You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

16. A Moment of Decision

George Webber had helped himself generously to the sumptuous feast so temptingly laid out in the dining-room, and now, his hunger sated, he had been standing for a few minutes in the doorway surveying the brilliant scene in the great living-room. He was trying to make up his mind whether to plunge boldly in and find somebody to talk to, or whether to put off the ordeal a little longer by lingering over the food. He thought with regret that there were still a few dishes that he had not even tasted. He had already eaten so much, however, that he knew he could not make a convincing show of taking more, so there seemed to be nothing for it but to screw up his courage and make the best of the situation.

He had just reached this conclusion, with a feeling of “Now you’re in for it!”— when he caught a glimpse of Stephen Hook, whom he knew and liked, and with a great sense of relief he started towards him. Hook was leaning on the mantel, talking with a handsome woman. He saw George coming and extended his soft, plump hand sideways, saying casually:

“Oh. How are you? . . . Look.” His tone, as always when he did something that was prompted by the generous and sensitive warmth of his spirit, was deliberately indifferent and masked with an air of heavy boredom. “Have you a telephone? I was trying to get you the other day. Can’t you come and have lunch with me some time?”

As a matter of fact, this idea had never occurred to him until that moment. Webber knew that he had thought of it in an instant reflex of sympathy to put him at his ease, to make him feel less desperately shipwrecked in these glittering, sophisticated tides, to give him something “to hold on to”. Ever since he had first met Hook and had seen his desperate shyness and the naked terror in his eyes, he had understood the kind of man he was. He had never been deceived by the show of aloof weariness or the elaborately mannered speech. Beneath these disguises he had felt the integrity, the generosity, the nobility, the aspiration in the man’s tortured soul. So, now, with profound gratitude, he reached out and shook his hand, feeling as he did so like a bewildered swimmer seizing on the one thing that could sustain him in these disturbing and unfathomed currents which were edged somehow with menace. He stammered out a hasty greeting, said he would be delighted to go to lunch with him some time — any time — any time at all; and he took a place beside Hook as though he meant to stay there for the rest of the evening.

Hook talked to him a little while in his casual way and introduced the woman. George tried to engage her in conversation, but, instead of answering his remarks, she just looked at him coolly and said nothing. Embarrassed by this behaviour, George looked round him as if searching for someone, and in a final effort to say something, to give some show of ease and purpose which he did not feel, he blurted out:

“Have — have you seen Esther anywhere about?”

As he said the words he knew how stiff and clumsy they sounded, and how absurd, too, for Mrs. Jack, as anyone could see, was standing talking to some of the guests not ten feet away. And the woman, as if she had been waiting for just such an opening, now answered him at once. Turning to him with a bright, superior smile, she said with cool unfriendliness:

“About? Yes, I think you’ll find her about — just about there,” nodding in the direction of Mrs. Jack.

It was not a very witty remark. To George it seemed almost as stupid as his own words had been. He knew, too, that the unfriendliness behind it was impersonal — just the mark of fashion, a willingness to sacrifice manners to the chance of making a smart retort. Why, then, did his face now flush with anger? Why did he double up his fist and turn upon the trivial and smiling creature with such smouldering menace that it seemed he was about to commit a physical assault upon her?

In the very instant that he assumed this belligerent attitude he realised that he was acting like a baffled clodhopper, and this consciousness made him feel ten times the yokel that he looked. He tried to think of telling words with which to answer her, but his mind was paralysed and he was conscious only of the burning sensation in his face and neck. He knew that his ill-fitting coat was sticking out round his collar, that he was cutting a sorry figure, and that the woman —“That damned bitch!” he muttered to himself — was laughing at him. So, defeated and discomfited utterly, not so much by the woman as by his own ineptitude, he turned and stalked away, hating himself, the party, and, most of all, his folly in coming.

Well, he hadn’t wanted to come! That was Esther’s doing! She was responsible for this! It was all her fault! Full of confusion and irrational anger at everything and everybody, he backed himself against the wall on the opposite side of the room and stood there clenching and unclenching his fists and glaring round him.

But the violence and the injustice of his feelings soon began to have a calming and sobering effect upon him. Then he saw the absurdity of the whole episode, and began to laugh and mock inwardly at himself.

“So this is why you didn’t want to come!” he thought scornfully. “You were afraid some silly fool of an ill-bred woman would make an inane remark that would prick your delicate hide! God, what a fool you are! Esther was right!”

But had she been right, really? He had made such an issue of it with his talk about the work he had to do as a novelist, and how he had to keep clear of her world in order to do it. Was all that just a way of rationalising his sense of social inadequacy? Had he gone to such lengths of theorising merely to spare his tender ego the ridicule and humiliation of such a scene as he had just precipitated?

