An elaborate and moving coming-of-age story about Eugene Gant, a restless and energetic character whose passion to experience life takes him from his small, rural hometown in North Carolina to Harvard University and the city of Boston. The novel's pattern is artfully simple--a small town, a large family, high school and college--yet the characters are monumental in their graphic individuality and personality.
The Book Report: Oliver Cole's a drunk, Eliza Cole's a shrew, they have six kids and she doesn't like him, or childbirth, or poverty, or much of anything else that I can see. Oliver likes his youngest, Eugene, better than any of them (so do I, but that's not sayin' a lot), and spends what tiny about of love Eliza hasn't nagged and bitched and niggled and criticized and belittled out of him on the kid.
Eugene grows up in a boardinghouse called Dixieland in Asheville, North Carolina. OOOPSIE! I mean Altamont, Catawba. Wolfe didn't want anyone to know he was writing autobiography, see, so he invented a city and a state! Wow! And then he wrote about the people around him honestly, forthrightly, and in a stream-of-Faulkner style that was then très chic and is even now described as modernistic. EIGHTY PLUS YEARS LATER IT'S NOT EXPERIMENTAL OR MODERN ANYMORE, BOYS AND GIRLS, IT'S PART OF THE TOOLKIT.
So Eugene grows up, and we do too, and then leaves home, and we do too, and then everything comes to a screeching halt.
Thank GAWD for small mercies.
My Review: I am no fan of the coming-of-age novel, and I don't often read them. I read this one when I was fifteen, because I wanted to impress a hot boy I was trying to get into my bed, and he thought this was the coolest book ever. I read it every damn day in study hall so he'd notice me, which he did, and we ended up talking about the book for hours.
And that was ALL I got. Yip-yap-yop about Eugene's life and his deepness and ohdeargawdpleasekillmenow stuff about the damn BOOK!!
I don't think I've ever forgiven the book for not getting me laid.
But upon mature reflection, I still dislike the book, for better (more adult, anyway) reasons. One is that even editing legend Max Perkins couldn't give Wolfe a deft enough hand to tell this story in so demanding a style as stream-of-consciousness without it spilling over into self-indulgence and sloppy, untidy, unnecessary sentimentality.
Another is Eugene/Tom's misogyny. I yield to no one in my distaste for the Cult of Female Superiority, whether motivated by “chivalry” or by feminism. Women ain't better than men, but likewise they ain't worse either. Wolfe's woman, mama Eliza, is a horrible gorgon of a vicious emasculating harridan. She has depths to her nastiness and pretension that are entirely credible. What she lacks is the balancing of REASONS for these things. In the first two zillion words, which detail the lives of Eliza and Oliver, Eliza emerges fully formed as a castrating slime. She was born this way? I doubt me much this is true.
Lastly comes Wolfe's conceit. In this Bildungs-barely-roman, he relives the first years of his life...an ordinary, unremarkable one...seemingly in real time. Why? What for? Here is the nub of my objection to coming-of-age stories: We've all come of age, so what makes your story special? In Wolfe's case, I do not see the special. It is entirely possible that I am resistant to his specialness because the story is so boring to me. But I quite simply can not fathom what makes this dreary, low-class, hag-ridden tribe of ciphers anything I should care enough about to do more than put a coin in the charity box to help feed.
There is no denying Wolfe's stunning capacity for character depth. The question is, does the story require quite this much depth? If passages were trimmed, if details were pared down to only the very best, would anything have been lost? I suspect not. Faulkner and Kerouac both cited Wolfe as an influence, and I can see that -- the high poetics, the stream-of-consciousness, the young man's unbridled, undisciplined approach to art is obvious. And there is certainly a value in that. I just wish Wolfe had made more choices, instead of flinging everything at the page and then keeping everything. There's something to be said for Oscar Wilde, who "spent the morning putting in a comma, and spent the afternoon taking it out again."
