You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

2. Fame’s First Wooing

In spite of the colourings of guilt that often tinged his brighter moods, George was happier than he had ever been. There can be no doubt about that. He exulted in the fact. The old madness had gone out of him, and for long stretches at a time he was now buoyed up by the glorious belief — not by any means a new one with him, though it was much stronger now than it had ever been before — that he was at last in triumphant control of his destiny. From his early childhood, when he was living like an orphan with his Joyner relatives back in Libya Hill, he had dreamed that one day he would go to New York and there find love and fame and fortune. For several years New York had been the place that he called home, and love was his already; and now he felt, with the assurance of deep conviction, that the time for fame and fortune was at hand.

Anyone is happy who confidently awaits the fulfilment of his highest dreams, and in that way George Was happy. And, like most of us when things are going well, he took the credit wholly to himself. It was not chance or luck or any blind confluence of events that had produced the change in his spirits: his contentment and sense of mastery were the reward of his own singular and peculiar merit, and no more than his just due. Nevertheless fortune had played a central part in his transformation. A most incredible thing had happened.

He had been back in New York only a few days when Lulu Scudder, the literary agent, telephoned him in great excitement. The publishing house of James Rodney & Co. was interested in his manuscript, and Foxhall Edwards, the distinguished editor of this great house, wanted to talk to him about it. Of course, you couldn’t tell about these things, but it was always a good idea to strike while the iron was hot. Could he go over right away to see Edwards?

As he made his way uptown George told himself that it was silly to be excited, that probably nothing would come of it. Hadn’t one publisher already turned the book down, saying that it was no novel? That publisher had even written —— and the words of his rejection had seared themselves in. George’s brain —“The novel form is not adapted to such talents, as you have.” And it was still the same manuscript. Not a line of it had been changed, not a word cut, in spite of hints from Esther and Miss Scudder that it was too long for any publisher to handle. He had stubbornly refused to alter it, insisting that it would have to be printed as it was or not at all. And he had left the manuscript with Miss Scudder and gone away to Europe, convinced that her efforts to find a publisher would prove futile.

All the time he was abroad it had nauseated him to think of his manuscript, of the years of work and sleepless nights, he had put into it, and of the high hopes that bad sustained him through it; and he had tried, not to think of it, convinced now that it was no good, that he himself was no good, and that all his hot ambitions and his dreams of fame were the vapourings of a shoddy aesthete without talent. In this, he told himself, he was just like most of the other piddling instructors at the School for Utility Cultures, from which he had fled, and to which he would return to resume his classes in English composition when his leave of absence expired. They talked for ever about the great books they were writing, or were going to write, because, like him, they needed so desperately to find some avenue of escape from the dreary round of teaching, reading themes, grading papers, and trying to strike a spark in minds that had no flint in them. He had stayed in Europe almost nine months, and no word had come from Miss Scudder, so he had felt confirmed in all his darkest forebodings.

But now she said the Rodney people were interested. Well, they had taken their time about it. And what did “interested” mean? Very likely they would tell him they had detected in the book some slight traces of a talent which, with careful nursing, could be schooled to produce, in time, a publishable book. He had heard that publishers sometimes had a weather eye for this sort of thing and that they would often string an aspiring author along for years, giving him just the necessary degree, of encouragement to keep him from abandoning hope altogether and to make him think that they had faith in his great future if only he would go on writing book after rejected book until he “found himself”. Well, he’d show them that he was not their fool! Not by so much as a flicker of an eyelash would he betray his disappointment, and he would commit himself to nothing!

If the traffic policeman on the corner noticed a strange young man in front of the office of James Rodney & Co. that morning, he would never have guessed at the core of firm resolution with which this young man had tried to steel himself for the interview that lay before him. If the policeman saw him at all, he probably observed him with misgiving, wondering whether he ought not to intervene to prevent the commission of a felony, or at any rate whether he ought not to speak to the young man and hold him in conversation until the ambulance could arrive and take him to Bellevue for observation.

