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O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life by Thomas Wolfe

University of South Carolina Press, 2000

Text established by Arlyn and Matthew J. Bruccoli

Original version of Look Homeward, Angel (1929, Charles Scribner’s Sons)


Warning: long post! I was tempted to spend hours reflecting back on the entire book. But, here's a bite-size summary, and then more for you to pick and choose!




Bite-size summary:


Wolfe’s autobiographical novel, in the original uncut version, O Lost, starts during the life of Gilbert Gant (the father character), and recounts the youth and young adulthood of Gant’s youngest son, the singular Eugene. Wolfe’s raw portrayals of his family, neighbors and hometown Asheville, North Carolina (fictionalized as Altamont) offended many and kept him from returning home for several years after the novel’s publication. Wolfe spares none in rendering the characters and situations encountered by Eugene on his quest for independence, which makes for exciting reading.


Another bite:


In 1928, Charles Scribner’s Sons, under the direction of editor Maxwell Perkins, agreed to publish the novel with some substantial cuts and a different title, Look Homeward, Angel, which he thought would be more attractive to readers. According to Matthew Broccoli who worked on establishing the text for the O Lost publication, about 60,000 words or 147 passages were cut; Wolfe added 5,000 words or 16 linking passages. Bruccoli maintained that some of the cuts reduced the value by losing humor, character depth, and genius. In his introduction he states that O Lost is a greater work than Look Homeward, Angel.


I have only read the O Lost version, but would likely agree. I adored O Lost and, with one 2-page exception(1), wanted neither to put it down, nor for it to end.



Now, bigger bites or just pick and choose!


Title reflections:


Wolfe’s original title (and subtitle): O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life

1929 published version: Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life

Other titles considered by Wolfe: The Building of a Wall, Alone Alone


Initially, Wolfe considered calling the novel The Building of a Wall. (Donald Trump wasn’t born yet). Wolfe explained his idea in a letter to Mrs. J.M. Roberts on July 19, 1926 : …I am telling the story of a powerful creative element trying to work its way toward an essential isolation ; a creative solitude ; a secret life—it’s fierce struggles to wall this part of its life away from birth, first against the public and savage glare of an unbalanced, nervous brawling family group ; later against school, society, all the barbarous invasions of the world.


Later, in an undated letter to the same person, Wolfe wrote : I think I shall call it "Alone Alone", for the idea that broods over it, and in it, and being it is that we are all strangers upon this earth… 


The Building of a Wall refers to the idea of "creative isolation" which can be positive, whereas Alone Alone, (and O Lost) alludes to the belief that every human is inevitably isolated from others. The first published title, Look Homeward Angel, is inspired by a phrase from the John Milton poem, Lycidas, and supports both of these themes. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44733/lycidas


The phrase "Look Homeward, Angel " appears just once in the text (as I remember), although a stone angel above the door of Gant’s tombstone engraving shop makes its presence felt more often. On the other hand, the phrase "O lost" is found repeatedly throughout the text, beginning with the first section of the Prologue: "…O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again."


O Lost, besides being the author’s choice, seems a more appropriate title, although Look Homeward Angel is more poetic, and optimistic-sounding (think marketing). Even though scholars would confirm that Milton’s poem is essentially about death, the phrase Look Homeward, Angel can be interpreted as looking upward towards heaven, or back towards the comfort of home. O Lost, on the contrary, cannot be considered as comforting.


The novel’s subtitle, A Story of the Buried Life, included in both final versions of the title, is from a poem written in 1852 by Matthew Arnold.


This poem speaks immediately and directly to my heart (whereas Lycidas does not).

I urge you to read Arnold’s poem. If you are not interested in reading Wolfe’s long novel, for example, you could instead read just this poem which explains the O Lost-ness, the inescapable isolation described in the novel. To encourage you I’ll let you know that it’s not a very long poem, and at the end the poet experiences a rare moment of connection and peace.


If you want to visit Wolfe's house, here’s some advice from goodreads.com:


"…if any of my fellow readers are anywhere near Asheville North Carolina, I would heartily recommend a visit to (Wolfe's) boyhood home which is located in downtown Asheville right across from the Radisson Hotel and then you need to get in the car and follow a windy drive to Riverside cemetery, actually it is only a mile or so as a crow flies but you know how that goes, see the graves of Thomas Wolfe and his mother and his father and his brothers including the ill-fated Ben."


