Friday, March 21, 2014

Capital and Class in Look Homeward, Angel

This is an essay for a class I am taking.        

 In the first chapter of his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe describes the meeting of the parents of the main character, Eugene Gant.  Eugene’s father, W.O. Gant, a stonecutter, has recently moved to the town Altamont, where he is recovering his health from bouts of over drinking and grief from the death of his first wife.  He is lying on the leather couch in his rented shop in the middle of the afternoon when Elizabeth Pentland, a young woman with ambitions, enters.  She is a representative of a publishing firm and attempts to sell her wares.  As part of their flirtatious conversation, Elizabeth turns the topic to property ownership.  “’If I had a few thousand dollars I know what I would do,” she says (10).  She would purchase the lot the building that Gant was renting.  She predicts that the town will grow, a street will be constructed, and soon this “property is going to be worth money” (10).  Gant’s response startles her:  “’I hope I never own another piece of property as long as I live—save a house to live in. It is nothing but a curse and a care, and the tax collector gets it all in the end’” (10).  Although these two marry and raise a family, although Elizabeth eventually purchases a great number of properties, their disagreements over money and its uses never cease.  By including this conflict as one of the central threads in the fabric of this large and dense novel, Thomas Wolfe illustrates how the issues of money and property are woven into Americans’ sense of identity.  In this paper, I will employ a few of the concepts provided by Adam Smith and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to show how Thomas Wolfe captures, in a non-ideological manner, a conflict central to the American psyche.
            Adam Smith, the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher of morals and political economy, has often been used in the United States to justify an unfettered free enterprise capitalism. A passage from Chapter Two of Book One in The Wealth of Nations is quoted often, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own interest,” he writes.  “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but of their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage” (vol. 1, 119).  The basic ideas here are first that humans prosper through the division of labor, when different individuals perform different tasks, and second that humans excel when they are pursuing their own self interest, advancement, and profit, especially in a competitive environment.  This passage also hints, distantly, to a second concept that Smith is esteemed for, that of “an invisible hand.”  This concept has been used to support the belief that if we just let everyone look out for their own personal self interest, that over-time everything will just work out fine.  In the second chapter of Book Four, Smith writes, “every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can.  He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. . . . he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention (vol. 2, 32).   Sure, things may be difficult for brief periods:  wages may rise and profits go down; wages may dip and workers left unemployed or destitute; commodities may become too expensive and demand lessen and workers be displaced; commodities may become too plentiful and profits disappear.  And thus we are always caught in cycles of expansion and contraction, but the greater good always wins out.  Or so the theory goes.  As Joseph E. Stiglitz writes in The Price of Inequality, “When markets work well—in the way that Adam Smith hypothesized—it is because private returns and social benefits are well aligned, that is, because private rewards and social contributions are equal” 941).  However, “[w]hen these are not aligned, we say there is a market failure, that is, markets fail to produce efficient outcomes.  Private rewards and social returns are not well aligned when competition is imperfect” (42).  The Great Depression of the nineteen thirties was one such period, as was, according to Stiglitz, the financial crisis this century.
            In Book One of The Wealth of Nations, Smith identifies three factors that form the basis of an economy:  labor, capital, and land.  In Look Homeward, Angel, all three become important features of the development of the novel.  Labor becomes represented in the father, W. O. Gant.  It is his work as a stonecutter and the creator of cemetery monuments that supports the family throughout the novel. We really do not learn much about his labor as the book progresses; rather most of the scenes highlighting the father tend to focus on either is alcoholism or his dynamic literary imagination.  But this we know: in spite of his occasional but recurrent binges, his labor still provides a firm economic foundation for the family. It provides the capital that purchases the family home and building for his business.  In addition, it provides the capital with which his wife begins her own obsession with purchasing land.   “Year by year, above his howl of protest, he did not know how, they gathered in small bits of earth, paid the hated taxes, and put the money that remained into more land.  Over the wife, over the mother, the woman of property, who was like a man, walked slowly forth” (16). 
            But, of course, the father is not the only worker in the family.   After Elizabeth and W.O. cease adding children to their family, the last child being the central character, Eugene, Elizabeth first briefly opens a rooming house in St. Louis, during the World’s Fair, and next purchases a house in Altamount that she calls “Dixieland.”  She leaves her husband and older children in the family home, and moves into Dixieland with Eugene, where she takes in boarders, travelers, and summer retreaters.  Over time, she adds rooms and expands the building, but she also serves as the chief cook and housekeeper.  By the end of the novel, when Eugene is twenty, she is often described as an old and beat woman, which we are to interpret as caused by both her determined hard labor and by her mean spirited greed.  In other words, both labor and capital (along with the greed for land) are the causes for her exhaustion and diminished spirit.  As the family comes to terms that Ben, son and brother, is about to die during the post World War I influenza epidemic, Elizabeth is described:  “Eliza bustled about eagerly, pathetically, busy, preparing breakfast. . . .  Behind her white face dwelt this horror, she made no confession, no complaint.  She bustled around doing useless things with an eager matter-of-factness.”  Seeing this, Eugene offers his mother comfort. “And Eliza, stripped suddenly of her pretenses, clung to him, burying her white face in his coat sleeve, weeping bitterly, helplessly, grievously, for the sad waste of the irrevocable years—the immortal hours of love that might never be relieved, the great evil of forgetfulness and indifference that could never be righted now” (452). 
            Eugene’s sympathy for his mother is a brief moment.  The final chapters of the novel almost seem to be a long accusation of the mother’s overpowering need for additional cash to purchase more property, and the resultant inattention to her family. 