No, that was not the answer. There was more to it than that. By now he had cooled off enough to be able to look at himself objectively, and all at once he realised that he had never got clear in his own mind what he had meant when he had talked to Esther about her world and his world. He had used the phrases as symbols of something real, something important that he had felt instinctively but had never put into words. And that’s why he hadn’t been able to make her understand. Well, what was it? What had he been afraid of? It wasn’t only that he didn’t like big parties and knew himself to be unschooled in the social graces that such occasions demanded. That was a part of it — yes. But it was only a part — the smallest part, the petty, personal part. There was something else — something impersonal, something much bigger than himself, something that mattered greatly to him and that would not be denied. What was it now? Better face it and try to get it straight.

Completely cool now, and fascinated by the inner problem which the ridiculous little incident had brought into sharp focus, he began to look about him at the people in the room. He watched their faces closely and tried to penetrate behind the social masks they wore, probably, boring, searching as for some clue that might lead him to an answer to his riddle. It was, he knew, a distinguished gathering. It included brilliant, successful men and beautiful women. They were among the best and highest that the city had to offer. But as he looked them over with an alert eye and with all his sensitivities keenly awakened by his present purpose, he saw that there were some among them who wore quite another hue.

That fellow there, for instance! With his pasty face and rolling eyes and mincing ways, and hips that wiggled suggestively as he walked — could there be any doubt at all that he was a member of nature’s other sex? Webber knew that people of this fellow’s type and gender were privileged personalities, the species being regarded tenderly as a cross between a lap-dog and a clown. Almost every fashionable hostess considered them essential functionaries at smart gatherings like this. Why was it, George wondered. Was it something in the spirit of the times that had let the homosexual usurp the place and privilege of a hunch-backed jester of an old king’s court, his deformity become a thing of open jest and ribaldry? However it had come about, the thing itself was indubitable. The mincing airs and graces of such a fellow, his antics and his gibes, the spicy sting of his feminine and envenomed wit, were the exact counterparts of the malicious quips of ancient clowns. So, now. As this simpering fellow minced along, the powdered whiteness of his parchment face held languidly to one side, the weary eyes half-closed and heavy-lidded, he would pause from time to time to wave with a maidenly gesture of his wrist at various people of his acquaintance in different parts of the big room, saying as he did so:

“Oh, hello! . . . There you are! . . . You must come over!”

The effect of all this was so irresistible that the ladies shrieked with laughter, and the gentlemen spluttered and guffawed.

And that woman over there in the corner, the one with the mannish haircut and angular lines and hard, enamelled face, holding the hand of that rather pretty and embarrassed young girl — a nymphomaniac if ever he saw one.

At the sound of the splintered phrases: “I mean! . . . You know!”— Webber turned and saw the dark curls of Amy Carleton. He knew who she was, and he knew her story, but even if he had not known he thought he would have guessed a part of it by the tragic look of lost innocence in her face. But what he noticed chiefly now was the group of men who followed her about, among them the young Jew and the young Japanese — and the sight made him think of a pack of dogs trailing after a bitch in heat. It was so open, so naked, so shameless that it almost made him sick.

His eye took in John Ettinger, standing a little apart with his wife and his mistress, and he read their relationship unmistakably in their bearing towards each other.

At these repeated signs of decadence in a society which had once been the object of his envy and his highest ambition, Webber’s face had begun to take on a look of scorn. Then he saw Mr. Jack moving suavely among his guests, and suddenly, with a rush of blood to his face, he thought about himself. Who was he to feel so superior? Did they not all know who be was, and why he was here?

Yes, all these people looked at one another with untelling eyes. Their speech was casual, quick, and witty. But they did not say the things they knew. And they knew everything. They had seen everything. They had accepted everything. And they received every new intelligence now with a cynical and amused look in their untelling eyes. Nothing shocked them any more. It was the way things were. It was what they had come to expect of life.

Ah, there he had it! That was part of the answer. It was not so much what they did, for in this there was no appreciable difference between themselves and him. It was their attitude of acceptance, the things they thought and felt about what they did, their complaisance about themselves and about their life, their loss of faith in anything better. He himself had not yet come to that, he did not want to come to it. This was one of the reasons, he now knew, why he did not want to be sealed to this world that Esther belonged to.

Still, there could be no question that these people were an honoured group. They had stolen no man’s ox or ass. Their gifts were valuable and many, and had won for them the world’s grateful applause.

Was not the great captain of finance and industry, Lawrence Hirsch, a patron of the arts as well, and a leader of advanced opinion? Yes. His views on child labour, share-cropping, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, and other questions that had stirred the indignation of the intellectual world were justly celebrated for their enlightenment and their liberalism. Who should cavil, then, at the fact that a banker might derive a portion of his income from the work of children in the textile factories of the South? — that another part of it might be derived from the labour of share-croppers in the tobacco fields? — that still another might come from steel mills in the Middle West where armed thugs had been employed to shoot into the ranks of striking workers? A banker’s business was to invest his money wherever he could get the best return. Business was business, and to say that a man’s social views ought to come between him and his profits was cavilling, indeed! As for Mr. Hirsch himself, he had his devoted champions even among the comrades of the left, who were quick to point out that theoretical criticism of this sort was childish. The sources of Mr. Hirsch’s wealth and power, whatever they might be, were quite accidental and beside the point. His position as a liberal, “a friend of Russia”, a leader of advanced social opinion, a searching critic, indeed, of the very capitalist class to which he belonged, was so well known as to place him in the very brain and forehead of enlightened thought.