And finally, here are the passages I marked:


(ch = chapter)


On being lost:


Lost. He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know anyone, 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. ch 2


Sorrow and reality:


…with a sudden inner flaming of her clairvoyant Scotch soul, she had looked clearly, without pretense for the first time upon the inexorable tides of Necessity, and that 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. ch 3


Race and class prejudice:


A visit to the Sheriff’s house in Altamont (Asheville, NC, early 1900s):

On the parlor mantel in the home of this charming fellow, there was a grinning Negroid skull, split by a bullet hole. This, Sheriff Bill had dangled before Eugene’s terrified face, had thrust repeatedly into his lap, laughing heartily as the child flung it aside and tried to scramble away. It was the skull of a Negro Bill had shot in the conduct of his profession. And they told him happily how many Negroes Bill had shot; how many more, both black and white, he had hanged…ch 3


But the white-headed children of Pigtail Alley they hated without humor, without any mitigation of a most bitter and alienate hate…All the inherited prejudice of caste is multiplied furiously in a child: unable to weigh all the causes, to see class in relation to class, they loathe what their parents hold in contempt…

One day as they pressed around a trapped Alley boy, who backed slowly, fearfully, resentfully into a reeking wall, Willie Issacs, the younger brother of Max, pointing with sniggering laughter, said:

"His mother takes in washin’."

And then, almost bent double by a soaring touch of humor, he added:

"His mother takes in washin’ from an ole nigger."

Harry Parkinson laughed hoarsely. Eugene turned away indefinitely, craned his neck convulsively, lifted one foot sharply from the ground.

"She don’t!" he screamed suddenly into their astounded faces. "She don’t!" ch 6


Honesty:


Eugene was to learn that the quality men call « honesty » is not something for whose use a man should be either praised or blamed, that it exists with inexorable variation in every man, and that, without question of guilt, one man is inferior in its quality just as one blade is better or worse than another. No man, perhaps, is genuinely a wastrel of his life: he produces pretty accurately, sincerely, and wholly what it is in him to produce. ch 7


A beloved brother’s face:


My brother Ben’s face, thought Eugene, is like a piece of slightly yellow ivory; his high white head is knotted fiercely by his old man’s scowl; his mouth is like a knife, his smile the flicker of a light across a blade. His face is like a blade, and a knife, and a flicker of light: it is delicate and fierce, and scowls beautifully forever, and when he fastens his hard white fingers and his scowling eyes upon a thing he wants to fix, he sniffs with sharp and private concentration through his long pointed nose. Thus women looking feel a well of tenderness for his pointed, bumpy, always scowling face: his hair shines like that of a young boy—it is crinkled and crisp as lettuce. ch 11


Books related to Demonology:


The Book of the Dead, by Wallace Budge

The Witch of Edmonton, by Thomas Dekker

Elizabethan Demonology by Thomas A. Spaulding

Biographia Litteraria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

and others ch 12


Some conceptions of God:


I am He who is His own Son and the Father of himself, Who sits by His own Side, hovers above His own Head, and makes obeisance at His own Feet. I am about to visit the universe that I inhabit. If I should get back before I return, keep Me here until I arrive.


If you do not confess to me what I already know, I shall condemn you in the First Place, Since I am Absolute Love, to my Avenging Wrath; in Second Place, Since I am Life and inhabit the Universe and am in all of You, to my Enemy who, Being Evil, has no existence but is nevertheless against Me and inhabits part of you; in the Third Place, to the Evil of My Creation which, since I am the cause and fulfillment of Absolute Good, could never have existed in the First Place. Since it was predestined before your birth that of your own Free Will you should commit a non-existent sin of which you are incapable, I shall mete out to you the punishment that I planned for you before you had voluntarily succumbed to the undemonstrable Evil which, in my all-seeing ignorance, I forced you to succumb to without letting Myself be conscious of it. ch 12


The South:


The virgins were young, they were beautiful, they were Southern, they were pure. All Southern virgins are pure. For that reason the South has a great many wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters.

All of the virgins were daughters, most of them were sisters, a few of them unwittingly were mothers, but none of them were wives.