For, as the young man approached the building at a rapid, loping stride, a stern scowl upon his face and his lips set in a grim line, he had hardly crossed the street and set his foot upon the kerb before the publisher’s building when his step faltered, he stopped and looked about him as if not knowing what to do, and then, in evident confusion, forced himself to go on. ‘But now his movements were uncertain; as if his legs obeyed his will with great reluctance. He lunged ahead, then stopped, then lunged again and made for the door, only to halt again in a paroxysm of indecision as he came up to it. He stood there facing the door for a moment, clenching and unclenching his hands, then looked about him quickly, suspiciously, as though he expected to find somebody watching him. At last, with a slight shudder of resolution, he thrust his hands deep into his pockets, turned deliberately, and walked on past the door.

And now he moved slowly, the line of his mouth set grimmer than before, and his head was carried stiffly forward from the shoulders as if he were trying to hold himself to the course he had decided upon by focusing on some distant object straight before him. But all the while, as he went along before the entrance and the show windows filled with books which flanked it on both sides, he peered sharply out of the corner of his eye like a spy who had to find out what was going on inside the building without letting the passers-by observe his interest. He walked to the end of the block and turned about and then came back, and again as he passed in front of the publishing house he kept his face fixed straight ahead and looked stealthily out of the corner of his eye. For fifteen or twenty minutes he repeated this strange manoeuvred, and each time as he approached the door he-would hesitate and half turn as if about to enter, and then abruptly go on as before.

Finally, as he came abreast of the entrance for perhaps the fiftieth time, he quickened his stride and seized the door-knob — but at once, as though it had given him an electric shock, he snatched his hand away and backed off, and stood on the kerb looking up at the house of James Rodney & Co. For several minutes more he stood there, shifting uneasily on his feet and watching all the upper windows as for a sign. Then, suddenly, his jaw muscles tightened, he stuck out his under lip in desperate resolve, and he bolted across the pavement, hurled himself against the door, and disappeared inside.

An hour later, if the policeman was still on duty at the corner, he was no doubt as puzzled and mystified as before by the young man’s behaviour as he emerged from the building. He came out slowly, walking mechanically, a dazed look on his face, and in one of his hands, which dangled loosely at his sides, he held a crumpled slip of yellow paper. He emerged from the office of James Rodney & Co. like a man walking in a trance. With the slow and thoughtless movements of an automaton, he turned his steps uptown, and, still with the rapt and dazed look upon his face, he headed north and disappeared into the crowd..

It was, late afternoon and the shadows were slanting swiftly eastwards when George Webber came to his senses somewhere in the wilds of the upper Bronx. How he got there he never knew. All he could remember was that suddenly he felt hungry and stopped and looked about him and realized where he was. His dazed look gave way to one of amazement and incredulity, and his mouth began W stretch in a broad grin. In his hand he still held the rectangular slip of crisp yellow paper, and slowly he smoothed out the wrinkles and examined it carefully.

It was a cheque for five hundred dollars. His book bad been accepted, and this was an advance against his royalties.

So he was happier than he had ever been in all his life. Fame, at last, was knocking at his door and wooing him with her sweet blandishments, and he lived in a kind of glorious delirium. The next weeks and months were filled with the excitement of the impending event. The book would not be published till the autumn, but meanwhile there was much work to do. Foxhall Edwards had made some suggestions for cutting and revising the manuscript, and, although George at first objected, he surprised himself in the end by agreeing with Edwards, and he undertook to do what Edwards wanted.

George had called his novel, Home to Our Mountains, and in it he had packed everything he knew about his home town in Old Catawba and the people there. He had distilled every line of it out of his own experience of life. And, now that the issue was decided, he sometimes trembled when he thought that it would be only a matter of months before the whole world knew what he had written. He loathed the thought of giving pain to anyone, and that he might do so had never occurred to him till now. But now it was out of his hands, and he began to feel uneasy. Of course it was fiction, but it was made as all honest fiction must be, from the stuff of human life. Some people might recognize themselves, and be offended, and then what would he do? Would he have to go around in smoked glasses and false whiskers? He comforted himself with the hope that his characterisations were not so true as, in another mood, he liked to think they, were, and he thought that perhaps no one would notice anything.

