You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

25. The Catastrophe

A day or two after receiving Randy’s reply, George was reading the New York Times one morning when his eye was caught by a small news item on an inside page. It occupied only a scant two inches or so at the bottom of a column, but the Libya Hill date line leaped out at him:

BANK FAILS IN SOUTH

LIBYA HILL, 0. C., Mar. 12 — The Citizens Trust Company of this city failed to open its doors for business this morning, and throughout the day, as news of its closing spread, conditions of near-panic mounted steadily here and in all the surrounding region. The bank was one of the largest in western Old Catawba and for years had been generally regarded as a model of conservative management and financial strength. The cause of its failure is not yet known. It is feared that the losses of the people of this community may be extensive.

The alarm occasioned by the closing of the bank was heightened later in the day by the discovery of the sudden and rather mysterious death of Mayor Baxter Kennedy. His body was found with a bullet through his head, and all the available evidence seems to point to suicide. Mayor Kennedy was a man of exceptionally genial and cheerful disposition, and is said to have had no enemies.

Whether there is any connection between the two events which have so profoundly disturbed the accustomed calm of this mountain district is not known, although their close coincidence has given rise to much excited conjecture.

“So,” thought George, laying down the paper with a stunned and thoughtful air, “it has come at last! . . . What was it that Judge Rumford Bland had said to them?”

The whole scene in the Pullman wash-room came back to him. He saw again the stark and speechless terror in the faces of Libya Hill’s leaders and rulers as the frail but terrible old blind man suddenly confronted them and held them with his sightless eyes and openly accused them of ruining the town. As George remembered this and sat there thinking about the news he had just read, he felt quite sure there must be some direct relation between the failure of the bank and the Mayor’s suicide.

There was, indeed. Things had been building up to this double climax for a long time.

Jarvis Riggs, the banker, had come from a poor but thoroughly respectable family in the town. When he was fifteen his father died and he had to quit school and go to work to support his mother. He held a succession of small jobs until, at eighteen, he was offered a modest but steady position in the Merchants National Bank.

He was a bright young fellow and a “hustler”, and step by step he worked his way up until he became a teller. Mark Joyner kept a deposit at the Merchants National and used to come home and talk about Jarvis Riggs. In those days he had none of the brittle manner and pompous assurance that were to characterise him later, after he had risen to greatness. His hair, which was afterwards to turn a dead and lifeless sandy colour, had glints of gold in it then, his cheeks were full and rosy, he had a bright and smiling face, and it was always briskly and cheerfully —“Good morning, Mr. Joyner!” or “Good morning, Mr. Shepperton!”— when a customer came in. He was friendly, helpful, courteous, eager to please, and withal businesslike and knowing. He also dressed neatly and was known to be supporting his mother. All these things made people like him and respect him. They wanted to see him succeed. For Jarvis Riggs was a living vindication of an American legend — that of the poor boy who profits from the hardships of his early life and “makes good”. People would nod knowingly to one another and say of him:

“That young man has his feet on the ground.”

“Yes,” they would say, “he’s going somewhere.”

So when, along about 1912, the word began to go round that a small group of conservative business men were talking of starting a new bank, and that Jarvis Riggs was going to be its cashier, the feeling was most favourable. The backers explained that they were not going to compete with the established banks. It was simply their feeling that a growing town like Libya Hill, with its steady increase in population and in its business interests, could use another bank. And the new bank, one gathered, was to be conducted according to the most eminently approved principles of sound finance. But it was to be a progressive bank, too, forward-looking bank, mindful of the future, the great, golden, magnificent future that Libya Hill was sure to have — that it was even heresy to doubt. In this way it was also to be a young man’s bank. And this was where Jarvis Riggs came in.

It is not too much to say that the greatest asset the new enterprise had from the beginning was Jarvis Riggs. He had played his cards well. He had offended no one, he had made no enemies, he had always remained modest, friendly, and yet impersonal, as if not wishing to intrude himself too much on the attention of men who stood for substance and authority in the town’s life. The general opinion was that he knew what he was doing. He had learned about life in the highly-thought-of “university of hard knocks”, he had learned business and banking in “the hard school of experience”, so everybody felt that if Jarvis Riggs was going to be cashier of the new bank, then the new bank was pretty sure to be all right.

