Thomas Wolfe, Looking Inward


ENG 343: The American Novel

Lesson 6: Thomas Wolfe, Looking Inward
Oct. 14-21, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Summarize the life and literary contributions of Thomas Wolfe.
  • Insightfully discuss characters, themes, and other features of Look Homeward, Angel.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: Which character in Look Homeward, Angel is your favorite?  Explain what makes this character interesting or attractive to you.  How has Wolfe used language to capture this character’s personality?

Presentation: “Thomas Wolfe, Looking Inward” (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning:

Southern Literature: In what ways does Look Homeward, Angel reflect common characteristics or concerns of Southern literature and culture?  Feel free to draw comparisons with other novels by Southern or Northern writers.

Themes: Identify two or three major themes of Look Homeward, Angel.  How does Wolfe develop these themes?

Character Motivation: What drives Gant and Eliza?  How does understanding their motivations affect your impression of them?

Style: Characterize Wolfe’s style.  Choose a couple of typical sentences from Look Homeward, Angel and dissect them, showing how their structure lends to their appeal.

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: Interpret the refrain that appears throughout the novel: “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following:

  • Maxwell Perkins
  • Southern Renascence


Make sure you are familiar with the following key date:


1929: Wolfe publishes Look Homeward, Angel


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:



The Thomas Wolfe Web Site features a biographical sketch, photographs, and more.


Thomas Wolfe Memorial features information about Wolfe and his house in Asheville, North Carolina.

Updated March 9, 2010
© Mark Canada, 2010


Leaving behind Henry James’s psychological realism, we turn now to another writer who took an interest in both psychology and realism.  Unlike James, Thomas Wolfe was a highly passionate writer who captured the emotional sides of the human experience in his novel Look Homeward, Angel.  On Saturday, October 19, Jerry, Nicole, Amy, Mike, Jenny, Cresta, Eddie, and I will take a field trip to Asheville to see the home where Wolfe grew up.


Thomas Wolfe, 1900-1938


One of the best-loved writers of his generation, Thomas Wolfe built his reputation largely on his first novel, the highly autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel (1929).  Before his premature death in 1938, Wolfe published only one more novel, Of Time and the River (1935), but he wrote a voluminous amount of fiction and nonfiction, much of which was edited and published posthumously in the books The Web and the Rock (1939), You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), and The Hills Beyond (1941).  A major figure of the Southern Renascence, the North Carolina-born Wolfe addressed many of the same themes treated by his contemporary William Faulkner, as well as the many other great Southern writers who preceded and followed him: time, family, maturation, race, class, and human psychology.  Like Faulkner and others, furthermore, he composed highly stylized, even poetic prose that surely has helped to secure his reputation as one of the great Southern novelists.


Like Eugene Gant, his protagonist in Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe was born in 1900.  The son of W.O. Wolfe, who carved gravestones for a living, and Julia Wolfe, who would eventually run a boarding house called My Old Kentucky Home, he grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, where he attended Orange Street Public School and later North State Fitting School.  The marriage between his mother and his alcoholic father was a stormy one, and the two began living in separate residences in 1908.  When Wolfe was 16, he left home to attend the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he performed in a Playmakers production of his own play, The Return of Buck Gavin, and edited the Tar Heel student newspaper.  After graduating from UNC in 1920, he entered graduate school at Harvard, eventually earning a master of arts degree in English there in 1922.  A playwright at that stage of his career as a writer, Wolfe saw his play Welcome to Our City produced in 1923.  Over the next six years, he spent time teaching English at New York University, traveled to Europe, and met Aline Bernstein, with whom he began an affair.


A turning point came when the great editor Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s took an interest in one of Wolfe’s manuscripts and helped him to transform it into a published novel.  That novel, Look Homeward, Angel, put Wolfe on the literary map.  The year after its publication in 1929, Wolfe received a Guggenheim Fellowship, stopped teaching, and returned to Europe.  During this same year, he ended his relationship with Bernstein.  In 1931, he moved to Brooklyn.  His second novel, Of Time and the River, came in 1935.  By this time, Wolfe was famous.  After traveling to Europe yet again, he made trips to California, New Orleans, Raleigh, and—for the first time since the publication of Look Homeward, Angel—his hometown of Asheville.  In 1938, after spending some time writing in New York, Wolfe began a trip to the West to visit some national parks.  He became sick, however, and went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he died of tuberculosis of the brain on September 15, 1938.  Over the next three years, his books The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond all appeared posthumously, having been prepared from manuscripts he left.


Look Homeward, Angel

The American novel experienced something of a lull in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  Aside from Henry James’s late novels, including The Wings of the Dove (1902), and a smattering of noteworthy works by Edith Wharton, Jack London, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair, America had relatively little to show for this period in the area of the novel, especially when one compares it to the two decades that preceded it, when James, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and William Dean Howells had produced numerous important novels, including a number of classics.  The lull ended dramatically, however, in the 1920s, when the next great age of the American novel began.  Between 1925 and 1955, America saw the publication of many of its best-known novels, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).  During this same period, literature in the American South was flourishing in unprecedented ways.  Indeed, Faulkner and Wright had both been raised in the South, and Ellison had attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  Other Southern writers who emerged at this time include John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Erskine Caldwell, Tennessee Williams, Katharine Anne Porter, Margaret Mitchell, and Eudora Welty.  Because of this explosion of great literture, this period became known as the Southern Renascence.  In The Literary South, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., writes of these and other Southern writers of the Renascence:

