I recently read Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe, of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame). It’s the one and only book I’ve ever read of his, and while it took me a little while to get into it, I ended up really enjoying it. Wolfe was from North Carolina, and died at the early age of 38. He was a contemporary of Faulkner and Hemingway, with Faulkner reportedly calling him the best writer of their generation. His writing is lush and wordy, so it doesn’t surprise me that Faulkner would be a fan.
Look Homeward, Angel is heavily autobiographical. It’s pretty much the story of his childhood and his family and at times I found it hard to read because I knew that. I simply couldn’t divorce what I knew the reaction was to his book when he published it from what I was reading. He had some harsh words and indictments for just about everyone around him and he didn’t shy away at all from writing what he really thought of people in this book.
The other book I own of his, but have yet to read, is You Can’t Go Home Again, which is all about this reaction that his family and friends had to this book being published while he, and they, were still alive. As someone who’s thought from time to time about writing similarly barely disguised “fiction,” it’s an interesting cautionary tale. Wolfe was ostracized after Angel was released. Lucky for him, I guess, You Can’t Go Home Again was published after his death, so any lingering resentments would have had to be taken up grave-side.
Here’s one beautiful passage from the book, in a section about the death of one of his brothers:
“… we can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire — a brain, a heart, a spirit. And we are three-cents-worth of lime and iron — which we cannot get back.” — Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel, p. 461