I would definitely recommend ANGEL to my fourteen-year-old self. It would have, I think, enhanced my writer's education, and I will recommend it to anyone under the age of 25 who either wants to be a writer or who loves literature. But for those of us who have lived a while, and who have less patience for pyrotechnics, ANGEL is a bit of a slog, albeit a mightily poetic one.
On the arbitray nature of life:
"Suddenly, he saw that his life had been channelled by a series of accidents: a mad Rebel singing of Armageddon, the sound of a bugle on the road, the mule-hoofs of the army, the silly white face of an angel in a dusty shop, a slut's pert wiggle of her hams as she passed by. He had reeled out of warmth and plenty into this barren land...."
"The enormous tragedy of accident hung like a gray cloud over his life. He saw more clearly than ever that he was a stranger in a strange land among people who would always be alien to him. Strangest of all, he thought, was this union, by which he had begotten children, created a life dependent on him, with a woman so remote from all he understood."
"Eugene wanted the two things all men want: he wanted to be loved, and he wanted to be famous."
"Eugene looked with passionate devotions at the grand old head, calm, wise and comforting. In a moment of vision, he saw that, for him, here was the last of the heroes, the last of those giants to whom we give the faith of our youth, believing like children that the riddle of our lives might be solved by their quiet judgment."
"He believed in the infinite rich variety of all the towns and faces: behind any of a million shabby houses he believed there was strange buried life, subtle and shattered romance, something dark and unknown. At the moment of passing any house, he thought, some one therein might be at the gate of death, lovers might lie twisted in hot embrace, murder might be doing."
"He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her arms a stranger, and that, caught in that insoluble prison of being, we escape it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart may warm us. Never, never, never, never, never."
"He was closer to a feeling of brotherhood than he had ever been, and more alone."
"But even more often, the shell of his morality broken to fragments by his desire, he would enact the bawdy fable of schoolboys, and picture himself in hot romance with a handsome teacher. In the fourth grade his teacher was a young, inexperienced, but well-built woman, with carrot-colored hair, and full of reckless laughter."
"Before they came to the house, crossing a field, it would be necessary to go over a stile; he would go over first, helping her down, looking ardently at the graceful curve of her long, deliberately exposed, silk-clad leg."
"Gant was incapable of resignation. He had the most burning of all lusts - the lust of memory, the ravenous hunger of the will which tries to waken what is dead."
"On the third floor of the First National Bank building on the right hand corner, Fergus Paston, fifty-six, a thin lecherous mouth between iron-gray dundrearies, leaned his cocked leg upon his open window, and followed the movements of Miss Bernie Powers, twenty-two, crossing the street. Even in our ashes live their wonted fires."
And finally this one; I love it because it was 'forbidden lust' between races, but also because the edition I have is original, and the previous owner had dog-eared this page presumable as a 'good part':
"What yo' want?' She whispered, facing him.
Far off, he listened to the ghost of his own voice.
'Take off your clothes.'
Her skirt fell in a ring about her feet. She took off her starched waist. In a moment, save for her hose, she stood naked before him.
Her breath came quickly, her full tongue licked across her mouth.
'Dance!' he cried. 'Dance!'
She began to moan softly, while an undulant tremor flowed through her great yellow body; her hips and her round heavy breasts writhed slowly in a sensual rhythm.
Her straight oiled hair fell across her neck in a thick shock. She exteneded her arms for balance, the lids closed over her large yellow eyeballs. She came near him. He felt her hot breath on his face, the smoldering flood of her breasts. He was whirled like a chip in the wild torrent of her passion...."
"...she was sorry for all who had lived, were living, or would live, fanning with their prayers the useless altar flames, suppliant with their hopes to an unwitting spirit, casting the tiny rockets of their belief against remote eternity, and hoping for grace, guidance, and delivery upon the spinning and forgotten cinder of this earth. O lost."
"A man must live, mustn't he?' said Coker with a grin.
'That's what I'm asking you, Coker. Why must he?'