Jarvis himself went around town and sold stock in the bank. He had no difficulty at all. He made it quite plain that he did not think anyone was going to make a fortune. He simply sold the stock as a safe and sound investment, and that was how everybody felt about it. The bank was modestly capitalised at $25,000, and there were 250 shares at $100 each. The sponsors, including Jarvis, took 100 shares between them, and the remaining 150 shares were divided among “a selected group of leading business men”. As Jarvis said, the bank was really “a community project whose first and only purpose is to serve the community”, so no one was allowed to acquire too large an interest.

This was the way the Citizens Trust Company got started. And in no time at all, it seemed, Jarvis Riggs was advanced from cashier to vice-president, and then to president. The poor boy had come into his own.

In its early years the bank prospered modestly and conservatively. Its growth was steady but not spectacular. After the United States entered the war, it got its share of the nation’s prosperity. But after the war, in 1921, there was a temporary lull, a period of “adjustment”. Then the 1920’s began in earnest.

The only way to explain what happened then is to say that there was “a feeling in the air”. Everybody seemed to sense a prospect of quick and easy money. There was thrilling and rapid expansion in all directions, and it seemed that there were possibilities of wealth, luxury, and economic power hitherto undreamed of just lying around waiting for anyone who was bold enough to seize them.

Jarvis Riggs was no more insensible to these beckoning opportunities than the next man. The time had come, he decided, to step out and show the world what he could do. The Citizens Trust began to advertise itself as “the fastest-growing bank in the state”. But it did not advertise what it was growing on.

That was the time when the political and business clique which dominated the destinies of the town, and which had put amiable Baxter Kennedy in the Mayor’s office as its “front”, began to focus its activities round the bank. The town was burgeoning rapidly and pushing out into the wilderness, people were confident of a golden future, no one gave a second thought to the reckless increase in public borrowing. Bond issues involving staggering sums were being constantly “floated” until the credit structure of the town was built up into a teetering inverted pyramid and the citizens of Libya Hill no longer owned the streets they walked on. The proceeds of these enormous borrowings were deposited with the bank. The bank, for its part, then returned these deposits to the politicians, or to their business friends, supporters, allies, and adherents — in the form of tremendous loans, made upon the most flimsy and tenuous security, for purposes of private and personal speculation. In this way “The Ring”, as it was called, which had begun as an inner circle of a few ambitious men, became in time a vast and complex web that wove through the entire social structure of the town and involved the lives of thousands of people. And all of it now centred in the bank.

But the weaving of this complicated web of frenzied finance and speculation and special favours to “The Ring” could not go on for ever, though there were many who thought it could. There had to come a time when the internal strains and stresses became too great to sustain the load, a time when there would be ominous preliminary tremors to give warning of the crash that was to come. Just when this time arrived is pretty hard to say. One can observe a soldier moving forward in a battle and see him spin and tumble, and know the moment he is hit. But one cannot observe so exactly the moment when a man has been shot down by life.

So it was with the bank and with Jarvis Riggs. All that one can be sure of is that their moment came. And it came long before the mighty roar of tumbling stocks in Wall Street echoed throughout the nation. That event, which had its repercussions in Libya Hill as elsewhere, was not the prime cause of anything. What happened in Wall Street was only the initial explosion which in the course of the next few years was to set off a train of lesser explosions all over the land — explosions which at last revealed beyond all further doubting and denial the hidden pockets of lethal gases which a false, vicious, and putrescent scheme of things had released beneath the surface of American life.

Long before the explosion came that was to blow him sky-high, and the whole town with him, Jarvis Riggs had felt the tremors in the thing he had created, and he knew he was a doomed and ruined man. Before long others knew it, too, and knew that they were ruined with him. But they would not let themselves believe it. They did not dare. Instead, they sought to exorcise the thing they feared by pretending it wasn’t there. Their speculations only grew madder, fiercer.

And then, somehow, the cheerful, easy-going Mayor found out what some of those round him must have known for months. That was in the spring of 1928, two years before the failure of the bank. At that time he went to Jarvis Riggs and told him what he knew, and then demanded to withdraw the city’s funds. The banker looked the frightened Mayor in the eye and laughed at him.

