You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

45. Young Icarus

I have of late, dear Fox [George wrote], been thinking of you very I much, and of your strange but most familiar face. I never knew a man like you before, and if I had not known you, I never could have imagined you. And yet, to me you are inevitable, so that, having known you, I cannot imagine what life would have been for me without you. You were a polestar in my destiny. You were the magic thread in the great web which, being woven now, is finished and complete: the circle of our lives rounds out, full swing, and each of us in his own way now has rounded it: there is no further circle we can make. This, too — the end as the beginning — was inevitable: therefore, dear friend and parent of my youth, farewell.

Nine years have passed since first I waited in your vestibule. And I was not repulsed. No: I was taken in, was welcomed, was picked up and sustained just when my spirit reached its lowest ebb, was given life and hope, the restoration of my self-respect, the vindication of my self-belief, the renewal of my faith by the assurance of your own belief; and I was carried on, through all the struggle, doubt, confusion, desperation, effort of the years that were to follow, by your help and by the noble inspiration of your continued faith.

But now it ends — the road we were to go together. We two alone know how completely it has ended. But before I go, because few men can ever know, from first to last, a circle of such whole, superb finality, I leave this picture of it.

You may think it a little premature of me to start summing up my life at the age of thirty-seven. That is not my purpose here. But, although thirty-seven is not an advanced age at which one can speak of having learned many things, neither is it too early to have learned a few. By that time a man has lived long enough to be able to look back over the road he has come and see certain events and periods in a proportion and a perspective which he could not have had before. And because certain of the periods of my life represent to me, as I now look back on them, stages of marked change and development, not only in the spirit which animates the work I do, but also in my views on men and living, and my own relation to the world, I am going to tell you about them. Believe me, it is not egotism that prompts me to do this. As you will see, my whole experience swings round, as though through a predestined orbit, to you, to this moment, to this parting. So bear with me — and then, farewell.

To begin at the beginning (all is clear from start to finish):

Twenty years ago, when I was seventeen years old and a sophomore at Pink Rock College, I was very fond, along with many of my fellows, of talking about my “philosophy of life”. That was one of our favourite subjects of conversation, and we were most earnest about it. I’m not sure now what my “philosophy” was at that time, but I am sure I had one. Everybody had. We were deep in philosophy at Pine Rock. We juggled such formidable terms as “concepts”, “categorical imperatives”, and “moments of negation” in a way that would have made Spinoza blush.

And if I do say so, I was no slouch at it myself. At the age of seventeen I had an A-1 rating as a philosopher. “Concepts” held no terrors for my young life, and “moments of negation” were my meat. I could split a hair with the best of them. And now that I have turned to boasting, I may as well tell you that I made a One in Logic, and it was said to be the only One that had been given in that course for many a year. So when it comes to speaking of philosophy, I am, you see, a fellow who is privileged to speak.

I don’t know how it goes with students of this generation, but to those of us who were in college twenty years ago philosophy was serious business. We were always talking about “God”. In our interminable discussions we were for ever trying to get at the inner essence of “truth”, “goodness”, and “beauty”. We were full of notions about all these things. And I do not laugh at them today. We were young, we were impassioned, and we were sincere.

One of the most memorable events-of my college career occurred one day at noon when I was walking up a campus path and encountered, coming towards me, one of my classmates whose name was D. T. Jones. D. T. — sometimes known more familiarly as Delirium Tremens — was also a philosopher. And the moment I saw him approaching I knew that D. T. was in the throes. He came from a family of Primitive Baptists, and he was red-haired, gaunt, and angular, and now as he came towards me everything about him — hair, eyebrows, eyelids, eyes, freckles, even his large and bony hands — shone forth in the sunlight with an excessive and almost terrifying redness.

He was coming up from a noble wood in which we held initiations and took our Sunday strolls. It was also the sacred grove to which we resorted, alone, when we were struggling with the problems of philosophy. It was where we went when we were going through what was known as “the wilderness experience”, and it was the place from which, when “the wilderness experience” was done, we triumphantly emerged.

D. T. was emerging now. He had been there, he told me later, all night long. His “wilderness experience” had been a good one. He came bounding towards me like a kangaroo, leaping into the air at intervals, and the only words he said were:

“I’ve had a Concept!”

