter after seeing a statue of a stone angel.

Part One[edit]

Oliver Gant's first marriage ends in tragedy, and he becomes a raging alcoholic afterwards, which becomes his major struggle throughout his life. He eventually remarries after roaming the countryside, builds his new wife a house, and starts a family. The couple is beset with tragedy, as their first daughter dies of cholera at two months old, while two more die during childbirth. In the wake of these losses, Oliver is sent to Richmond for a "cure," to little success and becomes abusive to his family at times, threatening to kill his second wife Eliza (Eugene Gant's mother) in one drunken incident. The two remain together, however, and have a total of six surviving children, with the oldest, Steve, born in 1894.

Eugene's father is drunk downstairs while his mother gives birth to him in a difficult labor. Oliver Gant forms a special bond with his son from early on. He begins to get his drinking under control, save for occasional binges, though his marriage becomes strained as Eliza's patience with him grows thinner. By the fifth chapter they are no longer sleeping in the same bedroom.

Despite his flaws, Oliver Gant is the family's keystone, reading Shakespeare, having his daughter Helen read poetry, and keeping great fires burning in the house, symbolic of him as a source of warmth for the family. His gusto is the source of energy and strength for the family, even his raging diatribes against his wife sustaining the tempo of family life. Shortly after this, he journeys to California for the last time, returning home to the joy of his family. At this point Eugene is six years old and begins to attend school. His early education takes place, including several incidents of trouble with some of his teachers. He has a love of books and is a bright young boy, much to the pride of both his parents. His mother continues to baby him, unwilling to see him grow up; she does not cut his hair, even though he is teased about its length by the other boys.

Part Two[edit]

Part Three[edit]

Critical reputation[edit]

Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929 to generally positive reviews in North America, most praising the author's brilliance and emotional power.[7] One review called it a "sensation", and described it as having struck the literary world by storm.[8] Despite the novel's enduring popularity, Wolfe's work has since come to be viewed by many literary critics (Harold Bloom and James Wood among them) as undisciplined and largely "formless autobiography".[9][10] According to Jonathan W. Daniels, those critics wished that "Tom Wolfe's big sprawling powerful pouring prose would have been served in neater packages of sweeter stuff."[11]

Stage adaptation[edit]

Playwright Ketti Frings adapted the novel as a play of the same name. The play opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre November 28, 1957,[12] and ran for a total of 564 performances, closing on April 4, 1959.

In 1958, Frings won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for her adaptation of Wolfe's novel. The production received Tony Award nominations for Best Play; Best Actor in a Play (Hugh Griffith and Anthony Perkins); Best Actress in a Play (Jo Van Fleet); Best Scenic Design (Jo Mielziner); Best Costume Design (Motley); and Best Director (George Roy Hill).

Musical adaptation[edit]

Frings' adaptation of Look Homeward, Angel was readapted as a Broadway musical, Angel, which opened at the Minskoff Theatre in New York on May 4, 1978, and closed May 13 after five performances and poor reviews. Frings co-wrote the book with the show's lyricist, Peter Udell, whose lyrics were set to music by Gary Geld. This songwriting team had created the musicals Shenandoah and Purlie and penned the hit song "Sealed With a Kiss."

Angel was directed by Philip Rose and choreographed by Robert Tucker. The production featured costumes by Pearl Somner, lighting design by John Gleason and scenery by Ming Cho Lee.

For her performance in the show, Frances Sternhagen received a 1978 Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. Additionally, Joel Higgins was nominated for a 1978 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.


  • Wolfe, Thomas (1929). Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. New York: Random House. OCLC 220422413. 


  1. ^ a b Coates, Steve. "Thomas Wolfe’s Angel of Death, ''New York Times'' blog - May 1, 2009". Papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  2. ^ Langley, Joan and Wright (1975). Yesterday's Asheville. Miami, Florida: E.A. Seemann Publishing, Inc. p. 69. ISBN 0912458569. 
  3. ^ Magi, ''Thomas Wolfe'', p.xvi. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  4. ^ a b DINITIA SMITHPublished: October 02, 2000 (2000-10-02). "''New York Times'' article". Nytimes.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  5. ^ Uncut version overview. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  6. ^ "American Literature". Ai.stanford.edu. 1906-07-04. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  7. ^ Thomas Wolfe (2010-11-02). "Look Homeward, Angel Essay & Criticism". BookRags.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  8. ^ Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception - Pascal Reeves - Google Boeken. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  9. ^ Bloom, Harold (February 8, 1987). "Passionate Beholder of America in Trouble". New York Times. Retrieved 16 October 2012. 
  10. ^ Thomas Wolfe (2010-11-02). "Look Homeward, Angel Essay | Critical Essay #1". BookRags.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  11. ^ Gilbar, ''Not Forgotten'', p. 71. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  12. ^ New York Times, Nov. 29, 1957, "The Theatre: 'Look Homeward, Angel' --- Luminous Adaptation of Wolfe Novel Opens," by Brooks Atkinson, p. 33.
  • Encyclopedia of World Biography: Wolfe, Thomas Clayton (1900-1938). 1998.