Rodney’s Magazine, too, had become interested in the young author and was going to publish a story, a chapter from the book, in their next number. This news added immensely to his excitement. He was eager to see his name in print, and in the happy interval of expectancy he felt like a kind of universal Don Juan, for he literally loved everybody — his fellow instructors at the school, his drab students, the little shopkeepers in all the stores, even the nameless hordes that thronged the streets. Rodney’s, of course, was the greatest and the finest publishing house in all the world, and Foxhall Edwards was the greatest editor and the finest man that ever was. George had liked him instinctively from the first, and now, like an old and intimate friend, he was calling him Fox. George knew that Fox believed in him, and the editor’s faith and confidence, coming as it had come, at a time when George had given up all hope, restored his self-respect and charged him with energy for new work.

Already his next novel was begun and was beginning to take shape within him. He would soon have to get it out of him. He dreaded the prospect of buckling down in earnest to write it, for he knew the agony of it. It was like demoniacal possession, driving him with an alien force much greater than his own. While the fury of creation was upon him, it meant sixty cigarettes a day, twenty cups of coffee, meals snatched anyhow and anywhere and at whatever time of day or night he happened to remember he was hungry. It meant sleeplessness, and miles of walking to bring on the physical fatigue without which he could not sleep, then nightmares, nerves, and exhaustion in the morning. As he said to Fox:

“There are better ways to write a book, but this, God help me, is mine, and you’ll have to learn to put up with it.”

When Rodney’s Magazine came out with the story, George fully expected convulsions of the earth, falling meteors, suspension of traffic in the streets, and a general strike. But nothing happened. A few of his friends mentioned it, but that was all. For several days he felt let down, but then his common sense reassured him that people couldn’t really tell much about a new author from a short piece in a magazine. The book would show them who he was and what he could do. It would be different then. He could afford to wait a little longer for the fame which he was certain would soon be his.

It was not until later, after the first excitement had worn off and George had become accustomed to the novelty of being an author whose book was actually going to be published, that he began to learn a little about the unknown world of publishing and the people who inhabit it — and not till then did he begin to understand and appreciate the teal quality of Fox Edwards. And it was through Otto Hauser — so much like Fox in his essential integrity, so sharply contrasted to him in other respects — that George got his first real insight into the character of his editor.

Hausa Was a reader at Rodney’s, and probably the best publisher’s reader in America. He might have been a publisher’s editor — a rare and good one — had he been driven forward by ambition, enthusiasm, daring, tenacious resolution, and that eagerness to seek and find the best which a great editor must have. But Hauser was content to spend his days reading ridiculous manuscripts written by ridiculous people on all sorts of ridiculous subjects “The Breast Stroke,” “Rock Gardens for Everybody,” “The Life and Times of Lydia Pinkham,” “The New Age of Plenty”— and once in a while something that had the fire of passion, the spark of genius, the glow of truth.

Otto Hauser lived in a tiny apartment near First Avenue, and he invited George to drop in one evening. George went, and they spent the evening talking. After that he returned again and again because he liked Otto, and also because he was puzzled by the contradictions of his qualities, especially by something aloof, impersonal, and withdrawing in his nature which seemed so out of place beside the clear and positive elements in his character.

Otto did all the housekeeping himself. He had tried having cleaning women in from time to time, but eventually he had dispensed entirely with their services. ‘They were not clean and tidy enough to suit him, and their casual and haphazard disarrangements of objects that had been placed exactly where he wanted them annoyed his order-loving soul. He hated clutter. He had only a few books — a shelf or two — most of them the latest publications of the house of Rodney, and a few volumes sent him by other publishers. Usually he gave his books away as soon as he finished reading them because he hated clutter, and books made clutter. Sometimes he wondered if he didn’t hate books, too. Certainly he didn’t like to have many of them around: the sight of them irritated him.

George found him a curious enigma. Otto Hauser was possessed of remarkable gifts, yet he was almost wholly lacking in those qualities which cause a man to “get on” in the world. In fact, he didn’t want to “get on”. He had a horror of “getting on”, of going any further than he bad already gone. He wanted to be a publisher’s reader, and nothing more. At James Rodney & Co. he did the work they put into his hands. He did punctiliously what he was required to do. He gave his word, when he was asked to give it, with the complete integrity of his quiet soul, the unerring rightness of his judgment, the utter finality of his Germanic spirit. But beyond that he would not go.