Mr. Speaker, you many expectorate upon the Constitution; wipe your dirty feet upon the Emancipation Proclamation, and use the Stars and Stripes for your official snotrag, but say one word that will reflect upon the untarnished reputation or our wives, our mothers, and our sisters—NO ! God damn my patriotic Southern Soul, no, sir, you shall not! ch 18


Eugene’s view of his parents:


The constant meditation of both Gant and Julia on the death of others, their morbid raking of the news for items announcing the death of some person known to them, their weird absorption with the death of some toothless hag who, galled by bedsores, at length found release after her eightieth year, while fire, famine, and slaughter passed unnoticed by them in other parts of the world, their extravagant superstition over what was local and unimportant, seeing the intervention of God in the death of a peasant, and the suspension of divine law and natural order in their own, filled him with choking fury. ch 19


Eugene’s father doesn’t take responsibility for his actions:


"Merciful God!" he whined, stamping his foot like a child, and pacing up and down. "Why did this have to come upon me in my old age!" He began to sniffle affectedly.  "Boo-hoo-hoo! O Jesus, it’s fearful, it’s awful, it’s cruel that you should put this affliction on me." His contempt for reason was Parnassian. He accused God for exposing him; he wept because he had been caught. ch 19


Eugene’s opinion of « The Rime of the Ancient Mariner »:


…there is nothing beyond this—nothing. It is a supreme and absolute creation—the only finished work of one of the greatest poetic talents that ever was, the greatest romantic poem that has ever been written in English. ch 21


Hypocrisy / irony:


…The amazing scene was peopled by defeated ex-champion boxers…who had been drugged, betrayed, or bribed on the eve of battle, great society matrons who had made their début in brothels, great brothel mistresses who had made their début in society, the haughty wives of powerful bankers, merchants, lawyers, surgeons, and clergyman who united in secret and illicit sexual congress with chauffeurs, icemen, butlers, footmen, crooked deacons with hooked claws dipped in collection boxes, bribed juries, perjured witnesses, corrupt lawyers, padded ballot boxes, false election returns, defaulting cashiers, carnal bishops, lecherous priests, and fuzzy little professors with high bald domy heads full of impractical brains. ch 22


Brings to mind a Bob Dylan song(A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall):


Around four thousand fires the people gathered basting their shins and warming their hearts with dark scandal and the incessant activity of the churches. Over all the rolling earth of sere cotton land and mired red clay the small cold rain was falling.

ch 22


World War I:


They were lifted up on the wings of their enormous folly; they were drunken, inspired, by that great false vision of Arcadia unvisited. They were sick with a beautiful poison—they had felt the kiss of evil on their hearts and they would have spilled their blood exalted in its holy war… For them, those distant feet that shook the earth did not go out to save a blind old squire, who sat upon the land: they went out for justice, truth, and honor, and for that unspoken tongue that Milton spoke…they could not see the jealousy of expiring power, the convulsive death fear of menaced empire—they lived in that strange universe of hell and heaven where all the sheep and goats are meadowed apart, and one fair chosen fold shall rule above the rest. They did not only believe that there are civilized individuals, which is probable; they believed that there are civilized nations, which is mad. So, proudly asserting their rejected brotherhood, swearing their allegiance to the language they spoke with a despised accent, they cast up the country cousins, their fervent prayers for the destruction of Krupp, and the preservation of Chaucer and John Keats. ch 24


Father-son relationship:


They had never talked together. Their eyes never met—a great shame, the shame of father and son, that mystery that goes down beyond motherhood, beyond life, that mysterious shame that seals the lips of all men, and lives within their hearts, silenced them. ch 27


The Southern university:

In this pastoral setting a young man was enabled to loaf comfortably and delightfully through four luxurious and indolent years…all gone now. The Wilderness Eden has melted into the Awakened South. Its thousand charming loafers have been succeeded in ten years by three thousand earnest young credit chasers, most of whom, we understand, are registered in the School of Commerce…The pedagogical geese may not be heard for their own quacking. Progress, as usual, is Progressing.


In 1916, the elements of the synthetic age were all existent, but they floated unattached as yet in Limbo… The so-called American Mind, in short, was in the making. Ch 27


Procrastination:


They made constant preparations for study, but they never studied: one would enter sternly, announcing that he had "a hell of a day to-morrow," and begin the most minute preparations for a long contest with his books: he would sharpen his pencils carefully and deliberately, adjust his lamp, replenish the red-hot stove, move his chair, put on an eyeshade, clean his pipe, stuff it carefully with tobacco, light, relight, and empty it, then, with an expression of profound relief, hear a rapping on his door. "Come in the house, God damn it!" he would roar hospitably. ch 28


Ghosts:


In him the ghost, his stranger, twisted grievously away.

