No one knew how fond he was of the angel. Publicly he called it his White Elephant. He cursed it and said he had been a fool to order it. For six years it had stood on the porch, weathering, in all the wind and the rain. It was now brown and fly-specked. But it came 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 the look of some soft stone idiocy.
Angels are a mysterious, symbolic presence in the novel. It could be that they represent hope and are symbolic reminders of a world that we cannot see or understand. The actual stone angel that inspired Wolfe is not far from the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. It stands in Oakdale Cemetery, Hendersonville, NC, just twenty-two miles south of Asheville. A road sign alerts one to the cemetery, where on a gently sloping incline, the angel, surrounded by a small iron gate, rises peacefully and silently. The paint on the wings is weathered and chipped just slightly and the face is silent in its expression.
Staring up at the angel, I thought about the title of the book, and I wondered who was buried here. In the novel, the statue of the angel is purchased to mark the grave of a young prostitute, a fallen angel so to speak, but I wasn”t sure if that was truly who lay in the grave.
Then I thought about the protagonist Eugene Gant and his family and the turmoil of their lives, which forced him to look away from his home, to search for a new place where he could be free of the ties that bind. Maybe Wolfe meant that we are all angels, fallen in the gravity of life, and life is the struggle for wings, the struggle to get back home, wherever it is that we come from.
Walking away from the cemetery, I was reminded of a song by the Asheville based singer, songwriter Chuck Brodsky, We Are Each Other”s Angels.
Go answer your calling. Go and fill somebody”s cup, and if you see an angel falling, be sure and help him up, cause we are each other”s angels and we meet when it is time. We keep each other going, and we show each other signs.