Then, leaving me stunned and leaning for support against an ancient tree, he passed on down the path, high-bounding every step or two, to carry the great news to the whole brotherhood.

And still I do not laugh at it. We took philosophy seriously in those days, and each of us had his own. And, together, we had our own “Philosopher”. He was a venerable and noble-hearted man — one of those great figures which almost every college had some years ago, and which I hope they still have. For half a century he had been a dominant figure in the life of the entire state. In his teaching he was a Hegelian. The process of his scholastic reasoning was intricate: it came up out of ancient Greece and followed through the whole series of “developments” down to Hegel. After Hegel — well, he did not supply the answer. But it didn’t matter, for after Hegel we had him— he was our own Old Man.

Our Philosopher’s “philosophy”, as I look back upon it, does not seem important now. It seems to have been, at best, a tortuous and patched-up scheme of other men’s ideas. But what was important was the man himself. He was a great teacher, and what he did for us, and for others before us for fifty years, was not to give us his “philosophy”— but to communicate to us his own alertness, his originality, his power to think. He was a vital force because he supplied to many of us, for the first time in our lives, the inspiration of a questioning intelligence. He taught us not to be afraid to think, to question; he taught us to examine critically the most sacrosanct of our native prejudices and superstitions. So of course, throughout the state, the bigots hated him; but his own students worshipped him to idolatry. And the seed he planted grew — long after Hegel, “concepts”, “moments of negation”, and all the rest of it had vanished into the limbo of forgotten things.

It was at about this time that I began to write. I was editor of the college newspaper, and I wrote stories and poems for our literary magazine, The Burr, of which I was also a member of the editorial staff. The war was going on then. I was too young to be in service, but my first literary attempts may be traced to the patriotic inspiration of the war. I remember one poem (my first, I believe) which was aimed directly at the luckless head of Kaiser Bill. It was called, defiantly: “The Gauntlet”, and was written in the style and meter of “The Present Crisis”, by James Russell Lowell. I remember, too, that it took a high note from the very beginning. The poet, it is said, is the prophet and the bard — the awakened tongue of all his folk. I was all of that. In the name of embattled democracy I let the Kaiser have the works. And I remember two lines in particular that seemed to me to ring out with the very voice of outraged Freedom:

“Thou hast given us the challenge — Pay, thou dog, the cost, and go!”

I remember these lines because they were the occasion of an editorial argument. The more conservative members of the magazine’s staff felt that the epithet, “thou dog”, was too strong — not that the Kaiser didn’t deserve it, but that it jarred rudely upon the high moral elevation of the poem and upon the literary quality of The Burr. Over my vigorous protest, and without regard for the meter of the line, the two words were deleted.

Another poem that I wrote that year was a cheerful one about a peasant in a Flanders field who ploughed up a skull, and then went on quietly about his work while the great guns blasted away and “the grinning skull its grisly secret kept”. I also remember a short story — my first — which was called “A Winchester of Virginia”, and was about the recreant son of an old family who recovered his courage and vindicated his tarnished honour in the charge over the top that took his life. These, so far as I can recall them, were my first creative efforts; it will be seen what an important part the last war played in them.

I mention all this merely to fix the point from which I started. This was the beginning of the road.

In recent years there have been several attempts to explain what has happened to me since that time in terms of something that happened to me in college. I believe, Fox, that I never told you about that episode. Not that I was ashamed of my part in it or was afraid to talk about it. It just never came up; in a way, I had forgotten it. But now, at this moment of our parting, I think I had better speak of it, because it is vitally important to me to make one thing clear: that I am not the victim or the embittered martyr of anything that ever happened in the past. Oh, yes, there was a time, as you well know, when I was full of bitterness. There was a time when I felt that life had betrayed me. But that preciousness is gone now, and with it has gone my bitterness. This is the simple truth.

But to get back to this episode I spoke of:

As you know, Fox, when my first book was published, feeling ran high against me at home. Then it was that an effort was made to explain what was called the “bitterness” of the book in terms of my disfranchisement when I was at college. Now, the Pine Rock case is famous in Old Catawba, but the names of its chief actors had been almost forgotten when the book appeared. Then, because I was one of them, people began to talk about the case again, and the whole horrible tragedy was exhumed.

