Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Music in Look Homeward, Angel

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Music in Look Homeward, Angel

Article excerpt

For Thomas Wolfe classical music was a practically unknown and a virtually untouched source. His knowledge of it was limited to a very few standard titles; his few recorded reactions to it persistently reflected an unsophisticated and usually an overly romantic response.

His visit to Bonn in 1928 included a tour of Beethoven's house and the impression Wolfe recorded in his Notebook was emotional and concerned the pathetic irony of the great musician's deafness. No understanding of Beethoven's music emerged at all. And even though Wolfe expended many words in genuine enthusiasm in reporting the 1928 Schubert Festival in Vienna, his basic response was still sentimentally romantic, not musically adept.

Apparently Wolfe never felt the need or the desire to acquire any measurable appreciation of classical music, but he did often turn to popular music and used it effectively in his novels to evoke, to recall, and to re-enforce emotion. His use of popular song titles and tags is especially effective in his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. (1)

Early in the novel Wolfe describes the infant Eugene as electrically alert to sights and sounds and shapes--the dizzying patterns in the carpet; the dancing fire-sheen on the poker; the elfin clucking of the sun-warm hens; the loud, faery thunder of Daisy's parlor music; the multi-colored engravings on his letter blocks; the sound of great voices; the sight of vast shapes.

The catalogue is not particularly startling although the early description of Daisy's playing is an oxymoron--loud, faery music. And this is the one item in the catalogue that is immediately summoned into his future experience: "Years later, he heard it again, a door opened in his brain: she told him it was Paderewski's `Minuet.'" (2)

Musical experience is used especially to characterize Daisy, Helen, and Luke. As a character in Look Homeward, Angel, Daisy is hardly memorable; she passed rather anonymously through life and one of the very few concrete details about her is Eugene's memory of his and W.O.'s visit to far away Augusta, Georgia, after her marriage took her to that place to live. "She was twenty-one, a slender, blushing girl who played the piano beautifully, accurately, academically, with a rippling touch, and no imagination. Eugene could never remember her very well" (p 125).

Far more developed as a character and far more successful as a musician, Helen Gant sang her way to the hearts of the boarders and to the admiration of paying audiences in middle-sized towns and cities. For the boarders, Helen was the willing entertainer.

   Like Gant, like Luke, she needed extension in life, movement, excitement:
   she wanted to dominate, to entertain, to be the life of the party. On small
   solicitation, she sang for the boarders, thumping the cheap piano with her
   heavy accurate touch, and singing in her strong, vibrant, somewhat hard
   soprano a repertory of songs classical, sentimental, and comic. Eugene
   remembered the soft cool nights of summer, the assembled boarders and "I
   Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," which Gant demanded over and over; "Love Me
   and the World Is Mine"; "Till the Sands of the Desert Grow Cold"; "Dear Old
   Girl, the Rob-bin Sings Above You"; "The End of a Perfect Day"; and
   "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which Luke had practised in a tortured house
   for weeks, and sung with thunderous success in the High School Minstrels.
   (110)

She was pathetically eager to perform, for such chances were indeed her opportunity to be recognized and to be praised. And the attention she received from the paying boarders contrasted sharply to the jealousy and neglect she got from her mother Eliza.

Eugene's childhood security faltered with the opening of the boarding house and the maintaining of the old home place for Gant. Helen emerged as the surrogate mother who felt obliged to comfort Eugene, but who could not control the fits of hysterical temper that befell her. …

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