You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

Book iii. An End and a Beginning

When a cicada comes out of the ground to enter the last stage of its life cycle, it looks more like a fat, earth-stained grub-worm than a winged thing. Laboriously it climbs up the trunk of a tree, pulling itself along on legs that hardly seem to belong to it, for they move with painful awkwardness as though the creature had not yet got the hang of how to use them. At last it stops in its weary climb and clings to the bark by its front feet. Then, suddenly, there is a little popping sound, and one notices that the creature’s outer garment has split down the back, as neatly as though it had come equipped with a zipper. Slowly now the thing inside begins to emerge, drawing itself out through the opening until it has freed its body, head, and all its members. Slowly, slowly, it accomplishes this amazing task, and slowly creeps out into a patch of sun, leaving behind the brown and lifeless husk from which it came.

The living, elemental protoplasm, translucent, pale green now, remains motionless for a long time in the sun, but if one has the patience to watch it further, one will see the miracle of change and growth enacted before his very eyes. After a while the body begins to pulse with life, it flattens out and changes colour like a chameleon, and from small sprouts on each side of the back the wings commence to grow. Quickly, quickly now, they lengthen out — one can see it happening! — until they become transparent fairy wings, iridescent, shimmering in the sun. They begin to quiver delicately, then more rapidly, and all at once, with a metallic whirring sound, they cut the air and the creature flashes off, a new-born thing released into a new element.

America, in the autumn of 1929, was like a cicada. It had come to an end and a beginning. On October 24th, in New York, in a marble-fronted building down in Wall Street, there was a sudden crash that was heard throughout the land. The dead and outworn husk of the America that had been had cracked and split right down the back, and the living, changing, suffering thing within — the real America, the America that had always been, the America that was yet to be-began now slowly to emerge. It came forth into the light of day, stunned, cramped, crippled by the bonds of its imprisonment, and for a long time it remained in a state of suspended animation, full of latent vitality, waiting, waiting patiently, for the next stage of its metamorphosis.

The leaders of the nation had fixed their gaze so long upon the illusions of a false prosperity that they had forgotten what America looked like. Now they saw it — saw its newness, its raw crudeness, and its strength — and turned their shuddering eyes away. “Give us back our well-worn husk,” they said, “where we were so snug and comfortable.” And then they tried word-magic. “Conditions are fundamentally sound,” they said — by which they meant to reassure themselves that nothing now was really changed, that things were as they always had been, and as they always would be, for ever and ever, amen.

But they were wrong. They did not know that you can’t go home again. America bad come to the end of something, and to the beginning of something else. But no one knew what that something else would be, and out of the change and the uncertainty and the wrongness of the leaders grew fear and desperation, and before long hunger stalked the streets. Through it all there was only one certainty, though no one saw it yet. America was still America, and whatever new thing came of it would be American.

George Webber was just as confused and fearful as everybody else. If anything, he was more so, because, in addition to the general crisis, he was caught in a personal one as well. For at this very time he, too, had come to an end and a beginning. It was an end of love, though not of loving; a beginning of recognition, though not of fame. His book was published early in November, and that event, so eagerly awaited for so long, produced results quite different from any he had expected. And during this period of his life he learned a great deal that he had never known before, but it was only gradually, in the course of the years to come, that he began to realise how the changes in himself were related to the larger changes in the world around him.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30