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 angel was then moved to that town's Oakdale Cemetery.[3]

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,[4] which he later changed to O Lost.[5]

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.[5][6]

Descriptions of Altamont, Catawba, in Wolfe's autobiographical novel are based on Asheville, North Carolina[7] 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]

The first marriage of Oliver Grant, father of the protagonist, Eugene, ends in tragedy, after which Oliver becomes an alcoholic; the battle with alcoholism remains the major struggle of his life. He eventually remarries, builds a new house, and starts a family. However, the couple is beset with tragedy: as their first daughter dies of cholera in infancy, while two more babies die at birth. In the wake of these losses, a destabilized Oliver is sent to Richmond for a "cure" with little success. He returns home to abuse his family, at times threatening to kill his second wife Eliza (Eugene Gant's mother). The couple remain together, however, and have a total of six surviving children, the oldest born in 1894.

Eugene's birth follows a difficult labor during which his father, Oliver, is drunk downstairs. Nonetheless, Oliver Gant forms a special bond with his son, Eugene, from early on. He begins to get his drinking under control,with less frequent occasional binges, although 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; he reads Shakespeare, has his daughter Helen read poetry, and keeps great fires burning in the house as symbols of warmth for the family. His gusto is the source of energy and strength for the family, even his raging diatribes against his wife sustain the tempo of domestic life. When Eugene is six years old and starting to school,Oliver journeys to California for the last time, returning home to the joy of his family. Eugene's early education includes several clashes with teachers but he has a love of books and is bright, 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]

Eugene begins his education at UNC as a teenage boy, alienated and out of place. He becomes the butt of practical jokes by the older fellow students. He works hard to become active in extracurricular activities including the debate club and philosophy association. After his freshman year, Eugene's summer back in Altamont is marked by him falling in love with a 21-year-old tenant — Laura James — at his mother's boarding house. Eugene became obsessed with Laura and at the end of the summer she tells him that she is engaged to be married to a man in Norfolk, Virginia. Eugene falls into a funk which haunts him for another two years. W.O. undergoes radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore because the Gant family operates with a conviction that only that medical institution was qualified to provide competent health care. (When Wolfe himself became ill in 1938, the family insisted he be sent to Baltimore to receive treatment at the only facility the Wolfe family trusted.) Eugene returns to UNC and becomes very involved in academic activities including serving as the editor of the school newspaper, the literary magazine and the poetry publication. He joins a drama writer's seminar and achieves acclaim. His reputation on campus was a humorous eccentric which in turn made him funnier and more beloved. However, below this outward image was a young man who was intensely sensitive, lonely and hyper-emotional. In the spring of 1918 his roommate unexpectedly died of a heart attack, throwing Eugene into another funk. Then in the summer of 1918, Eugene worked at the shipyards at Norfolk, hoping to earn extra money for the upcoming school year, but instead turns into a nightmare with him living homeless and famished for most of the summer. After returning to UNC in the fall of 1918, he is summoned by his mother to come home immediately because brother Ben is in a near coma with pneumonia. Thomas Wolfe's biographer Elizabeth Nowell said Wolfe's description of Ben's death was the finest writing of his career.[8] Eugene returns to UNC and completes his studies. His mentor, English professor Vergil Weldon, modeled after Wolfe's mentor Horace Williams, encourages Eugene to apply to Harvard for graduate studies. He tells his mother of his plans; she begs him to remain in North Carolina and work for a newspaper. Eugene tells Eliza that he has a destiny elsewhere and that he cannot be boxed in by a small mountain town in North Carolina.

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.[9] One review called it a "sensation", and described it as having struck the literary world by storm.[10] 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".[11][12] 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."[13]

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,[14] 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.

TV movie adaptation[edit]

Ketti Frings' screenplay was made into a TV movie, released by NBC in February, 1972. The film was directed by Paul Bogart and starred Timothy Bottoms as Eugene Gant, E.G. Marshall as W.O. Gant, and Geraldine Page as Eliza.


  • 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. ^ Boyle, John (April 14, 2015). "Where is the real Thomas Wolfe angel?". Asheville Citizen-Times. p. A2. 
  4. ^ Magi, ''Thomas Wolfe'', p.xvi. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  5. ^ a b DINITIA SMITHPublished: October 02, 2000 (2000-10-02). "''New York Times'' article". Nytimes.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  6. ^ Uncut version overview. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  7. ^ "American Literature". Ai.stanford.edu. 1906-07-04. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  8. ^ Elizabeth Nowell, Thomas Wolfe: A Biography. Garden City: Doubleday, 1960, p. 43
  9. ^ Thomas Wolfe (2010-11-02). "Look Homeward, Angel Essay & Criticism". BookRags.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  10. ^ Thomas Wolfe: The Critical Reception - Pascal Reeves - Google Boeken. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  11. ^ Bloom, Harold (February 8, 1987). "Passionate Beholder of America in Trouble". New York Times. Retrieved 16 October 2012. 
  12. ^ Thomas Wolfe (2010-11-02). "Look Homeward, Angel Essay | Critical Essay #1". BookRags.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  13. ^ Gilbar, ''Not Forgotten'', p. 71. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  14. ^ 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.