You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

24. Man–Creating and Man–Alive

It must be abundantly clear by now that George Webber was never bitter. What cause had he for bitterness? When he fled from the lion hunters he could always go back to the loneliness of his dismal two-room flat in Twelfth Street, and that is what he did. Also, he still had the letters from his friends in Libya Hill. They had not forgotten him. For four months and more after the publication of his hook they continued to write him, and all of them took pains to let him know exactly what place he held in their affections.

Throughout this time George heard regularly from Randy Shepperton. Randy was the only one that George had left to talk to, so George, in answering Randy, unburdened himself of everything he t bought and felt. Everything, that is, except upon a single topic — the rancour of his fellow-townsmen against the author who had exposed them naked to the world. Neither of the friends had ever mentioned it. Randy had set the pattern for evasion in his first letter, feeling that it was better to ignore the ugly gossip altogether and to let it die down and be forgotten. As for George, he had been too overwhelmed by it, too sunk and engulfed in it, to be able to speak of it at first. So they had chiefly confined themselves to the book itself, exchanging their thoughts and afterthoughts about it, with comments on what the various critics had said and left unsaid.

But by early March of the new year the flow of damning mail was past its flood and was thinning to a trickle, and one day Randy received from George the letter that he feared would have to come:

“I have spent most of my time this past week,” George wrote “reading and rereading all the letters that my erstwhile friends and neighbours have written me since the book came out. And now that the balloting is almost over and most of the vote is in, the result is startling and a little confusing. I have been variously compared to Judas Iscariot, Benedict Arnold, and Caesar’s Brutus. I have been likened to the bird that fouls its own nest, to a viper that an innocent populace had long nurtured in its bosom, to a carrion crow preying upon the blood and bones of his relatives and friends, and to an unnatural ghoul to whom nothing is sacred, not even the tombs of the honoured dead. I have been called a vulture, a skunk, a hog, deliberately and lustfully wallowing in the mire, a defiler of pure womanhood, a rattlesnake, a jackass, an alley-cat, and a baboon. Although my imagination has been strained trying to conceive of a creature who combined in himself all of these interesting traits — it would be worth any novelist’s time to meet such a chap! — there have been moments when I have felt that maybe my accusers are right . . . ”

Behind this semblance of facetiousness, Randy could see that he was sincerely disturbed, and, knowing the capacity of George’s soul for self-torture, he could pretty well imagine how deep and sore the extent of his full suffering might be. He revealed it almost immediately:

“Great God! What is it I have done? Sometimes I am overwhelmed by a sense of horrible and irrevocable guilt! Never before have I realised as I have this past week how terrible and great may be the distance between the Artist and the Man.

“As the artist, I can survey my work with a clear conscience. I have the regrets and dissatisfactions that every writer ought to have: the book should have been better, it failed to measure up to what I wanted for it. But I am not ashamed of it. I feel that I wrote it as I did because of an inner necessity, that I had to do it, and that by doing it I was loyal to the only thing in me which is worth anything.

“So speaks Man–Creating. Then, instantly, it all changes, and from Man–Creating I become simply Man–Alive — a member of society, a friend and neighbour, a son and brother of the human race. And when I look at what I have done from this point of view, suddenly I feel lower than a dog. I see all the pain and anguish I have caused to people that I know, and I wonder how I could have done it, and how there could possibly be any justification for it — yes, even if what I wrote had been as great as Lear, as eloquent as Hamlet.

“Believe me — incredible as it may sound — when I tell you that during these weeks I have even derived a kind of grotesque and horrible pleasure from reading those letters which simply abused, cursed, or threatened me. There is, I found, a bitter relief in having someone curse me with every foul name he can think of or invent, or tell me he will put a bullet through my brain if I ever set foot in the streets of Libya Hill again. At any rate, I feel that the poor devil got some satisfaction out of writing it.

“But the letters that drive the blade into my heart and twist it round are those which neither curse nor threaten — the letters written by stunned and stricken people who never did me any wrong, whose whole feeling towards me was one of kindly good will and belief, who did not know me as I am, and who write me now straight out of the suffering heart of man, with their spirits quivering, stripped, whipped by naked shame, to ask me over and over again in their bewilderment that terrible and insistent question: ‘Why did you do it? Why? Why? Why?’

“And as I read their letters I no longer know why. I can’t answer them. As Man–Creating, I thought I knew, and thought, too, that the answer was all-sufficient. I wrote about them with blunt directness, trying to put in every relevant detail and circumstance, and I did it because I thought it would be cowardly not to write that way, false to withhold or modify. I thought that the Thing Itself was its own and valid reason for being.

“But now that it is done, I am no longer sure of anything. I am troubled by the most maddening doubts and impossible regrets. I have moments when I feel that I would give my life if I could un-write my book, un-print its pages. For what has it accomplished, apparently, except to ruin my relatives, my friends, and everyone in town whose life was ever linked with mine? And what is there for me to salvage out of all this wreckage?

“‘The integrity of the artist,’ you may say.

“Ah, yes — if I could only soothe my conscience with that solacement! For what integrity is there that is not tainted with human frailty? If only I could tell myself that every word and phrase and incident in the book had been created at the top of my bent and with the impartial judgment of unrancorous detachment! But I know it is not true. So many words come back to me, so many whip-lash phrases, that must have been written in a spirit that had nothing to do with art or my integrity. We are such stuff as dust is made of, and where we fail — we fail! Is there, then, no such thing as a pure spirit in creation?