  •  “’Mama, mama, in God’s name, what is it?  What do you want?  Are you going to strangle and drown us all?  Don’t you own enough’”  (365).
  •  ”’Oh, for God’s sake!” Ben jeered. ‘Economize!  What for?  So you can give it all away to Old Man Doak for one of his lots?’” (443)
  •   “’Did you give a damn, as long as there was fifty cents to be made out of one of your lousy boarders?’” (444)
  •  “’She let him die here before her very eyes.  Why, only day before yesterday, when his temperature was 104, she was talking to Old Doctor Doak about a lot.  Did you know that?’” (453-4)

If this were all we examined we would walk away from the novel believing that Elizabeth’s devotion to the raising of capital and the purchasing of land did lead only collapse.  In this case, familial, not national.
However, if we step away from the value system of the narrator of this novel, which is in all probability the value system of Thomas Wolfe himself, we might see a slightly different understanding of the home economy of the Gant family.  [Thomas Wolfe’s fiction is notorious for being overtly autobiographical, to the extent that he refused to visit his hometown of Ashville, North Carolina, for many years following his bitter attack on his family and city.  In fact, a later novel dealt directly with this issue, called You Can’t Go Home Again.] Adam Smith offers an observation about capital and labor in a small town.  He write, “It generally requires a greater stock [capital] to carry on any sort of trade in a great town than in a country village.  The great stocks employed in every branch of trade, and the number of rich competitors, generally reduce the rate of profit in the former below what it is in the latter.  But the wages of labor are generally higher in a great town than in a country village” (vol 1, 192).  I think it is fair to say that in comparison to other cities, Altamount (or Ashville, North Carolina) can be considered more a “country village,” to use Smith’s term, than a thriving city.   His observation tells us something that is apparent in the novel without it haven been discussed by the narrator.  The labor of both the father and the mother were less profitable than Elizabeth’s use of capital in land purchases and speculation. 
The facts of Thomas Wolfe’s family also support a view that the mother was correct in her understanding of wealth building.  Scholar Richard Reed has examined the deed records in the Buncombe Country (where the Wolfes  lived) and found transactions for “almost 250 lots and nearly 1, 200 acres of farmland, plus various and assorted ‘parcel,’ ‘sites,’ ‘margins,’ and ‘tracts’” (48).  She was an astute and successful landlord and speculator.  At one point she was charging six percent interest on late mortgage payments.  “She was also quick to foreclose, naming her husband as trustee of the property and reselling it for a profit.  In one of the few instances in which clear figures are available for both purchase and sale price, the records show that Julia [Thomas Wolfe’s mother] bought a city lot for $500 in 1890 and sold it for $5000 just eighteen months later” (49). Reed estimates the family’s financial worth at the end of the novel to be several hundred thousand dollars or more (51).   In other words, the Wolfes, who began from humble beginnings, would have in their lifetime accumulated enough wealth to be, in today’s money, close to millionaires or more.  Since the father’s income was only adequate for supporting a solid, respectable family life, it was the mother’s use of capital, the buying and selling of land for profit, that formed the basis of the family’s wealth.  In this regard, in the novel, Elizabeth was correct.  Her decision to become a capitalist, to practice unrestrained free market principles, as writers such as Adam Smith describe, was instrumental in changing the family’s financial situation. 
However, as we have seen, Elizabeth’s capitalist’s values were also the cause of great family distress.  In much the same way that workers do not enjoy the rewards of the success of their employer, it appears that sons and daughters of the Gant family do not feel that their mother’s financial gains benefit them.  For example, when Eugene is preparing to return to college for his second year, his mother offers her advice to “Take care of your money—I want you have plenty of good food and warm clothes—but you must not be extravagant boy” (399).  Whereas just moments before, she was bragging about possible profits she might be making.  “[I]f I make a couple of deals and everything goes well, you may find me waiting for you in a big fine house with you come back next Spring” (399).   Later in the book, the children blame their mother’s penuriousness, her compulsion to reinvest rather than spend, as the cause of her son Ben’s lack of medical attention and eventual death.