It was recalled how five of us (and God have mercy on the souls of those others who kept silent at the time) had taken our classmate Bell out to the playing-field one night, blindfolded him, and compelled him to dance upon a barrel. It was recalled how he stumbled and toppled from the barrel, fell on a broken bottle-neck, severed his jugular, and bled to death within five minutes. It was recalled, then, how the five of us — myself and Randy Shepperton, John Brackett, Stowell Anderson, and Dick Carr — were expelled, brought up for trial, released in the custody of our parents or nearest relatives, and deprived of the rights of citizenship by legislative act.

All this was true. But the construction which people put upon it when the book appeared was false. None of us, I think, was “ruined” and “embittered”— and our later records prove that we were not. There is no doubt that the tragic consequences of our act (and of the five who suffered disfranchisement, at least three — I will not say which three — were present only in the group of onlookers) left its dark and terrible imprint on our young lives. But, as Randy whispered to me on that dreadful night, as we stood there white-faced and helpless in the moonlight, watching that poor boy as he bled to death:

“We’re not guilty of anything — except of being plain damned fools!”

That was the way we felt that night — all of us — as we knelt, sick with horror, around the figure of that dying boy. And I know that was the way Bell felt, too, for he saw the terror and remorse in our white faces and, dying though he was, he tried to smile and speak to us. The words would not come, but all of us knew that if he could have spoken he would have said that he was sorry for us — that he knew there was no evil in us — no evil but our own stupidity.

We had killed the boy — our thoughtless folly killed him — but with his dying breath that would have been his only judgment on us. And we broke the heart of Plato Grant, our Old Man, our own Philosopher; but all he said to us that night as he turned towards us from poor Bell was, quietly:

“My God, boys, what have you done?”

And that was all. Even Bell’s father said no more to us. And after the first storm had passed, the cry of outrage and indignation that went up throughout the state — that was our punishment: the knowledge of the Done inexorable, the merciless insistence in our souls of that fatal and irrevocable “Why?”

Swiftly people came to see and feel this, too. The first outburst of wrath that resulted in our disfranchisement was quickly over. Even out citizenship was quietly restored to us within three years. (As for myself, I was only eighteen when it happened, and cannot even be said to have missed a legal vote because of it.) Each of us was allowed to return to college the next year after our expulsion, and finish the full course. The sentiment of people everywhere not only softened: the verdict quickly became: “They didn’t mean to do it. They were just damned fools.” Later, by the time of our reenfranchisement, public sentiment actually became liberal in its tone of pardon. “They’ve been punished enough,” people said by then. “They were just kids — and they didn’t mean to do it. Besides”— this became an argument in our favour —“it cost a life, but it killed hazing in the state.”

As to the later record of the five — Randy Shepperton is dead now; but John Brackett, Stowell Anderson, and Dick Carr have all enjoyed a more than average measure of success in their communities. When I last saw Stowell Anderson — he is an attorney, and the political leader of his district — he told me quietly that, far from having been damaged in his career by the experience, he thought he had been helped.

“People,” he said, “are willing to forget a past mistake if they see you’re regular. They’re not only willing to forgive — on the whole, I think they’re even glad to give a helping hand.”

“If they see you’re regular!” Without commenting on the meanings of that, I think it sums up the matter in a nutshell. There has not only been no question since about the “regularity” of the other three — Brackett, Anderson, and Carr — but I think any natural tendencies they may have had towards regularity were intensified by their participation in the Pine Rock case. I believe, too, that the denunciations of my “irregularity”, following the publication of my first book, might have been even more virulent and vicious than they were had it not been for the respectable fellowship of Brackett, Anderson, and Carr.

Well, Fox, I have taken the trouble to tell you about this unrecorded incident in my life because I thought you might hear of it some time and might possibly put a strained construction on it. There were those in Libya Hill who thought it offered a reasonable and complete explanation of what had happened to me when I wrote the book. So, too, you might come to believe that it twisted and embittered me and somehow had something to do with what has happened now. With nine-tenths of your mind and heart you understand perfectly why I have to leave you, but with that remaining tenth you are still puzzled, and I can see that you will go on wondering about it. You have, from time to time, tried to reason with me about what you called, half seriously, my “radicalism”. I don’t believe there is any radicalism in me — or, if there is, it is certainly not what the word implies when you use it.

