I read You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe for a book club. The people in this book club are old, but then, so am I. I don’t think of myself as old, but I am no spring chicken. I am not a summer chicken, either. The best you could say is that I am an autumn chicken. That is good, because the autumnal equinox was a few days ago, so I am right in season. If I can’t claim to be a man for all seasons, I can at least say that I am a man for all seasonings: Parsley, sage, rosemary, AND Thyme.
Before going to the book club I stopped by Peet’s Coffee and ordered a doppio espresso, which is a double shot of espresso, but the barista was obviously new at the job and unfamiliar with espresso, as it was actually a quadruple shot I was served. It was God’s will, so I didn’t say anything. But you can imagine that I was already bursting with things to say and this severe dose of caffiene made me more than a little garrulous, if not downright prolix. I got a little too feisty, I confess, and I am sorry about that. I hope all the Oxford educated eye-rollers (some of whom had not even read the book under discussion) will understand.
Anyway, I read this lo-oooooooooo-ng book by Thomas Wolfe, and I had a lot to say about it. It really resonated for me. A big part of the story was about what Thomas Wolfe’s alter ego, George Webber, went through as a writer. During the course of this epic novel he writes and publishes his first book and finishes his second book. He talks about the attitude of the public towards literature, and the attitude of the critics and other writers. His first book causes a scandal in his home town, because the people can see themselves in his book and they do not like what they see. This is part of the reason he couldn’t go home again, to paraphrase the book’s title. Also, the home town he yearns to return to is destroyed by Real Estate Speculation, greed, and the Great Depression–that is about to happen as the book begins.
Quick mention here of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby. Gatsby ends and was published just a few years before The Great Depression which began with the stock market crash of October, 1929. Gatsby seems prophetic in retrospect, but You Can’t Go Home Again delves deeply into the politics of this sort of catastrophic economic event. Indeed, some of the chapters are undisguised essays on politics, economics, Philosophy, ethics, Literature, and the Artist’s Way voiced by the third person narrator.
Tolstoy’s third person narrator also inserts the same kind of essays into his epic, War and Peace. For the most part Tolstoy sticks to describing the dialogue and actions of the characters, and sometimes their thoughts, but often the narrator becomes frustrated when the characters, embedded in history like insects in amber, just can’t see the significance, the bigger picture, of the events they are enmeshed in. So it is with Wolfe and Webber. Though Webber is a nascent writer, a bard in embryonic form, Webber’s jejune words can’t always express what the slightly more mature Wolfe wants to say.
Another event is also foreshadowed in You Can’t Go Home Again: World War II and the rise of Hitler. The book ends prior to the war but Wolfe can see where things are headed. Thomas Wolfe dies in 1938, at the age of 38 (he was born in 1900, making it very easy to calculate how old he was in a given year). Though his massive manuscript is edited and published posthumously, it is still way before Pearl Harbor and the US entry to World War II. But during the course of the book George Webber travels to Germany. Deutschland represents his favorite country on earth–a kind of fairy tale wonderland–but Webber finds that something has turned, and Germany is headed in a very disturbing direction with the ascension of Fascism and Hitler. Wolfe is at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which is where George Webber, the protagonist, notices something is askew. Cue ominous Wagner music from the opening of Tristan und Isolde.
Anyway, this essay, or blog post, if I may be even less ambitious, is about the parts I enjoyed the most about You Can’t Go Home Again: The parts where he speaks of his struggles as an Artist, and the difficulty of finding the correct path in spite of what the public, academia, other Artists and Critics, think it should be. Other parts along these lines also criticize himself as an immature artist, perhaps too sensitive, too much the “wounded faun,” at odds with the world and its indifference to his Art. There is a character modeled on his editor–Foxhall Edwards in the book–Maxwell Perkins in so-called Real Life.
There is also a chapter or so about the “Lion Hunters,” those who swarm around the latest trendy Artist, seeking to warm themselves on his stolen Promethean fire, and feast upon the burnt offering of his torn, charred and tender, flesh. To bask in the reflected glory of his self-immolation.
In the final chapters of the book, he addresses an epistle to his erstwhile editor, Foxhall, deliniating the ways in which, though in complete accord on most matters, they divirge in a crucial way. They must part ways. Though Wolfe is the kind of writer who really needs an editor to shape and give form to his endless lyrical effusions, he feels he must ultimately go it alone, as even a small alteration in his message would be to him a profound tragedy. Of course, the book does undergo massive alteration, not by Perkins, but by Edward Aswell, with the blessings of Perkins, who was still the executor of his estate.
So easy for me to go off the track, but I am going to circle back to the main point I have been struggling to make. Well, my point is that Thomas Wolfe really loved both Deutschland and the United States, but he could see that they were both going down an ugly path. He had a lot of hopes and dreams that they would both right their courses and see greater days ahead. Of course, Germany under Hitler and the Nazis was terrible, and everyone can see that now. But he also had some warnings for us here in America, that we could make similar errors. In fact, a lot of what he had to say really shed a light on our present situation. It is something that should be read by as many people as possible. Now more than ever. Thomas Wolfe was a modern day prophet, and we would do well to heed his warnings. His wisdom and foresight really makes reading Thomas Wolfe’s long and windy novel worthwhile.