Synopses & Reviews
George Webber has written a successful novel about his family and hometown. When he returns to that town he is shaken by the force of the outrage and hatred that greets him. Family and friends feel naked and exposed by the truths they have seen in his book, and their fury drives him from his home. He begins a search for his own identity that takes him to New York and a hectic social whirl; to Paris with an uninhibited group of expatriates; to Berlin, lying cold and sinister under Hitler's shadow. At last Webber returns to America and rediscovers it with love, sorrow, and hope.
"[T]he long, crowded pages of imagined and lived scenes are as brilliant as any to be found in Wolfe's writings." Elizabeth Hardwick, New York Review of Books
When a successful novelist is ostracized by the family and friends of his hometown, he embarks on a worldwide search for his own identity and personal renewal.
Story of an artist who flees scandal and despair as he journeys from his family home in a small Southern town to the capitals of prewar Europe.
About the Author
Thomas Wolfe was born on October 3, 1900, among the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, North Carolina, a childhood which he immortalized through the creation of Eugene Gant, the hero of Look Homeward, Angel (1929). Wolfe enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the age of fifteen, determined to become a playwright, but despite the success of his college productions, and later, the plays he wrote during his studies at Harvard University's renowned 47 Workshop, he was unable to interest professional New York producers in his work.
Fearing penury and professional failure, Wolfe was encouraged to turn to the writing of fiction full-time by Aline Bernstein, a set designer for the New York Theatre Guild, with whom Wolfe carried on a five-year affair (and who appears in Wolfe's fiction as the Esther Jack character in The Web and the Rock (1939) and Of Time and the River .) Scribner's legendary Maxwell Perkins was the only editor to appreciate Wolfe's freshman effort, Look Homeward, Angel, and after extensive revisions and collaborative editing sessions, the novel was published in 1929. The largely autobiographical book was received with unequivocal enthusiasm. The residents of Asheville, however, the real-life denizens of this "drab circumstance," rebelled against Wolfe's often scathing portrayal of his hometown. The public outcry was so great that Wolfe did not return to his hometown for seven years.
Rewarded with commercial success and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Wolfe wrote a second autobiographical saga about the life of Eugene Gant, Of Time and the River , in which Eugene, an aspiring novelist, details his travels to Europe. This time, the critics were torn. Wolfe's apparent formlessness was both a constant source of delight and frustration to critics, many of whom felt that Wolfe was pioneering new literary ground, while others insisted that the overweening passion inherent in Wolfe's rambling narratives betrayed the author's immaturity and solipsism.
Furthermore, Wolfe's intimate collaboration with his editor, Perkins, were often derided by contemporaries, who insisted that Wolfe's inability to master novelistic form without significant editorial assistance rendered him artistically deficient. The rancorous extent of the criticism led to Wolfe's eventual break with Perkins, and in 1927, Wolfe signed with Edward C. Aswell at Harper. Yet Aswell had no less significant a role in reshaping and trimming Wolfe's future works than Perkins did previously.
The early part of 1938 found Wolfe in Brooklyn, this time writing with a new social agenda. Agreeing with some of his critics that his earlier work was indeed too egocentric, Wolfe rechristened Eugene Gant as George "Monk" Webber, and embarked on writing a new novel dedicated to exploring worldwide social and political ills. This mammoth undertaking, after gargantuan editorial efforts on the part of Aswell, would be published posthumously, and as two novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940), as well as The Hills Beyond (1941), a collection which contained short fiction, a play, and a novella. Wolfe's development as a novelist was truncated by his sudden death at the age of thirty-eight, yet the progression of his novels showcases Wolfe's ever-evolving capacities as a writer. Navigating his way from self-obsessed chronicler of his own adolescence to sophisticated assessor of the adolescence of America itself, Wolfe was a writer who grew up in step with the country that both made him and maddened him. He died in 1938..
Reading Group Guide
George Webber has written a successful novel about his family and hometown. When he returns to that town, he is shaken by the force of outrage and hatred that greets him. Family and life-long friends feel naked and exposed by what they have seen in his books, and their fury drives him from his home.
Outcast, George Webber begins a search for his own identity. It takes him to New York and a hectic social whirl; to Paris with an uninhibited group of ex-patriots; to Berlin, lying cold and sinister under Hitler's shadow. The journey comes full circle when Webber returns to America and rediscovers it with love, sorrow, and hope. Discussion Topics
1. Despite George Webber's belief that he was not influenced by his aunt's puritanical, mountain-clan upbringing, what effects do you think her " endless stories of death and sorrow" had on him? How was his character influenced by his father's abandonment of the family for another woman, and by his mother's death from a broken heart?
2. Of George's editor in the novel it is said, " Fox really has no hope that men will change, that life will ever get much better." What of George? Does he have hope? What does he see in the future for himself and America? How does George's attitude evolve over the course of the novel?
3. Discuss the author's use of the metaphor of the honeycomb throughout the novel and what the image symbolizes. Why do you think he says that " it seemed, then, not only entirely reasonable but even natural that the whole structure of society from top to bottom should be honeycombed with privilege and dishonesty?"
4. What does Wolfe mean when he says of Amy Carleton that " shehad slept with everybody. . . but she has never been promiscuous?" What does he mean when he says, " She had tried everything in life - except living?"
5. What is it about the party and ensuing fire at the Jacks' the causes George to conclude at the end of Book II that his love for Esther is not enough, that his aspirations for a life of wealth and privilege have been all wrong? Why is it that he concludes that privilege and truth - particularly for a writer - are incompatible? Moreover, is he right?
6. Consider the writing-school dictum of " write what you know" in terms of how it relates to George's - and Wolfe's - novel. Has George taken this advice too literally? Can you think of successful novels that have rung true to you, but which contained events that could not possibly have been drawn from the author's personal experience?
7. Within the world depicted in the novel, is social class and position more important than ethnic background and nationality in determining character? Is it true that, as Wolfe says, " one tells a good deal more about a man when one says he is a chemist than when one says he is an Englishman?" Would the same hold true today?
8. Is it possible for a person to eradicate his roots, a step that George deems necessary if, as he says, " a man was to win his ultimate freedom and not be plunged back into savagery and perish utterly from the earth?"