When one of the editors at Rodney’s, of whom there were several besides Foxhall Edwards, asked Hauser for his opinion, the ensuing conversation would go something like this:

“You have read the manuscript?”

“Yes,” said Hauser, “I have read it.”

“What did you think of it?”

“I thought it was without merit.”

“Then you do not recommend its publication?”

“No, I do not think it is worth publishing.”

Or:

“Did you read that manuscript?”

“Yes,” Hauser would say. “I read it.”

“Well, what did you think of it? (Confound it, can’t the fellow say what he thinks without having to be asked all the timer)”

“I think it is a work of genius.”

Incredulously: “You do!

“I do, yes. To my mind there is no question about it.”

“But look here, Hauser —” excitedly —“if what you say is true, this boy — the fellow who wrote it — why, he’s just a kid — no one ever heard of him before — comes from somewhere out West — Nebraska, Iowa, one of those places — never been anywhere, apparently — if what you say is true, we’ve made a discovery!”

“I suppose you have. Yes. The book is a work of genius.”

“But —(Damn it all, what’s wrong with the man anyway? Here he makes a discovery like this — an astounding statement of this sort — and shows no more enthusiasm than if he were discussing a cabbage head!)— but, see here, then! You — you mean there’s something wrong with it?”

“No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I think it is a magnificent piece of writing.”

“But —(Good Lord, the fellow is a queer fish!)— but you mean to say that — that perhaps it’s not suitable for publication in its present form?”

“No. I think it’s eminently publishable.”

“But it’s overwritten, isn’t it?”

“It is overwritten. Yes.”

“I thought so, too,” said the editor shrewdly. “Of course, the fellow shows he knows very little about writing. He doesn’t know how he does it, he repeats himself continually, he is childish and exuberant and extravagant, and he does ten times too much of everything.. We have a hundred other writers who know more about writing than he does.”

“I suppose we have, yes,” Hauser agreed. “Nevertheless, he is a man of genius, and they are not. His, book is a work of genius, and theirs are not.”

“Then you think we ought to publish him?”

“I think so, yes.”

“But —(Ah, here’s the catch, maybe — the thing he’s holding back on!)— but you think this is all he has to say? — that he’s written himself out in this one book? — that he’ll never be able to write another?”

“No. I think nothing of the sort. I can’t say, of course. They may kill him, as they often do ——”

“(God, what a gloomy Gus the fellow is!)”

“— but on the basis of this book, I should say there’s no danger of his running dry. He should have fifty books in him.”

“But —(Good Lord! What is the catch?)— but then you mean you don’t think it’s time for such a book as this in America yet?”

“No, I don’t mean that. I think it is time.”

“Why?”

“Because it has happened. Iris always time when it happens.”

“But some of our best critics say it’s not time.”

“I know they do. However, they are wrong. It is simply not their time, that’s all.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, their time is critic’s time. The book is creator’s time. The two times are not the same.”

“You think, then, that the critics are behind the time?”

“They are behind creator’s time, yes.”

“Then they may not see this book as the work of genius which you say it is. Do you think they will?”

“I can’t say. Perhaps not. However, it doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter! Why, what do you mean?”

“I mean that the thing is good, and cannot be destroyed. Therefore it doesn’t matter what anyone says.”

“Then — Good Lord, Hauser! — if what you say is true, we’ve made a great discovery!”

“I think you have. Yes.”

“But — but — is that all you have to say?”

“I think so, yes. What else is there to say?”

Baffled: “Nothing — only, I should think you would be excited about it!” Then, completely defeated and resigned: “Oh, all right! All right, Hauser! Thanks very much!”