All tended to ground their writings in their regional experience.  However much they differed as individual, original artists, their works seemed to share many characteristics, including some that were largely lacking in other American writers of the period: a sense of the past, an uninhibited reliance upon the full resources of language and the old-fashioned moral absolutes that lay behind such language, an attitude toward evil as being present not only in economic or social forces but integral to the ‘fallen state’ of humankind, a rich surface texture of description that would not be confined to the drab hues of the naturalistic novel, an ability to get at the full complexity of a situation rather than seeking to reduce it to its simplified essentials, a suspicion of abstractions, a bias in favor of the individual, the concrete, the unique, even the exaggerated and outlandish in human portraiture.  (411-412)

With the publication of Look Homeward, Angel in 1929, Thomas Wolfe was a part of both of these literary phenomena.  In some ways, he resembles writers who were part of the general re-emergence of the novel.  Like Hemingway, for example, Wolfe worked with the great Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins.  Indeed, Perkins played an important role in transforming Wolfe’s manuscripts into a novel.  Wolfe’s first novel also reflects the sense of emptiness that pervades some of the fiction composed by Hemingway and other members of “The Lost Generation.”  Furthermore, Wolfe’s nearly obsessive interest in the self—particularly the development of that self within the context of the family—makes Look Homeward, Angel strongly resemble the autobiographical novel In Tragic Life (1932) by Vardis Fisher, another leading novelist of the period.  Wolfe and Fisher, in fact, both taught at New York University at the same time.

Wolfe resembles his fellow Southern writers even more closely.  For one thing, his first novel is clearly anchored in a region—in his case, his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina.  Wolfe generally changed the names of his characters and settings and thus hid the factual bases for his novel behind a disguise that is at times comically thin: Chapel Hill became Pulpit Hill, for example, and Raleigh becomes Sidney—the name of another Elizabethan poet.  Of course, the people of Asheville were not fooled, and Look Homeward, Angel—often critical in its treatment of the city—aroused a negative reaction to the author.  Literary scholar Leslie Field explains that Asheville residents “reacted violently” to both the novel and Wolfe himself, leaving him “frazzled psychologically,” though his reception when returned home in 1937 was more positive (175).  Many of the other characteristics of this novel, furthermore, give it a Southern flavor.  Here, for example, are the fascination with time and the individual, the careful attention to the sensual world, the poetic style, and the depiction of an outrageous character in the histrionic W.O. Gant.

Works Cited

Field, Leslie.  “Thomas Wolfe.”  American Novelists, 1910-1945.  Dictionary of Literary Biography.  Detroit: Gale, 1981.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr.  The Literary South.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.


In this lesson, we explored Look Homeward, Angel, one of the two great Southern novels published in 1929.  In our next lesson, we will take a look at another, very different Southern novel published the same year: William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.



father: William Oliver Wolfe, tombstone cutter from Pennsylvania

mother: Julia Elizabeth Westall



1900: born 3 October 1900 in Asheville, North Carolina

1905: enters Orange Street Public School in Asheville

1908: parents begin living in separate residences

1912: transfers to North State Fitting School

attends University of North Carolina

1918: takes playwriting class at Harvard

1919: plays leading role in Playmakers’ production of The Return of Buck Gavin; edits Tar Heel newspaper

1920: graduates from UNC

enters graduate school at Harvard

1922: earns M.A. in English from Harvard; father dies

1923: Welcome to Our City produced

1924: teaches English at Washington Square College of New York University

1924: travels to England

1925: returns to United States; meets Aline Bernstein

1926-1927: spends time in both Europe and the United States

works with Maxwell Perkins to redact Look Homeward, Angel

1929: publishes Look Homeward, Angel; teaches at New York University

1930: receives Guggenheim Fellowship; returns to Europe; stops teaching; ends relationship with Bernstein

1931: moves to Brooklyn

1935: publishes Of Time and the River; travels to Europe

1935: achieves fame; travels to California

1936: travels to New Orleans and Raleigh; friendship with Perkins is rocky

1937: returns to Asheville for first time since publication of Look Homeward, Angel; settles in New York and writes

1938: begins trip to the West to visit National parks

1938: dies of military tuberculosis of the brain on 15 September in Baltimore

1939: The Web and the Rock appears posthumously

1940: You Can’t Go Home Again appears posthumously

1941: The Hills Beyond appears posthumously


Faulkner showed admiration for Wolfe in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize (Field 173).

“Because of the novel’s autobiographical content, the people in Asheville reacted violently to it and its author.  As a result, he was frazzled psychologically, but outwardly he resumed the pattern of his New York life” (Field 175).

When he returned in 1937, the people of Asheville were receptive (Field 175).

“Then Bernard DeVoto’s fiery essay, “Genius Is Not Enough,” burst  upon the critical scene.  DeVotos’s indictment focused the lines of argument, and for today’s student of Wolfe the charges have become a part of the furniture of Wolfe criticism: Wolfe’s writing is formless autobiography, chopped up, renailed, and rearranged by the author’s editor and friend, Maxwell Perkins.  The controversy has never been decently interred” (Field 178).


“Although on its simplest level Look Homeward, Angel can be called a chronicle novel describing the first twenty years of Eugene Gant’s life, it is also a novel dominated by the passing of time.  Old Gant is dying; the family is falling apart; Eugene is growing up.  Change is everywhere.  The Gants are always in a state of turmoil . . . . The novel is a series of episodes strung out in time: almost every chapter of Look Homeward, Angel contains in its first paragraph a reference to the flight of time and the coming of the seasons” (178).

Nov. 4-5: NCATE team will be on campus; we need to be available from 8 to 5.

Publications since 1996: photocopies, presentations, Teaching Award




“It has been said that the fictional version of Ben’s death in Look Homeward, Angel is equaled in starkness and realism only by Emma Bovary’s climactic death some seventy-five years earlier in the last pages of Flaubert’s classic novel” (Field 174).