Some thoughts on You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe.
I am a few days away from finishing Thomas Wolfe’s masterwork, the shelf-bending, 700 page + novel: You Can’t Go Home Again. Only 210 pages to go to meet the deadline in 3 and a half days. That is 70 pages per day with Monday morning to tie up any loose ends if I fall behind schedule. Doable. Easily doable.
I must say that I am enjoying this book and also learning a lot. This book is a work of Literature, and by that I mean that it is an intense condensation of Meaning, presented in a way that is also Poetic and Musical. And by Musical, I mean Melodic, Harmonic, and Lyrical, but also Rhythmic, and most important Formal. Is that the right word? I doubt it. I mean that it is shaped in a form, like a good piece of music. A sonata is a musical form, and a sonnet is a poetic form. Wolfe’s paragraphs, chapters, and sentences and sections are like phrases, choruses, bridges, and movements.
A lot of credit for the formal aspects of this novel must go to the editor, Edward Aswell. He actually took a vast amount of scribbling, the inchoate howling of Thomas Wolfe, and shaped it into his three posthumously published novels. In Wolfe’s last and perhaps his best novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, there is a character that is no doubt based on Wolfe himself, and that is George Webber. George is an author who, as the story begins, is just about to have his first novel published. He then has to return home for the funeral of his aunt, to the fictitious Libya Hill. His actual home is a place called Asheville. Anyway, one of the denizens of Libya Hill warns him in words that would become the book’s title: You Can’t Go Home Again. Once his book is published his home town is outraged, for the most part. Also, they experience economic collapse and catastrophe, partly due to the stock market crash of 1929, but also the result of rampant Real Estate speculation. I am reminded here of The Great Gatsby, which took place just before the dawning of the Great Depression. It was foreshadowed in that book, but here it is an actual event that is not merely foreshadowed but happens, and the conditions that led to it are thoroughly examined and analyzed. I haven’t reached the point later where he also analyzes Hitler and the rise of Fascism in Germany, but I suspect he will have a lot to say of interest.
The manuscript’s working title was The October Fair, but he took the words of Ella Winter, wife of muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, for his book. She said it to him in conversation, and he felt it was exactly what he had been trying to say with his book, so he asked for her permission to use it: You Can’t Go Home Again.
In the book George Webber’s editor is named Foxhall Edwards. This character is based on Wolfe’s editor Maxwell Perkins, but at some point the two men had a falling out. The book was edited by Edward Aswell of Harper & brothers, though Perkins was the executor of Wolfe’s will, and gave his ultimate blessing. Aswell did a really good job. It was a lot of work. Though the book is really pretty long–not quite as long as War and Peace, but still pretty hefty–you should have seen it before being shaped by Aswell. As I said above, the form of the book is quite masterful. To paraphrase the Bard: All’s Well That Aswell.
After Webber’s first novel is published he spends years living in Brooklyn. Not quite the gentrified Artist’s Refuge it’s become of late, it was a pretty rough slum, as depicted in Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr., or in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. He then travels to Europe where he meets the Irish Poet James Burke. They both have their trousers pressed at the same cleaner’s. I was not able to ascertain who that was supposed to be but I guess it was Yeats. T.S. Eliot, Tolstoy, and Milton are also referenced. He meets Lloyd McHarg in London also, and McHarg is actually based on the writer Sinclair Lewis. Sinclair Lewis wrote Babbitt and It Can’t Happen Here. Back when he was in Manhattan he describes an Artist named Piggy Logan, who performs with an whole circus of wire dolls. Piggy was based on the Mobile inventor, Alexander Calder, and I recall seeing a film of Calder’s Wire Circus, just as it was in the chapter called “The Party at Jack’s.”
To summarize: I am more than half way through and will finish it in a few days–in plenty of time to discuss it at the Book Club. There is no way I am not going to finish it after crossing the Rubicon. I really like it so far and think it stands apart from Wolfe’s other novels as his best work. I guess it benefited from the editing after all.
But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.
― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again