“In all the whole wretched experience there is also a grim and horrible humour. It is insanely comical to find in almost all these letters that I am being cursed for doing things I did not do and for saying things I did not say. It is even more ludicrous to hear myself grudgingly praised for having the one thing that I have not got. Few of these letters — even those which threaten hanging, and those which deny me the remotest scrap of talent (except a genius for obscenity)— fail to commend me for what their writers call ‘my memory’. Some of them accuse me of sneaking round as a little boy of eight with my pockets stuffed with notebooks, my ears fairly sprouting from my head and my eyes popping out, in my effort to spy upon and snatch up every word and act and phrase among my virtuous and unsuspecting fellow-townsmen.

“‘It’s the dirtiest book I ever read,’ one citizen cogently remarks, ‘but I’ll have to give you credit for one thing — you’ve got a wonderful memory.’

“And that is just exactly what I have not got. I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once. This thing they call my memory, this thing they think they can themselves remember, is nothing that they ever saw. It is rather something that I saw after looking at the thing a thousand times, and this is what they think they can remember.”

Randy paused in his reading of the letter, for he suddenly realised that what George said was literally true. In the weeks since the book was published, he himself had seen it proved over and over again.

He knew that there was scarcely a detail in George’s book that was precisely true to fact, that there was hardly a page in which everything had not been transmuted and transformed by the combining powers of George’s imagination; yet readers got from it such an instant sense of reality that many of them were willing to swear that the thing described had been not only “drawn from life”, but was the actual and recorded fact. And that was precisely what had made the outcry and denunciation so furious.

But not only that. It was funny enough to hear people talking and arguing with each other out of a savage conviction that scenes and incidents in the book were literally true because they may have had some basis in remembered fact. It was even more grotesque to hear them testify, as some of them now did, that they had been witnesses to events which he knew to be utter fabrications of the author’s imagination.

“Why,” they cried, when final proof of anything was wanted, “he’s got it all in! He’s written it all down, just the way it happened! Nothing’s changed a bit! Look at the Square!”

They always came back to the Square, for the Square had occupied a prominent place in Home to Our Mountains. George had pictured it with such intensity of vision that almost every brick and windowpane and cobblestone became imprinted on the reader’s mind. But what was this Square? Was it the town Square of Libya Hill? Everybody said it was. Hadn’t the local newspaper set it down in black and white that “our native chronicler has described the Square with a photographic eye”? Then people had read the book for themselves and had agreed.

So it was useless to argue with them — useless to point out to them how Webber’s Square differed from their own, unless to mention a hundred items of variation. They had been pitiful in their anger when t hey first discovered that art had imitated life; now they were ludicrous in their ignorance that life was also imitating art.

With a smile and a shake of the head, Randy turned back to the letter:

“In God’s name, what have I done?” George concluded. “Have I really acted according to some inner truth and real necessity, or did my unhappy mother conceive and give birth to a perverse monster who has defiled the dead and betrayed his family, kinsmen, neighbours, and the human race? What should I have done? What ought I to do now? If there is any help or answer in you, for Christ’s sake let me have it. I feel like a dead leaf in a hurricane. I don’t know where to turn. You alone can help me. Stay with me — write me — tell me what you think.

“Yours ever,

“GEORGE.”

George’s suffering had been so palpable in every sentence of his letter that Randy had winced in reading it. He had felt the naked anguish of his friend’s raw wound almost as if it had been his own. But he knew that neither he nor any other man could give the help answer that George sought. He would have to find it somehow in himself. That was the only way he had ever been able to learn anything.

So when Randy drafted his reply he deliberately made his letter as casual as he could. He did not want to let it seem that he attached too much importance to the town’s reaction. He said that he did not know what he would do if he were George, since he was not a writer, but that he had always supposed a writer had to write about the life he knew. To cheer George up, he added that the people of Libya Hill reminded him of children who had not yet been told the facts of life. They still believed, apparently, in the stork. Only people who knew nothing about the world’s literature could be surprised or shocked to learn where every good book came from.

And then, in a kind of mild parenthesis, he said that Tim Wagner, the town’s most celebrated souse, noted for his wit in his rare intervals of sobriety, had been a warm supporter of the book from the beginning, but had made one reservation: “Why, hell! If George wants to write about a horse-thief, that’s all right. Only the next time I hope he don’t give his street address. And there ain’t no use in throwing in his telephone number, too.”

Randy knew this would amuse George, and it did. In fact, George told him later that it was the most sound and valuable critical advice that he had ever had.

Randy ended his letter by assuring George that even if he was a writer, he still considered him a member of the human race. And he added, in what he hoped would be a comforting postscript, that there were other angry mutterings abroad. He had heard a rumour, whispered by one of the town’s leading business men with a great air of hush-hush and please-don’t-breathe-a-word-of-this-to-anyone, that Mr. Jarvis Riggs, the president of Libya Hill’s largest bank and past hero of infallibilities, was tottering on the brink of ruin.

“So you see,” Randy concluded, “if that godly gentleman is capable of imperfection, there may still be hope of pardon even in creatures as vile as you.”

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