Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

"A Flash of Fire": Illness and the Body in Look Homeward, Angel

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

"A Flash of Fire": Illness and the Body in Look Homeward, Angel

Article excerpt

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag describes illness as the "night-side of life" (3). Everyone, she explains, by virtue of being born, "holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick" (3). It is a realm, according to Sontag, that has been "landscaped" by fantasy and metaphor (4). For Thomas Wolfe, illness fueled the literary imagination. The untimely deaths of twin brothers Grover and Benjamin Wolfe had an enormous impact on the writer and his family. Grover's death from typhoid fever at age twelve is thought to have been one of Wolfe's earliest childhood memories. Ben's death fourteen years later during the 1918 influenza epidemic brought Wolfe, according to Richard S. Kennedy, "the greatest grief of his early life"(53-54). The sense of loss associated with these deaths is exquisitely recounted in The Lost Boy (1992) (1) and Look Homeward, Angel (1929), as is the physical suffering of each brother.

The death of Wolfe's father finds similar expression and meaning in his fiction as well. As W. O. Wolfe was dying at home, his son was en route from Harvard but failed to arrive in time (Nowell 64-65). He learned of his father's death from an Asheville newspaper bought during a train stop in Morganton, North Carolina, about sixty miles away. Later, Wolfe heard the story of his father's death many times from his mother, Julia, and sister Mabel. Eventually, the death of Gant in Of Time and the River would constitute that novel's "finest and most moving section" (Nowell 65). In his accounts of the deaths of Grover, Ben, and W. O. Gant, Wolfe successfully transformed family narratives of illness and loss into art.

In Look Homeward, Angel, illness functions as an important landscape studded with metaphor and contradiction. It appears frequently and has bearing on Eugene Gant's growth and maturation. Illness is as much a part of his personal environment as the mountains and the geography that surround him. For Eugene, the body represents a site of anxiety and threat, of disease and debilitation. At the same time, it is a source of pleasure and possibility, which serves to mitigate the angst associated with bodily function and state of health. Given both literal and figurative treatment, illness constitutes an integral part of the family narrative and provides a window to the past, revealing the concern that sickness held for individuals and families a century ago. Wolfe writes about cholera, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, leprosy, malaria, and cancer, as well as heart, kidney, thyroid, digestive, and rheumatic disorders. These ailments serve as a staging platform for Eugene's experience of life and of his tempestuous family. They appear during every phase of his development, sometimes in a brief mention, and at other times in a riveting account. Conversely, disease is also contrasted with ordinary physical processes, ones involving food, drink, and, especially, sex. The rendering of the body in Look Homeward, Angel creates competing and contradictory worlds for Eugene, where health and illness prove to be powerful life forces that shape his journey from childhood to young manhood.

That bodily concerns should play an important role in Wolfe's writings comes as no surprise, given the various diseases and deaths that occurred within his family. His attention to illness in Look Homeward, Angel may also stem from evolving theories about disease and the epidemiological realities of his era. In America, until the middle of the nineteenth century, disease was viewed as a systemic imbalance, characterized by "the body's excessive excitement or enfeeblement" (Warner 87). Between the 1860s and the 1880s, however, a "new medical ethos" emerged, one that was built upon the foundation of experimental science (97). The laboratory was the site of discovery and offered the promise of new therapeutics, most of which would not materialize until the next century (98). …

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