Wolfe's first novel is considered highly autobiographical, with Wolfe using the character of Eugene Gant as a sort of stand-in for himself. The novel runs from birth to the age of 19 in the fictional town and state of Altamont, Catawba, which is considered to be a not-so-subtle mirror of his hometown, Asheville, North Carolina, and the novel is a semi-famous American Bildungsroman, which is today most read and most popular with younger audiences.
Wolfe began the novel in 1926, which he said would delve in to "the strange and bitter magic of life." The novel was written in a period of twenty months of breakneck writing. When the work was completed, Wolfe gave the vast manuscript to Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins. Though Perkins was impressed with the young author's talent, he demanded that the novel be revised and massively cut back. The two sat down and worked through it together, and it was later published in 1929, after having cut some sixty thousand words to make it more readable and focused. Wolfe later became insecure about the editing process that led to the completed novel, feeling that Perkins had had almost as much a hand in the final product as him and that the novel was almost as much Perkins' as it was his. This would lead to an estrangement between them which resulted in Wolfe leaving Scribner, though he later made amends with Perkins while on his deathbed in 1938.
Descrptions of Altamont, Catawba, in Wolfe's autobiographical novel are so closely based on Asheville, North Carolina, and the descriptions of people and family are so thinly veiled, that the subsequent publishing and success of the novel led to an estrangement of sorts between Wolfe and many in his hometown of Asheville. Some of which is said to have inspired his later novel, You Can't Go Home Again.
Eugene's father is drunk downstairs while his mother gives birth to him in a difficult labor. Oliver Gant forms a special bond with his son from very early on. He begins to gets his drinking under control except for occasional binges, though his marriage begins to come under increasing strain as Eliza's patience with him grows thinner, and by the fifth chapter they are no longer sleeping in the same bedroom. Though, during all this time he is especially fond of his youngest son, Eugene, with whom he makes a special bond.
Despite his problems and flaws, Oliver Gant is the family's fire, reading Shakespeare, having his daughter Helen read poetry, and keeping great fires burning in the house, symbolic of him as a source of warmth for the family. His gusto is the source of energy and strength for the family Shortly after this, he journeys to California for the last time, returning home much to joy of his family. At this point Eugene is six years old and begins to attend school. He has a love of books and is a very bright young boy, much to the pride of both his parents. They each try to claim credit for it. His mother continues to baby him, unwilling to see him grow up. She does not cut his hair, even though he is teased about its length by the other boys.
During this portion of the book his early education takes place, including several incidents of trouble with his teachers. But, more importantly, it begins to deal with his racial views in the deep South at the turn of the century. He follows his friends examples and taunts people in the Jewish community, and mocks black people. It is this continuing treatment of race that has been one of modern critics strongest attacks on the novel.
The novels treatment of race and gender certainly constitute a part of this, as it has been perceived as both racist and sexist by some, though it has also occurred because critics have gradually come to criticize his exorbitant writing style, calling him unfocused. Even the autobiographical nature of the novel has come to be viewed as a negative, with some critics calling it a "formless autobiography," though other autobiographical works of fiction are highly valued, critically, works such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. Today the novel is mostly ignored as unimportant or not notable enough to study, with many very critical of it. There are still those in the literary community, however, who value the novel highly, some of whom work together to publish the semiannual Thomas Wolfe Review, a magazine focused on biographical and critical works on Thomas Wolfe.