As for these others in the illustrious company that Webber now saw on every side, not one of them had ever said: “Let them eat cake!” When the poor had starved, these had suffered. When the children toiled, these had bled. When the oppressed, the weak, the stricken and betrayed men had been falsely accused and put to death, these tongues had been lifted in indignant protest — if only the issue had been fashionable! These had written letters to the press, carried placards upon Beacon Hill, joined parades, made contributions, lent the prestige of their names to form committees of defence.

All this was indubitably true. But as he thought about it now, Webber also felt that such as these might lift their voices and parade their placards till the crack of doom, but that in the secret and entrenched resources of their lives they had all battened on the blood of common man, and wrung their profits from the sweat of slaves, like any common overseer of money and of privilege that ever lived. The whole tissue of these princely lives, he felt, these lesbic and pederastic loves, these adulterous intrigues, sustained in mid-air now, floating on the face of night like a starred veil, had none the less been spun from man’s common dust of sweated clay, unwound out of the entrails of man’s agony.

Yes, that was it! That was the answer! That was the very core of it! Could he as a novelist, as an artist, belong to this high world of privilege without taking upon himself the stultifying burden of that privilege? Could he write truthfully of life as he saw it, could he say the things he must, and at the same time belong to this world of which he would have to write? Were the two things possible? Was not this world of fashion and of privilege the deadliest enemy of art and truth? Could he belong to the one without forsaking the other? Would not the very privilege that he might gain from these, the great ones of the city, come between him and the truth, shading it, tempering it, and in the end betraying it? And would he then be any different from a score of others who had let themselves be taken into camp, made captive by false visions of wealth and ease, and by the deadly hankering for respectability — that gilded counterfeit which so often passes current for the honest coin of man’s respect?

That was the danger, and it was real enough. It was, he knew, no mere phantom of his distempered and suspicious mind. Had it not happened over and over again? Think of all the young writers, among them some of the best, who had won acclaim for the promise of their genius, and then had left their promise unfulfilled because they had traded their birthright for just such a mess of the world’s pottage. They, too, had begun as seekers after truth, but had suffered some eclipse of vision and had ended as champions of some special and limited brand of truth. They were the ones who became the special pleaders for things as they are, and their names grew fat and sleek in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post and the women’s magazines. Or they became escapists and sold themselves to Hollywood, and were lost and sunk without a trace. Or, somewhat differently, but following the same blind principle, they identified themselves with this or that group, clique, faction, or interest in art or politics, and led forlorn and esoteric little cults and isms. These were the innumerable small fry who became literary Communists, or single-taxers, or embattled vegetarians, or believers in salvation through nudism. Whatever they became — and there was no limit to their variety — they were like the blind men with the elephant: each one of them had accepted some part of life for the whole, some fragmentary truth or half-truth for truth itself, some little personal interest for the large and all-embracing interest of mankind. If that happened to him, how, then, could he sing America?

The problem was clearing up now. In the exhilaration of this moment of sharp vision the answers to his questions were beginning to come through. He was beginning to see what he must do. And as he saw the end of the road down which, willingly, hopefully, even joyfully, he had been travelling with Esther, he saw, too — swiftly, finally, irrevocably — that he must break with her and turn his back upon this fabulous and enchanting world of hers — or lose his soul as an artist. That is what it came down to.

But even in the very instant that he saw it, and knew that it was so, and accepted it, he was overwhelmed with such a sudden sense of loss that he all but cried out in his pain and love. Was there, then, no simple truth and certainty to be found anywhere? Must one for ever be stretched out on the rack? Forever in his youth he had envisioned the starred face of the night with high exaltation and noble inspiration, longing to dream great dreams and think great thoughts in the company of the world’s most honoured great. And now, in this very moment of the dream come true, with the ones he had always envied from afar surrounding him here ‘on every side — now to have the selfless grandeur turn to dust, and to see great night itself a reptile coiled and waiting at the heart of life! To find no ear or utterance anywhere for all the blazing, baffled certitudes of youth! To find man’s faith betrayed and his betrayers throned in honour, themselves the idols of his bartered faith! To find truth false and falsehood truth, good evil, evil good, and the whole web of life so changing, so mercurial!

It was all so different from the way he had once thought it would be-and suddenly, convulsively, forgetful of his surroundings, he threw out his arms in an instinctive gesture of agony and loss.

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