“What are you afraid of, Baxter?” he said. “Are you showing the white feather now that the pinch is on? You say you are going to withdraw the deposits of the city? All right — withdraw them. But I warn you, if you do the bank is ruined. It will have to close its doors tomorrow. And if it closes its doors, where is your town? Your precious town is also ruined.”

The Mayor looked at the banker with a white face and stricken eyes. Jarvis Riggs leaned forward and his tones became more persuasive:

“Pull out your money if you like, and wreck your town. But why not play along with us, Baxter? We’re going to see this thing through.” He was smiling now, and wearing his most winning manner. “We’re in a temporary depression — yes. But six months from now we’ll be out of the woods. I know we will. We’re coming back stronger than ever. You can’t sell Libya Hill short,” he said, using a phrase that was in great vogue just then. “We’ve not begun to see the progress we’re going to make. But the salvation and future of this town rests in your hands. So make up your mind about it. What are you going to do?”

The Mayor made up his mind. Unhappy man.

Things drifted along. Time passed. The sands were running low.

By the autumn of 1929 there began to be a vague rumour going about that all was not well at the Citizens Trust. George Webber had heard it himself when he went home in September. But it was a nebulous thing, and as often as not the person who whispered it fearfully would catch himself and say:

“Oh, pshaw! There’s nothing in it. There couldn’t be! You know how people talk.”

But the rumour persisted through the winter, and by early March it had become a disturbing and sinister contagion. No one could say where it came from. It seemed to be distilled like a poison out of the mind and heart and spirit of the whole town.

On the surface there was nothing to account for it. The Citizens Trust maintained its usual appearance of solid substance, businesslike efficiency, and Greek-templed sanctity. Its broad plate-glass windows opening out upon the Square let in a flood of light, and the whole atmosphere was one of utter clarity. The very breadth of those windows seemed to proclaim to the world the complete openness and integrity of the bank’s purpose. They seemed to say:

“Here is the bank, and here are all the people in the bank, and all the people in the bank are openly at work. Look, citizens, and see for yourselves. You see there is nothing hidden here. The bank is Libya, and Libya is the bank.”

It was all so open that one did not have to go inside to know what was going on. One could stand on the pavement outside and look in and see everything. To the right were the tellers’ cages, and to the left there was a railed-off space in which the officers sat at their sumptuous mahogany flat-topped desks. At the largest of these desks, just inside the low enclosure, sat Jarvis Riggs himself. There he sat, talking importantly and pompously, as though laying down the law, to one of his customers. There he sat, briskly reading through the pile of papers on his desk. There he sat, pausing in his work now and then to look up at the ceiling in deep thought, or to lean back in his swivel-chair and gently rock in meditation.

It was all just as it had always been.

Then it happened.

March 12, 1930 was a day that will be long remembered in the annals of Libya Hill. The double tragedy set the stage as nothing else could have done for the macabre weeks to follow.

If all the fire-bells in town had suddenly begun to ring out their alarm at nine o’clock that morning, the news could not have spread more rapidly that the Citizens Trust Company was closed. Word of it leapt from mouth to mouth. And almost instantly, from every direction, white-faced men and women came running towards the Square. There were housewives with their aprons on, their hands still dripping dishwater; workmen and mechanics with their warm tools in their hands; hatless business men and clerks; young mothers carrying babies in their arms. Everyone in town, it seemed, had dropped whatever he was doing and rushed out in the streets the moment the news had reached him.

The Square itself was soon a seething mass of frenzied people. Frantically, over and over, they asked each other the same questions: Was it really true? How had it happened? How bad was it?

In front of the bank itself the crowd was quieter, more stunned. To this spot, sooner or later, they all came, drawn by a common desperate hope that they would yet be able to see with their own eyes that it was not so. Like a sluggish current within that seething mass the queue moved slowly past, and as the people saw those locked and darkened doors they knew that all hope was gone. Some just stared with stricken faces, some of the women moaned and wailed, from the eyes of strong men silent tears coursed down, and from the mouths of others came the rumble of angry mutterings.

For their ruin had caught up with them. Many of the people in that throng had lost their life savings. But it was not only the bank’s depositors who were ruined. Everyone now knew that their boom was over. They knew that the closing of the bank had frozen all their speculations just as they were, beyond the possibility of extricating themselves. Yesterday they could count their paper riches by ten thousands and by millions; today they owned nothing, their wealth had vanished, and they were left saddled with debts that they could never pay.