So, believe me, the Pine Rock case has nothing to do with it. It explains nothing. Rather, the natural assumption, for me as for the others who were involved in it, would be that the experience should have established me in a more staunch and regular conformity than I should otherwise have known.

You have a friend, Fox, named Hunt Conroy. You introduced me to him. He is only a few years my senior, but he is very fixed in his assertion of what he calls “The Lost Generation”— a generation of which, as you know, he has been quite vociferously a member, and in which he has tried enthusiastically to include me. Hunt and I used to argue about it.

“You belong to it, too,” he used to say grimly. “You came along at the same time. You can’t get away from it. You’re a part of it whether you want to be or not.”

To which my vulgar response was:

“Don’t you-hoo me!”

If Hunt wants to belong to The Lost Generation — and it really is astonishing with what fond eagerness some people hug the ghost of desolation to their breast — that’s his affair. But he can’t have me. If I have been elected, it was against my knowledge and my will — and I resign. I do not feel that I belong to a Lost Generation, and I have never felt so. Indeed, I doubt very much the existence of a Lost Generation, except insofar as every generation, groping, must be lost. Recently, however, it has occurred to me that if there is such a thing as a Lost Generation in this country, it is probably made up of those men of advanced middle age who still speak the language that was spoken before 1929, and who know no other. These men indubitably are lost. But I am not one of them.

Although I don’t believe, then, that I was ever part of any Lost Generation anywhere, the fact remains that, as an individual, I was lost. Perhaps that is one reason, Fox, why for so long I needed you so desperately. For I was lost, and was looking for someone older and wiser to show me the way, and I found you, and you took the place of my father who had died. In our nine years together you did help me find the way, though you could hardly have been aware just how you did it, and the road now leads off in a direction contrary to your intent. For the fact is that now I no longer feel lost, and I want to tell you why.

When I returned to Pine Rock and finished my course and graduated — I was only twenty then — I don’t suppose it would have been possible to find a more confused and baffled person than I was. I had been sent to college-to “prepare myself for life”, as the phrase went in those days, and it almost seemed that the total effect of my college training was to produce in me a state of utter unpreparedness. I had come from one of the most conservative parts of America, and from one of the most conservative elements in those parts. All of my antecedents, until a generation before, had been country people whose living had been in one way or another drawn out of the earth.

My father, John Webber, had been all of his life a working man. He had done hard labour with his hands since the time he was twelve years old. As I have often told you, he was a man of great natural ability and intelligence. But, like many other men who have been deprived of the advantages of formal education, he was ambitious for his son: he wanted more than anything else in the world to see me go to college. He died just before I was prepared to enter, but it was on the money he left me that I went. It is only natural that people like my father should endow formal education with a degree of practicality which it does not and should not posssess. College seemed to him a kind of magic door which not only opened to a man all the reserves of learning, but also admitted him to free passage along any high road to material success which he might choose to follow after he had passed through the pleasant academic groves. It was only natural, too, that such a man as my father should believe that this success could be most easily arrived at along one of the more familiar and more generally approved roads.

The road he had chosen for me before his death was a branch of engineering. He stubbornly opposed the Joyner choice, which was the law. The old man had small use for the law as a profession, and very little respect for the lawyer as a man; his usual description of lawyers was “a gang of shysters”. When I went to see him as he lay dying, his last advice to me was:

“Learn to do something, learn to make something — that’s what college should be for.”

His bitterest regret was that the poverty of his early years had prevented him from learning any skill beyond that of a carpenter and a mason. He was a good carpenter, a good mason — in his last days he liked to call himself a builder, which indeed he was — but I think he felt in himself, like a kind of dumb and inarticulate suffering, the unachieved ability to design and shape. Certainly he would have been profoundly disappointed if he could have known what strange forms his own desires for “doing” and for “making” were to achieve in me. I cannot say what extremity — law or writing — would have filled him with the most disgust.