'Why,' said Coker, 'in order to work nine hours a day in a newspaper office, sleep nine hours, and enjoy the other six in washing, shaving, dressing, eating at the Greasy Spoon, loafing in front of Wood's, and occasionally taking the Merry Widow to see Francis X. Bushman. Isn't that reason enough for any man? If a man's hardworking and decent, and invests his money in the Building and Loan every week, instead of squandering it on cigarettes, coca-cola, and Kuppenheimer clothes, he may own a little home some day.' Coker's voice sank to a hush of reverence. 'He may even have his own car, Ben. Think of that!"
"He was washed in the great river of night, in the Ganges tides of redemption. His bitter wound was for the moment healed in him: he turned his face upward to the proud and tender stars, which made him a god and a grain of dust, the brother of eternal beauty and the son of death - alone, alone."
"To hell with them, 'Gene. To hell with them all. Don't let them worry you. Get all that you can. Don't give a damn for anything. Nothing gives a damn for you. To hell with it all! To hell with it! There are a lot of bad days. There are a lot of good ones. You'll forget. There are a lot of days. Let it go."
"At last, thought Eugene, I am getting an education. This must be good writing, because it seems so very dull. When it hurts, the dentist says, it does you good."
"My dear, dear girl,' he said gently as she tried to speak, '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."
"...the conviction had grown on him that men do not escape from life because life is dull, but that life escapes from men because men are little. He felt that the passions of the play were greater than the actors. It seemed to him that he had never had a great moment of living in which he had measured up to its fulness."
"By Christmas, with fair luck, he might be eligible for service in khaki: by Spring, if God was good, all the proud privileges of trench-lice, mustard gas, spattered brains, punctured lungs, ripped guts, asphyxiation, mud and gangrene, might be his. .... He longed for that subtle distinction, that air of having lived and suffered that could only be attained by a wooden leg, a rebuilt nose, or the seared scar of a bullet across his temple."
"Where have they got you stationed now, Luke?' said Harry Tugman, peering up snoutily from a mug of coffee.
'At the p-p-p-present time in Norfolk at the Navy Base,' Luke answered, 'm-m-making the world safe for hypocrisy."
On talking to the younger generation, funny with variation, it's the same generation after generation:
"When I was your age, I had milked four cows, done all the chores, and walked eight miles through the snow by this time."
Indeed, when described his early schooling, he furnished a landscape that was constantly three feet deep in snow, and frozen hard. He seemed never to have attended school save under polar conditions."
Letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1940
Selected Letters, pg. 517
Whole passages with no point or relevance.
Don't know what he's talking about when he goes on a tangent from the story. He assumes the reader can follow his train of thought.
"This must be good writing, because it seems so very dull." I assume this is Wolfe's take on why he thought he wrote a classic?
The hardest thing was the level of racism and sexism. It’s totally understandable for a book written by a Southern white man in the 20s. In this autobiographical novel, he was describing the environment he lived in, and the way he thought about it. But it just really grates on modern sensibilities.
And yes, sometimes his writing is gorgeous, rich, and amazing. But most of the time it just feels way, way overwritten. His adjective-heavy sentences can feel over-stuffed. So I’m not recommending that anybody else read this, even though there are about a dozen pages that are transcendent. It just wasn’t enough for me. Maybe books like this aren’t supposed to be read out of their time.
The criticisms I have come across about Wolfe's work is that is mostly autobiographical. Maybe so, but it is quite a story in that. The book really to me was about life and death in all its gore and glory. The Gant family, the living portrait of every dysfunctional family past and present. Often reading like poetry it captivated me pretty much from start to finish. I would recommend it to everyone to complete their education on great American literature.
"A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world."
Is this destiny that of Eugene as well? And is it mere chance or will Eugene have a will to make his way in this world? This shows the direction of the story and, as it expands to take in the Gant family of Father, Mother, and siblings in Altamont, I was impressed with the translation of a country's manifest destiny into a town's and into a family's and beyond that the personal story and destiny of one Eugene Gant.
