"Look Homeward, Angel" is the 1929 debut novel by Thomas Wolfe. Largely an autobiographical roman a clef, the book describes Thomas Wolfe's childhood and early adulthood growing up in North Carolina. The edited 1929 edition runs over 500 pages, and the unedited version, finally published in 2000, is about 25% longer.

The book is structurally loose, with both its plot and prose sprawling and full of digressions. The story focuses on Eugene Gant, a fictionalized version of the author, but also covers the life story of his parents, siblings, friends, and people around town. The story covers the late 19th and early 20th century, ending at about the close of World War I. It is a fascinating document about the society of the time, although I am not sure how much of that is Wolfe simply reporting on things matter-of-factly, and how much of it is him making social commentary. Because this book is full of social criticism and commentary, interspersed with stream-of-consciousness narration and naturalistic dialogue.

As I said with "You Can't Go Home Again", when I read a classic work of fiction, my expectations run the gamut from "unreadable" to "fair for its time" to "actually entertaining". Both of Wolfe's books I read fell in the last category. I can't tell you exactly why I kept reading, but I did. Even when the book goes on for pages about something that isn't particularly interesting (such as the schoolyard politics of an elementary school) I kept reading.

Amongst many other observations I could make on this book, there are two that I thought about the most: First, the book's description of a society where public and personal behavior were widely separated. It easy to overestimate the strictness of sexual mores of the past, yet in this book, the characters seem to view prostitution as a fairly normal thing, while also being very circumspect about any signs of sexual impropriety being visible in public. I don't know if Wolfe was attempting to bring specific attention to this, or whether it was just part of the mores of the time that he was reporting without comment.

Second, I wonder how Thomas Wolfe managed to write a book about my family decades before most of them were born. Wolfe's replication of the dynamics and dialogue of what would later be called a dysfunctional family is exact, especially considering that he wrote at a time before pop psychology existed. Although I am sure that there are people that could correct me on this, I think that Wolfe may have been one of the first writers to write about these types of family dynamics in a way that could be seen as sociologically or psychologically modern and realistic.

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