But by the time I left college it was already apparent that whatever talents I might have, they were neither for engineering nor the law. I had not the technical ability for the one, and, in view of what I was to discover for myself in later years, I think I was too honest for the other. But what to do? My academic career, with the crowning disgrace of complicity in the Pine Rock case and temporary expulsion from college, had not been distinguished by any very glittering records in scholarship except that One in Logic. I had failed both my father and the Joyner side of the house in any ambitions they had had for me. My father was dead, and the Joyners were now done with me.

For all these reasons, it was difficult to admit, even to myself, the stirrings of an urge so fantastic and impractical as the desire to write. It would only have confirmed the worst suspicions that my people had of me — suspicions, I fear, which had begun to eat into my own opinion of myself. Consequently, the first admission I made to myself was evasive. I told myself that I wanted to go into journalism. Now, looking back at it, I can see the reason for this decision clearly enough. I doubt very much that I had, at the age of twenty, the burning enthusiasm for newspaper work which I thought I had, but I managed to convince myself of it because newspaper work would provide me with the only means I knew whereby I could, in some fashion, write, and also earn a living, and thus prove to the world and to myself that I was not wasting my time.

To have confessed openly to my family that I wanted to be a writer would have been impossible. To be a writer was, in modern phrase, “nice work if you could get it”. In the Joyner consciousness, as well as in my own, “a writer” was a very remote kind of person. He was a romantic figure like Lord Byron, or Longfellow, or — or — Irvin S. Cobb — who in some magical way was gifted with the power to put words together into poems or stories or novels which got printed in books or in the pages of magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. He was therefore, quite obviously, a very strange, mysterious sort of creature who lived a very strange, mysterious, and glittering sort of life, and who came from some strange and mysterious and glittering world very far away from the life and world we knew. For a boy who had grown up in the town of Libya Hill to assert openly that he wanted to be a writer would have seemed to everyone at that time to border on lunacy. It would have harked back to the days of Uncle Rance Joyner, who wasted his youth learning to play the violin, and who in later life borrowed fifty dollars from Uncle Mark to take a course in phrenology. I had always been told that there was a strong resemblance between myself and Uncle Rance, and now I knew that if I confessed my secret desires, everyone would have thought the likeness more pronounced than ever.

It was a painful situation, and one which is now amusing to look back on. But it was also very human — and very American. Even today I don’t think the Joyners have altogether recovered from their own astonishment at the fact that I have actually become “a writer”. This attitude, which was also my own at the age of twenty, was to shape the course of my life for years.

So, fresh from college, I took what remained of the small inheritance my father had left me, and, with an exultant sense that I had packed my secret into my suitcase along with my extra pants, I started out, boy and baggage, on the road to fame and glory. That is to say, I came to New York to look for a job on a newspaper.

I did look for the job, but not too hard, and I didn’t find it. Meanwhile I had enough money to live on and I began to write. Later, when the money ran out, I condescended to become an instructor in one of the great educational factories of the city. This was another compromise, but it had one virtue — it enabled me to live and go on writing.

During the first year in New York I shared an apartment with a group of boys, transplanted Southerners like myself, whom I had known in college. Through one of them I made the acquaintance of some artistic young fellows who were living in what I swiftly learned to call “The Village”. Here, for the first time, I was thrown into the company of sophisticated young men of my own age — at least they seemed very sophisticated to me. For instead of being like me, an uncouth yokel from the backwoods, all rough edges, who felt within himself the timid but unspoken flutterings of a desire to write, these young gentlemen had come down from Harvard, they had the easy manner of men of the world, and they casually but quite openly told me that they were writers. And so they were. They wrote, and were published, in some of the little experimental magazines which were springing up on all sides during that period. How I envied them!

They were not only able to assert openly that they were writers, but they also asserted openly that a great many other people that I had thought were writers — most dismally were not. When I made hesitant efforts to take part in the brilliant conversation that flashed around me, I began to discover that I would have to be prepared for some very rude shocks. It was decidedly disconcerting, for example, to ask one of these most superior young men, so carelessly correct in their rough tweeds and pink cheeks: “Have you ever read Gals-worthy’s Strife?”— and to have him raise his eyebrows slowly, exhale a slow column of cigarette smoke, slowly shake his head, and then say in an accent of resigned regret: “I can’t read him. I simply can’t read him. Sorry ——” with a rising inflection as if to say that it was too bad, but that it couldn’t be helped.