He was haunted by his own lost ghost: he knew it to be irrecoverable.

But then:

He got back his heart again. He got it back fiercely and carelessly, with an eldritch wildness. During the remainder of his holiday, he plunged recklessly through the lively crowds, looking boldly but without insolence at the women and young girls. They grew unexpectedly out of the waste dread winter like splendid flowers. He was eager and alone. Fear is a dragon who lives among crowds—and in armies. It lives hardly with men who are alone. He felt released—beyond the last hedge of desperation. Before we come to that hedge we can fancy nothing beyond but ruin, or curative death: after we pass it, we find the broad lands of a richer world. And we pass it—some of us—again and again, losing something priceless and irrecoverable, gaining a world and new music, stranger, profounder, and sadder than any we have known. And our lives widen out, not infinitely but immeasurably, like great circles on a shoreless pond, until the sudden cry of knowledge is strangled in our throats by death. Ch 28


“Strange and bitter fruit":


Impossible not to think of the song Strange Fruit sung by Billy Holiday, but the phrase has a different meaning here:

Eugene, freed and alone, looked with a boding detachment at all the possessed and possessing world about him. Life hung for his picking fingers like a strange and bitter fruit. ch 28


For a brief discussion of uses of the term Strange Fruit:


Alcestis:


Eugene says this is the noblest and loveliest of all the myths of Love and Death. For this and other reading recommended by Eugene, see ch 29


The United States:


He was reading Euripides and all around him a world of white and black was eating fried food. He was reading of ancient sorceries and old ghosts, but did an old ghost ever come to haunt this land? The ghost of Hamlet’s Father in Connecticut.

I am thy father’s spirit

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night

Between Bloomington and Portland, Maine.

He felt suddenly the devastating impermanence of the nation: only the earth endured (2)—the gigantic American earth bearing upon its awful breast a world of flimsy rickets. Only the earth endured—this broad terrific earth that had no ghosts to haunt it… Nothing had been done in stone. Only this earth endured, upon whose lonely breast he read Euripides. Within its hills he had been held a prisoner; upon its plain he walked, alone, a stranger…O God! We have been an exile in another land, and a stranger in our own. Our senses have been fed by our terrific land; our blood has learned to run to the imperial pulse of America which, leaving, we can never lose and never forget… ch 29


Using animal imagery to describe Black people:


Strapping black buck-niggers with gorilla arms and the black paws of panthers

ch 35


Being American in spite of himself:


The national demand for white shiny plumbing, toothpaste, tiled lunchrooms, haircuts, manicuring, dentistry, horn spectacles, baths, and the insane fear of disease that sent the voters whispering to the druggist after their brutal fumbling contract with a whore—all of this seemed nasty. Their outer cleanliness became the token for an inner corruption: it was something that glittered and was dry, foul, and rotten at the core. He felt that, no matter what leper’s taint he might carry upon his flesh, there was in him a health that was greater than they could ever know—something fierce and cruelly wounded, but alive, that did not shrink away from the terrible sunken river of life: something desperate and merciless that looked steadily on the hidden and unspeakable passions that unify the tragic family of this earth.

He choked with anger and disgust when he saw the enormous dark tides of nature bridged over in cheap little cockleshells of pretense and Methodist morality. And in particular, the Southerner’s cringing trick—unable to face the question that the jungle lust of Africa and the storming blood of the tropics had asked so many times—the trick of guarding with sacred menace and the threat of mob murder the names of sister, mother, wife, burned him with fury. In all these dodges he saw the sly heels of the deacon retreating up the alley towards his black wench.

Yet, Eugene was no rebel. He had no greater need for rebellion than have most Americans, which is none at all. He was quite content with any system which might give him comfort, security, enough money to do as he liked, and freedom to think, eat, drink, love, read and write what he chose. And he did not care under what form of government he lived—Republican, Democrat, Tory, Socialist, or Bolshevist, if it could assure him these things. He did not want to reform the world, or to make it a better place to live in: his whole conviction was that the world was full of pleasant places, enchanted places, if he would only go and find them. The life around him was beginning to fetter and annoy him: he wanted to escape from it. He felt sure things would be better elsewhere. He always felt sure things would be better elsewhere.

ch 39


Notes:

(1) ch 21, from "At this moment, mine host, a fat man with corky legs and a red face…" to "Without another glance at the sullen swart, he rushed back into the inn, shouting orders."

(2) In The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, it is Black people who “endured”

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