Reading Group Guide
LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL by Thomas Wolfe
Look Homeward, Angel is the epic coming-of-age story of Eugene Gant, a brilliant and restless young man whose passion for a greater intellectual life shapes his adolescent years in rural North Carolina. Wolfe's vivid characterization of the incomparable Gants -- including Eugene's charismatic and alcoholic father and his miserly real estate tycoon mother -- and his detailed observations of small town life form the foundation for this classic work of American literature. The most famous novel from one of our greatest authors, Look Homeward, Angel is a truly unforgettable masterpiece.
Discussion Questions for Robert Morgan's Introduction
1. In his introduction to Look Homeward, Angel, Robert Morgan quotes Harold Bloom as saying of Wolfe's work, "One cannot discuss the literary merits of Thomas Wolfe; he has none." Yet he also discredits Bloom by noting that Wolfe has had one of the biggest influences on contemporary fiction after Hemingway and Faulkner. Why do you think the work of Faulkner and Hemingway has remained extremely popular with critics and readers while Wolfe's work has floated under the radar? What elements of Wolfe's work do you find more accessible to you as a reader? What are the major differences between Wolfe's work and the work of Faulkner, Hemingway, and his other contemporaries?
2. Part of Wolfe's great legacy is that he has captured the imagination of young readers for decades. In his introduction Morgan says that when he read Wolfe's work as an older reader "the choral sections, the rhapsodic passages, seemed less interesting than the realism and satire." What other elements of Look Homeward, Angel do you think enhance its appeal for younger readers? What elements of the novel can you relate to at this point in your life? Who would you recommend this novel to? Discuss the ways that Wolfe's work might appeal to readers of many ages and backgrounds.
3. Robert Morgan says in his introduction that he has been heavily influenced by Wolfe's work. If you have read the work of Robert Morgan (his most well known book is the Oprah Book Club pick Gap Creek) discuss the influence of Wolfe's work on his writing. Which Southern writers has Wolfe influenced the most? What qualities do Southern novels have that make them so appealing to wide audiences?
4. Which other contemporary writers do you think have been influenced by Wolfe? What do you consider Wolfe's greatest achievement in writing Look Homeward, Angel?
Discussion Questions for Look Homeward, Angel
1. In the years since Look Homeward, Angel was first published literary critics have argued over whether Wolfe's style is brilliantly experimental or undisciplined and unstructured. How would you describe Wolfe's style? What do you think of it? How would you compare it to the styles of his contemporaries, such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and Dorothy Parker?
2. From the time Eugene is a baby, Wolfe writes, "He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one...." (p. 31). This idea comes up many times throughout the novel. Do you agree with Eugene? How do the events of Eugene's life reinforce his initial feeling that this is true?
3. From Gant's drunkenness to Steve's abusive behavior to Eliza's self-centeredness, many of Eugene's family members have unlikable qualities. Knowing that Look Homeward, Angel is heavily autobiographical; how objective would you imagine Wolfe has been in retelling the story of his family? Which of Eugene's family members do you find most sympathetic, and why? Are you sympathetic to Eugene?
4. What do you think of the way race and race relations are handled in the novel? Think about the way Wolfe depicts Jews and African-Americans. How do you think Wolfe's attitude toward race compares to the attitudes of his contemporaries?
5. What different meanings does the title hold? Think of Gant's stone angels, Ben's conversation with "his angel", and Eugene's feelings toward Margaret Leonard, whom he also considers "his angel."
6. The Leonards become something of a second family for Eugene. How does their role compare with that of his biological family? What do the Leonards provide Eugene aside from his education?
7. What is Eugene's attitude toward women? Discuss the way women act as a catalyst in his life. Consider Eliza, Helen, Laura James, the woman Eugene encounters on his paper route, Mrs. Pert, and Margaret Leonard. What does Eugene want and expect from the various women in his life? How important is romantic love in Wolfe's world?
8. How does Eugene's struggle with his family and his birthplace parallel the struggle that all Americans face?
9. Near the end of the novel Gant tells Eliza, "You've had a hard life. If I'd acted different, we might have got along together" (p. 466). Discuss Eliza and Gant's relationship. How does their relationship influence their children's lives?
10. What effect does Ben's death have on the various members of his family? How does it change them? What does it symbolize to Eugene? What does Ben's death say about his life?
11. In a novel so concerned with realism, why do you think Wolfe chose to end the novel with a scene between Eugene and Ben's ghost? How does this scene relate to the novel's overarching themes?
12. At the end of Look Homeward, Angel Wolfe writes that Eugene "stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch...like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say 'The Town is near,' but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges" (p. 522). What do you think this last passage means? What do you imagine happens to Eugene once he leaves for Harvard?
Enhance Your Book Club:
1. Check out http://www.exploreasheville.com for information on Asheville, North Carolina, the town where Thomas Wolfe grew up and the inspiration for the setting of Look Homeward, Angel. The site includes information on guided tours available at Wolfe's boyhood home, an old boardinghouse on which he based his descriptions of Dixieland. Sign up for a tour if you're in the area!
2. At your book club meeting, serve ice cream sodas or a pitcher of refreshing limeade, the childhood treats Eugene enjoyed with his father. Find recipes at http://drink.allrecipes.com/az/Limd.asp and http://www.recipezaar.com/130633. Or, host an entire potluck dinner of traditional Southern dishes such as fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits.
3. In Of Time and the River, Wolfe's sequel to Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene goes to Harvard and embarks upon his adult life. If your book club enjoyed Look Homeward, Angel, read the sequel and discuss the way Wolfe has evolved and changed as a writer.
4. For more information on Wolfe, visit www.thomaswolfe.org and www.wolfememorial.com.