The people at Rodney’s couldn’t understand it. They didn’t know what to make of it. Finally, they had given up trying, all except Fox Edwards — and Fox would never give up trying to understand anything. Fox still came by Hauser’s office — his little cell — and looked in on him. Fox’s old grey hat would be pushed back on his head, for he never took it off when he worked, and there would be a look of troubled wonder in his sea-pale eyes as he bent over and stooped and craned and stared at Hauser, as if he were regarding for the first time some fantastic monster from the marine jungles of the ocean. Then he would turn and walk away, hands hanging to his coat lapels, and in his eyes there would be a look of utter astonishment.

Fox couldn’t understand it yet. As for Hauser himself, he had no answers, nothing to tell them.

It was not until George Webber had become well acquainted with both men that be began to penetrate the mystery. Foxhall Edwards and Otto Hauser — to know them both, to see them working in the same office, each in his own way, was to understand them both as perhaps neither could have been understood completely by himself. Each man, by being what he was, revealed to George the secret springs of character which had made the two of them so much alike — and so utterly different.

There may have been a time when an intense and steady flame had been alive in the quiet depths of Otto Hauser’s spirit. But that was before he knew what it was like to be a great editor. Now he had seen it for himself, and he wanted none of it. For ten years he had watched Fox Edwards, and he well knew what was needed: the pure flame living in the midst of darkness; the constant, quiet, and relentless effort of the will to accomplish what the pure flame burned for, what the spirit knew; the unspoken agony of that constant effort as it fought to win through to its clear purpose and somehow to subdue the world’s blind and brutal force of ignorance, hostility, prejudice, and intolerance which were opposed to it — the fools of age, the fools of prudery, the fools of genteelness, fogyism, and nice-Nellyism, the fools of bigotry, Philistinism, jealousy, and envy, and, worst of all, the utter, sheer damn fools of nature!

Oh, to burn so, so to be consumed, exhausted, spent by the passion of this constant flame! And for what? For what? And why? Because some obscure kid from Tennessee, some tenant farmer’s son from Georgia, or some country doctor’s boy in North Dakota — untitled, unpedigreed, unhallowed by fools’ standards — had been touched with genius, and so had striven to give a tongue to the high passion of his loneliness, to wrest from his locked spirit his soul’s language and a portion of the tongue of his unuttered brothers, to find a channel in the blind immensity of this harsh land for the pent tides of his creation, and to make, perhaps, in this howling wilderness of life some carving and some dwelling of his own — all this before the world’s fool-bigotry, fool-ignorance, fool-cowardice, fool-faddism, fool-mockery, fool-stylism, and fool-hatred for anyone who was not corrupted, beaten, and a fool had either quenched the hot, burning passion with ridicule, contempt, denial, and oblivion, or else corrupted the strong will with the pollutions of fool-success. It was for this that such as Fox must burn and suffer — to keep that flame’ of agony alive in the spirit of some inspired and stricken boy until the world of fools had taken it into their custody, and betrayed it!

Otto Hauser had seen it all.

And in the end what was the reward for such a one as Fox? To achieve the lonely and unhoped-for victories one by one, and to see the very fools who had denied them acclaim them as their own. To lapse again to search, to silence, and to waiting while fools greedily pocketed as their own the coin of one man’s spirit, proudly hailed as their discovery the treasure of another’s exploration, loudly celebrated their own vision as they took unto themselves the fulfilment of another’s prophecy. Ah, the heart must break at last — the heart of Fox, as well as the heart of genius, the lost boy; the frail, small heart of man must falter, stop at last from beating; but the heart of folly would beat on for ever.

So Otto Hauser would have none of it. He would grow hot over nothing. He would try to see the truth for himself, and let it go at that.

This was Otto Hauser as George came to know him. In the confidence of friendship Otto held up a mirror to his own soul, affording a clear, unposed reflection of his quiet, unassuming, and baffling integrity; but in the same mirror he also revealed, without quite being aware of it, the stronger and more shining image of Fox Edwards.

George knew how fortunate he was to have as his editor a man like Fox. And as time went on, and his respect and admiration for the older man warmed to deep affection, he realized that Fox had become for him much more than editor and friend. Little by little it seemed to George that he had found in Fox the father he had lost and had long been looking for. And so it was that Fox became a second father to him — the father of his spirit.

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