And they did not yet know that their city government was bankrupt, too — that six million dollars of public money had been lost behind those closed and silent doors.

It was a little before noon on that ill-omened day that Mayor Kennedy was found dead. And, just to put the final touch of gruesome irony upon the whole event, a blind man found him.

Judge Rumford Bland testified at the inquest that he left his front office, upstairs in the ramshackle building that he owned there on the Square, and went out in the hall, heading in the direction of the toilet, where he proposed to perform an essential function of nature. It was dark out there, he said with his ghostly smile, and the floors creaked, but this didn’t matter to him — he knew the way. He said he couldn’t have lost his way even if he had wanted to. At the end of the hall he could hear a punctual drip of water, dropping with its slow, incessant monotone; and besides, there was the pervasive smell of the tin urinal — all he had to do was to follow his nose.

He arrived in darkness and pushed open the door, and suddenly his foot touched something. He leaned over, his white, thin fingers groped down, and all at once they were plunged — wet, warm, sticky reeking — into the foundering mass of what just five minutes before had been the face and brains of a living man.

— No, he hadn’t heard the shot — there was all that infernal commotion out in the Square.

— No, he had no idea how he had got there — walked it, he supposed — the City Hall was only twenty yards away.

— No, he couldn’t say why His Honour should have picked that spot to blow his brains out — there was no accounting for tastes — but if a man wanted to do it, that was probably as good a place as any.

So it was that weak, easy-going, procrastinating, good-natured Baxter Kennedy, Mayor of Libya Hill, was found — all that was left of him — in darkness, by an evil old blind man.

In the days and weeks that followed the closing of the bank, Libya Hill presented a tragic spectacle the like of which had probably never before been seen in America. But it was a spectacle that was to be repeated over and over again, with local variations, in many another town and city within the next few years.

The ruin of Libya Hill was much more than the ruin of the bank and the breakdown of the economic and financial order. True, when the bank failed, all that vast and complicated scheme of things which had been built upon it, the ramifications of which extended into every element of the community’s life, toppled and crashed. But the closing of the bank was only like the action of a rip-cord which, once jerked, brought the whole thing down, and in doing so laid bare the deeper and more corrosive ruin within. And this deeper ruin — the essence of the catastrophe — was the ruin of the human conscience.

Here was a town of fifty thousand people who had so abdicated every principle of personal and communal rectitude, to say nothing of common sense and decency, that when the blow fell they had no inner resources with which to meet it. The town almost literally blew its brains out. Forty people shot themselves within ten days, and others did so later. And, as so often happens, many of those who destroyed themselves were among the least guilty of the lot. The rest — and this was the most shocking part of it — suddenly realising their devastating guilt to such a degree that they could not face the results of it, now turned like a pack of howling dogs to rend each other. Cries of vengeance rose up from all their throats, and they howled for the blood of Jarvis Riggs. But these cries proceeded not so much from a conviction of wounded justice and deceived innocence as from their opposites. It was the sublime, ironic, and irrevocable justice of what had happened to them, and their knowledge that they alone had been responsible for it, that maddened them. From this arose their sense of outrage and their cries of vengeance.

What happened in Libya Hill and elsewhere has been described in the learned tomes of the overnight economists as a breakdown of “the system, the capitalist system”. Yes, it was that. But it was also much more than that. In Libya Hill it was the total disintegration of what, in so many different ways, the lives of all these people had come to be. It went much deeper than the mere obliteration of bank accounts, the extinction of paper profits, and the loss of property. It was the ruin of men who found out, as soon as these symbols of their outward success had been destroyed, that they had nothing left — no inner equivalent from which they might now draw new strength. It was the ruin of men who, discovering not only that their values were false but that they had never had any substance whatsoever, now saw at last the emptiness and hollowness of their lives. Therefore they killed themselves; and those who did not die by their own hands died by the knowledge that they were already dead.

How can one account for such a complete drying up of all the spiritual sources in the life of a people? When one observes a youth of eighteen on a city street and sees the calloused scar that has become his life, and remembers the same youth as he was ten years before when he was a child of eight, one knows what has happened though the cause be hidden. One knows that there came a time when life stopped growing for that youth and the scar began; and one feels that if he could only find the reason and the cure, he would know what revolutions are.