This translation of destiny is a story of coming of age told in what we today might call a "mash-up" of styles that leave the reader looking for structure among the historical commentaries, classical allusions, family rows, and soaring beauty of many more lyrical passages. The last of these alone made the book worth reading. Yes, it is worth persevering the Whitmanesque size of the narrative for some further passages of the beauty in the world that destiny had bequeathed to young Eugene Gant. While he is young and pursuing an education that seems unconventional, in spite of his attendance at the traditional schools, he is living a life of isolation from most of the world around him. There are exceptions, his relationship with his brother Ben is particularly poignant; yet there is a yearning for escape, from family and from Altamont to a world where Eugene may not feel quite so alone.
His estrangement from his own family is both exacerbated and caused by unlikable qualities from his father's boorish drunkenness to Steve's abusive behavior to his mother Eliza's self-centeredness. She is focused on a miserliness that builds a material fortune but does nothing for Eugene. With all his struggles Eugene remains detached from family and home; he seeks some solace with another family, the Leonards, and finds an "angel" in Margaret Leonard. But the stone angels outside his home remain a symbol that has warmth only in an ironical sense.
Wolfe writes near the end of the book 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 508). This is where his true destiny lies. This, perhaps, is a place where he will no longer feel the pangs of isolation or, perhaps, it is merely a dream of a destiny denied as yet. For this reader it is not unlike the statement of another young man, Stephen Dedalus, who at the end of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man says, "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."
It's easy to see why this opus won passionate admiration and a place among the most influential novels of the early twentieth century. It's also easy to see why admiring imitators would have done better to choose some other sort of sincere flattery. Like any other distinctive stylist--Van Gogh comes to mind--only Wolfe is Wolfe, and it's best that others not try to be him.
I feel remiss in having failed to read this novel for more than half a century beyond the time when it was first recommended to me. If I had come to it sooner, I might have recognized traces of its unique character in other readings that I can only now reflect on in retrospect. I might also have had enough time by now to come to a full recognition of what the author did in these many pages.
On the one hand, there are beautiful, moving, lyrical passages, such as his paean to the lost young love (page 372), and insights of notable psychological reach: "Unknowingly, he had begun to build up in himself a vast mythology for which he cared all the more deeply because he realized its untruth. Brokenly, obscurely, he was beginning to feel that it was not truth that men live for--the creative men--but for falsehood." (page 183)
And, as if to counterbalance numerous prolix outflowings of overwrought prose, there is on occasion marvelous economy of phrase: "elegant young ensigns out of college, with something blonde and fluffy at their sides" (page 418). And: "As that spring ripened he felt entirely, for the first time, the full delight of loneliness." Some of those, however, are cloyingly sugar-coated, as with all the instances of "lilac darkness" and the abundance of pearl and nacreous light.
On the other hand, there are numerous instances of questionable use of showoff words such as "phthisic" and "inchoate" (nine of the latter, including the absurd "a wild inchoate scream," page 227). When Wolfe springs words such as "gabular" and "ptotic" and "adyts" into the text, I seldom feel, as I do, for instance, with Oscar Wilde, that they belong to his peculiarly erudite vocabulary and flow naturally from his thought; but rather that he has gone to some little trouble to acquire them and that they are there more to impress than to honor precision.
Also noted: frequent suffocating passages swamped in bobbing, floating adverbs: these, for instance, gathered from two almost randomly chosen facing pages (135 and 136): stiffly, desperately, richly, moistly, sparsely, slightly, fiercely, beautifully, brightly, leafily, softly, musically, lazily, swinishly, cleanly, cynically (twice), belligerently, silently, contemptuously, toughly, thinly, pugnaciously, quietly.
Nonetheless, the novel drew me on; I didn't choose to abandon it. I found depths and revelations in this protracted coming-of-age tale, with its permeating theme of loss, that rewarded my attention. I also noticed that it made me write a little oddly for a while afterward, in much the same way that I start to talk a little funny after I've been bingeing on BBC costume dramas. My note immediately upon finishing it says this: "Style is at once lyrical and juvenile, erudite and ostentatious. Characters never seem to be, but constantly becoming. Does not draw conclusions or look for a simple answer anywhere. At times seems breathless and at times breathes wordlessly."