Thomas Wolfe was born in 1900.  Look Homeward, Angel details the life of the Gant family, obviously based upon his own family, to 1920, the year Wolfe and Eugene Gant graduated from college and headed to Harvard and eventually to New York City.   Wolfe spent a great deal of the 1920’s writing his first novel, which was published in 1929, eleven days before the stock market crash and the beginning of The Great Depression.  (It is important to note that during The Great Depression, Julia Wolfe’s buying and selling of property subsided and did not begin again until her final years in the forties.)  While there would seem that Wolfe would have had plenty of opportunity to read and study the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, in Look Homeward, Angel, he makes no direct reference to Eugene Gant becoming so influenced.  In fact the narrator, somewhat ironically describes two ineffectual members of Eliza’s family has having been influenced by such ideas.  One relative “had been to a Presbyterian college, and had been expelled for advocating free love and socialism while editor of the college paper” (478). And a second “was a man past fifty, with a pleasant red face, brown mustaches, and a gentle placid manner.  He was full of puns and pleased good nature, save when he quoted from Karl Marx and Eugene Debs.  He was a Socialist, and had once received eight votes for Congress” (478).  Wolfe even seems to declare his political creed in the closing chapters of the book in clearly non-ideological terms:
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, 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.” (491) 
            Still it is clear that the worldview that it at the heart of the works of Marx and Engels permeates Look Homeward, Angel.  Wolfe is not a Marxist, yet he is intensely critical of the influence of American capitalism in the microcosm of this one family’s life.  Essentially, Wolfe has laid out in this novel the basic conflicts between the bourgeois and the proletarians.  While Eliza never allows herself to enjoy the benefits of her success, she maintains an air of superiority over her tenants and boarders, and, as we have seen, she hopes of a grand life. She creates her wealth through the use of capital.  She clearly strives to become part of the owner class.  However, her husband, while a skilled artisan, remains true to his desire to live and make a living through his daily labor.   One summer, before Eugene understands that he is an artist and intellectual, he travels to Virginia for work during the war time boom.  There, following the tracks of his father, he discovers the sorrows and pride of hard labor.  For a while he almost starves, but later returns home with a more money than he has ever possessed.
            One sentence from “The Communist Manifesto” stands out in the context of this novel.  “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation” (476).  Although Look Homeward, Angel is referred to as a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story, the story of the creation of an artistic spirit, it might otherwise be viewed as a “novel about money.”  The theme is subtle and is often merely a background element.  News comes to the family of the work that older sons are pursuing; brothers offer each other cash; a daughter understands the sacrifices she is making to care for her parents.  Eugene worries over his place at the university, acknowledging that he does not belong to the economic or social class to join a fraternity.  Two brothers discuss the cost of funeral arrangements for their other brother.  The funeral director offers a deal because he respects the family. “’Your father,’ continued Horse Hines, ‘is one of the oldest and most respected businessmen in the community.  And the Pentland family [the mother’s family] is one of the wealthiest and most prominent’” (474).  In the midst of all this, the Gant family is at war with each other, not because they are poor or suffering, not because they are exploited, but because money has become the measure of value for all things, including even respect and love.  Look Homeward, Angel is not a novel about how poverty can destroy the human spirit, but it is about a harder curse, how success and wealth building deprives humans more than rewards them.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels.  “The Communist Manifesto.”  The Marx-Engel Reader.
2nd Ed.  Ed Robert C. Tucker.  New York:  W. W. Norton.  473-500.
Reed, Richard. “Real Estate in Look Homeward, Angel.”  The Southern Literary Journal
19:1.  (Fall 1986) pp. 46-55.  Retrieved:  <>
Smith, Adam.  The Wealth of Nations, Volume 1.  Books I-III.  Ed.  Andrew Skinner.  New
            York:  Penguin Books. 1999.
-----------.  The Wealth of Nations, Volume 2.  Books IV-V.  Ed. Andrew Skinner.  New
            York:Penguin Books.  1999.

Stiglitz, Joseph.  The Price of Inequality. New York:  W. W. Norton.  2013.

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