I was lost on a recent trip to North Carolina when I stumbled upon Wolfe’s Angel, the marble angel that is regarded as the inspiration for the title and much of the underlying symbolic theme in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel.
Wolfe’s father, W.O. Wolfe, was reputed to be a reprobate and drunkard, but a master stone-cutter. His masterpiece was this monument, which stands in Oakdale Cemetary in Hendersonville. Young Thomas watched his father carve it in 1905.
Here’s how Wolfe described the angel in the novel:
…by the door, he put the heavy simpering figurine of an angel…it had come from Carrara in Italy, and it held a stone lily delicately in one hand. The other hand was lifted in benediction, it was poised clumsily upon the ball of one phthisic foot, and its stupid white face wore a smile of soft stone idiocy.
Wolfe was not regarded as an overly religious man, in fact some of his more famous quotes could be regarded as anti-religious, but in Look Homeward Angel there is at the beginning perhaps one of the greatest (non-biblical) descriptions of our plight as fallen humanity:
. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.