They were sorry about a great many things and people. The theatre was one of their most passionate concerns, but it seemed that there was hardly a dramatist writing in those days who escaped their censure. Shaw was amusing, but he was not a dramatist — he had never really learned how to write a play. O’Neill’s reputation was grossly exaggerated: his dialogue was clumsy, and his characters stock types. Barrie was insufferable on account of his sentimentality. As for Pinero and others of that ilk, their productions were already so dated that they were laughable.

In a way, this super-criticality was a very good thing for me. It taught me to be more questioning about some of the most venerated names and reputations whose authority had been handed down to me by my preceptors and accepted by me with too little thought. But the trouble with it was that I soon became involved, along with the others, in a niggling and over-refined aestheticism which was not only pallid and precious, but too detached from life to provide the substance and the inspiration for high creative work.

It is interesting to look back now and see just what it was we believed fifteen years ago — those of us who were the bright young people of the time and wanted to produce something of value in the arts. We talked a great deal about “art” and “beauty”— a great deal about “the artist”. A great deal too much, in fact. For the artist as we conceived him was a kind of aesthetic monster. Certainly he was not a living man. And if the artist is not first and foremost a living man — and by this I mean a man of life, a man who belongs to life, who is connected with it so intimately that he draws his strength from it — then what manner of man is he?

The artist we talked about was not such a man at all. Indeed, if he had any existence outside of our imagination he must have been one of the most extraordinary and inhuman freaks that nature ever created. Instead of loving life and believing in life, our “artist” hated life and fled from it. That, in fact, was the basic theme of most of the stories, plays, and novels we wrote. We were forever portraying the sensitive man of talent, the young genius, crucified by life, misunderstood and scorned of men, pilloried and driven out by the narrow bigotry and mean provincialism of the town or village, betrayed and humiliated by the cheapness of his wife, and finally crushed, silenced, torn to pieces by the organised power of the mob. So conceived, the artist that we talked about so much, instead of being in union with life, was in perpetual conflict with it. Instead of belonging to the world he lived in, he was constantly in a state of flight from it. The world itself was like a beast of prey, and the artist, like some wounded faun, was for ever trying to escape from it.

It seems to me now, as I look back on it, that the total deposit of all this was bad. It gave to young people who were deficient in the vital materials and experiences of life, and in the living contacts which the artist ought to have with life, the language and formulas of an unwholesome preciosity. It armed them with a philosophy, an aesthetic, of escapism. It tended to create in those of us who were later to become artists not only a special but a privileged character: each of us tended to think of himself as a person who was exempt from the human laws that govern other men, who was not subject to the same desires, the same feelings, the same passions — who was, in short, a kind of beautiful disease in nature, like a pearl in an oyster.

The effect of all this upon such a person as myself may easily be deduced. Now, for the first time, I was provided with a protective armour, a glittering and sophisticated defence to shield my own self-doubts, my inner misgivings, my lack of confidence in my power and ability to accomplish what I wanted to do. The result was to make me arrogantly truculent where my own desires and purposes were concerned. I began to talk the jargon just as the others did, to prate about “the artist”, and to refer scornfully and contemptuously to the bourgeoisie, the Babbitts, and the Philistines — by which all of us meant anyone who did not belong to the very small and precious province we had fashioned for ourselves.

Looking back, in an effort to see myself as I was in those days, I am afraid I was not a very friendly or agreeable young man. I was carrying a chip on my shoulder, and daring the whole world to knock it off. And the reason I so often took a high tone with people who, it seemed to me, doubted my ability to do the thing I wanted to do, was that, inwardly, I was by no means sure that I could do it myself. It was a form of whistling to keep one’s courage up.

That was the kind of man I was when you first knew me, Fox. Ah, yes, I spoke about the work I wished to do in phrases of devotion and humility, but there was not much of either in me. Inside, I was full of the disdainful scorn of the small and precious mob. I felt superior to other people and thought I belonged to a rare breed. I had not yet learned that one cannot really be superior without humility and tolerance and human understanding. I did not yet know that in order to belong to a rare and higher breed one must first develop the true power and talent of selfless immolation.

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