In Libya Hill there must have been a time when life stopped growing and the scar began. But the learned economists of “the system” do not bother about this. For them, it belongs to the realm of the metaphysical — they are impatient of it, they will not trouble with it, they want to confine the truth within their little picket fence of facts. But they cannot. It is not enough to talk about the subtle complications of the credit structure, the intrigues of politics and business, the floating of bond issues, the dangers of inflation, speculation, and unsound prices, or the rise and decline of banks. When all these facts are added up, they still don’t give the answer. For there is something more to say.

So with Libya Hill:

One does not know at just what moment it began, but one suspects that it began at some time long past in the lone, still watches of the night, when all the people lay waiting in their beds in darkness. Waiting for what? They did not know. They only hoped that it would happen — some thrilling and impossible fulfilment, some glorious enrichment and release of their pent lives, some ultimate escape from their own tedium.

But it did not come.

Meanwhile, the stiff boughs creaked in the cold bleakness of the corner lights, and the whole town waited, imprisoned in its tedium.

And sometimes, in furtive hallways, doors opened and closed, there was a padding of swift, naked feet, the stealthy rattling of brass casters, and behind old battered shades, upon the edge of Nigger-town, the dull and fetid quickenings of lust.

Sometimes, in grimy stews of night’s asylumage, an oath, a blow, a fight.

Sometimes, through the still air, a shot, the letting of nocturnal blood.

And always, through broken winds, the sounds of shifting engines in the station yards, far off, along the river’s edge — and suddenly the thunder of great wheels, the tolling of the bell, the loneliness of the whistle cry wailed back, receding towards the North, and towards the hope, the promise, and the memory of the world unfound.

Meanwhile, the boughs creaked bleakly in stiff light, ten thousand men were waiting in the darkness, far off a dog howled, and the Court–House bell struck three.

No answer? Impossible? . . . Then let those — if such there be-who have not waited in the darkness, find answers of their own.

But if speech could frame what spirit utters, if tongue could tell what the lone heart knows, there would be answers somewhat other than those which are shaped by the lean pickets of rusty facts. There would be answers of men waiting, who have not spoken yet.

Below the starred immensity of mountain night old Rumford Bland, he that is called “The Judge”, strokes his sunken jaws reflectively as he stands at the darkened window of his front office and looks out with sightless eyes upon the ruined town. It is cool and sweet to-night, the myriad promises of life are lyric in the air. Gem-strewn in viewless linkage on the hills the lights make a bracelet for the town. The blind man knows that they are there, although he cannot see them. He strokes his sunken jaws reflectively and smiles his ghostly smile.

It is so cool and sweet to-night, and spring has come. There never was a year like this, they say, for dogwood in the hills. There are so many thrilling, secret things upon the air to-night — a burst of laughter, and young voices, faint, half-broken, and the music of a dance — how could one know that when the blind man smiles and stroke’s his sunken jaws reflectively, he is looking out upon a ruined town?

The new Court–House and City Hall are very splendid in the dark to-night. But he has never seen them — they were built since he went blind. Their fronts are bathed, so people say, in steady, secret light just like the nation’s dome at Washington. The blind man strokes his sunken jaws reflectively. Well, they should be splendid — they cost enough.

Beneath the starred immensity of mountain night there is something stirring in the air, a rustling of young leaves. And round the grass roots there is something stirring in the earth to-night. And below the grass roots and the sod, below the dew-wet pollen of young flowers, there is something alive and stirring. The blind man strokes his sunken jaws reflectively. Aye, there below, where the eternal worm keeps vigil, there is something stirring in the earth. Down, down below, where the worm incessant through the ruined house makes stir.

What lies there stir-less in the earth to-night, down where the worm keeps vigil?

The blind man smiles his ghostly smile. In his eternal vigil the worm stirs, but many men are rotting in their graves to-night, and sixty-four have bullet fractures in their skulls. Ten thousand more are lying in their beds to-night, living as shells live. They, too, are dead, though yet unburied. They have been dead so long they can’t remember how it was to live. And many weary nights must pass before they can join the buried dead, down where the worm keeps vigil.

Meanwhile, the everlasting worm keeps vigil, and the blind man strokes his sunken jaws, and slowly now he shifts his sightless gaze and turns his back upon the ruined town.

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