You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

9. The City of Lost Men

Late that afternoon George asked Margaret to go with him to the cemetery, so she borrowed Randy’s car and drove him out. On the way they stopped at a florist’s and bought some chrysanthemums, which George placed on Aunt Maw’s grave. There had been a heavy rain during the week and the new-made mound had sunk an inch or two, leaving a jagged crack round its edges.

As he laid the flowers on the damp, raw earth, suddenly it struck him as strange that he should be doing it. He was not a sentimental person, and for a moment it puzzled him that he should be making this gesture. He hadn’t planned to do it. He had simply seen the florist’s window as they drove along and, without thinking, had stopped and got the flowers, and now there they were.

Then he realised why he had done it — and why he had wanted to come back to the cemetery at all. This visit to Libya Hill, which he had dreamed about so many times as his home-coming, and which had not turned out in any way as he had thought it would be, was really his leave-taking, his farewell. The last tie that had bound him to his native earth was severed, and he was going out from here to make a life for himself as each man must — alone.

And now, once again, the dusk was falling in this place, and in the valley below the lights were beginning to come on in the town. With Margaret at his side, he stood there and looked down upon it, and she seemed to understand his feelings, for she was quiet and said nothing. Then, in a low voice, George began to speak to her. He needed to tell someone all that he had thought and felt during his week at borne. Randy was not available, and Margaret was the only one left to whom he could talk. She listened without interruption as he spoke about his book and his hopes for it, telling her as well as he could what kind of book it was, and how much he feared that the town would not like it. She pressed his arm reassuringly, and the gesture was more eloquent than any words could be.

He did not say anything about Randy and Merrit. There was no need to alarm her unduly, no sense in robbing her of that security which is so fundamental to a woman’s peace and happiness. Sufficient unto the day . . .

But he spoke at length about the town itself, telling her all that he had seen of its speculative madness, and how it had impressed him. What did the future hold for that place and its people? They were always talking of the better life that lay ahead of them and of the greater city they would build, but to George it seemed that in all such talk there was evidence of a strange and savage hunger that drove them on, and that there was a desperate quality in it, as though what they really hungered for was ruin and death. It seemed to him that they were ruined, and that even when they laughed and shouted and smote each other on the back, the knowledge of their ruin was in them.

They had squandered fabulous sums in meaningless streets and bridges. They had torn down ancient buildings and erected new ones large enough to take care of a city of half a million people. They had levelled hills and bored through mountains, making magnificent tunnels paved with double roadways and glittering with shining tiles — tunnels which leaped out on the other side into Arcadian wilderness. They had flung away the earnings of a lifetime, and mortgaged those of a generation to come. They had ruined their city, and in doing so had ruined themselves, their children, and their children’s children.

Already the town had passed from their possession. They no longer owned it. It was mortgaged under a debt of fifty million dollars, owned by bonding companies in the North. The very streets they walked on had been sold beneath their feet. They signed their names to papers calling for the payment of fabulous sums, and resold their land the next day to other madmen who signed away their lives with the same careless magnificence. On paper, their profits were enormous, but their “boom” was already over and they would not see it. They were staggering beneath obligations to pay which none of them could meet — and still they bought.

And when they had exhausted all their possibilities of ruin and extravagance that the town could offer, they had rushed out into the wilderness, into the lyrical immensities of wild earth where there was land enough for all men living, and they had staked off little plots and wedges in the hills as one might try to stake a picket fence out in the middle of the ocean. They had given fancy names to all these foolish enterprises —“Wild Boulders”—“Shady Acres”—“Eagle’s Crest”. They had set prices on these sites of forest, field, and tangled undergrowth that might have bought a mountain, and made charts and drawings showing populous communities of shops, houses, streets, roads, and clubs in regions where there was no road, no street, no house, and which could not be reached in any way save by a band of resolute pioneers armed with axes. These places were to be transformed into idyllic colonies for artists and writers and critics; and there were colonies as well for preachers, doctors, actors, dancers, golf players, and retired locomotive engineers. There were colonies for everyone, and, what is more, they sold the lots — to one another!

But under all this flash and play of great endeavour, the paucity of their designs and the starved meagreness of their lives were already apparent. The better life which they talked about resolved itself into a few sterile and baffled gestures. All they really did for themselves was to build uglier and more expensive homes, and buy new cars, and join a country club. And they did all this with a frenzied haste, because — it seemed to George — they were looking for food to feed their hunger and had not found it.

As he stood upon the hill and looked out on the scene that spread below him in the gathering darkness, with its pattern of lights to mark the streets and the creeping pin-pricks of the thronging traffic, he remembered the barren night-time streets of the town he had known so well in his boyhood. Their dreary and unpeopled desolation had burned its acid print upon his memory. Bare and deserted by ten o’clock at night, those streets had been an aching monotony, a weariness of hard lights and empty pavements, a frozen torpor broken only occasionally by the footfalls of some prowler — some desperate, famished, lonely man who hoped past hope and past belief for some haven of comfort, warmth, and love there in the wilderness, for the sudden opening of a magic door into some secret, rich, and more abundant life. There had been many such, but they had never found what they were searching for. They had been dying in the darkness — without a goal, a certain purpose, or a door.

And that, it seemed to George, was the way the thing had come. That was the way it had happened. Yes, it was there — on many a night long past and wearily accomplished, in ten thousand little towns and in ten million barren streets where all the passion, hope, and hunger of the famished men beat like a great pulse through the fields of darkness — it was there and nowhere else that all this madness had been brewed.

As he remembered the bleak, deserted streets of night which he had known here fifteen years before, he thought again of Judge Rumford Bland, whose solitary figure ranging restlessly through the sleeping town had been so familiar to him and had struck such terror in his heart. Perhaps he was the key to this whole tragedy. Perhaps Rumford Bland had sought his life in darkness not because of something evil in him — though certainly there was evil there — but because of something good that had not died. Something in the man had always fought against the dullness of provincial life, against is predudice, its caution, its smugness, its sterility, and its lack of joy. He had looked for something better in the night, for a place of warmth and fellowship, a moment of dark mystery, the thrill of imminent and unknown adventure, the excitement of the hunt, pursuit, perhaps the capture, and then the fulfilment of desire. Was it possible that in the blind man whose whole life had become such a miracle of open shamelessness, there had once been a warmth and an energy that had sought for an enhancement of the town’s cold values, and for a joy and a beauty that were not there, but that lived in himself alone? Could that be what had wrecked him? Was he one of the lost men — lost, really, only because the town itself was lost, because his gifts had been rejected, his energies unused, the shoulder of his strength finding no work to bend to — because what he had had to give of hope, intelligence, curiosity, and warmth had found no place there, and so were lost?

Yes, the same thing that explained the plight the town had come to might also explain Judge Rumford Bland. What was it he had said on the train: “Do you think you can ‘go home again?” And: “Don’t forget I tried to warn you.” Was this, then, what he had meant? If so, George understood him now.

Around them in the cemetery as George thought these things and spoke of them, the air brooded with a lazy, drowsy warmth. There was the last evening cry of robins, and the thrumming bullet noises in undergrowth and leaf, and broken sounds from far away — a voice in the wind, a boy’s shout, the barking of a dog, the tinkle of a cowbell. There was the fragrance of intoxicating odours — the resinous smell of pine, and the smells of grass and warm sweet clover. All this was just as it had always been. But the town of his childhood, with its quiet streets and the old houses which had been almost obscured below the leafy spread of trees, was changed past recognition, scarred now with hard patches of bright concrete and raw dumps of new construction. It looked like a battlefield, cratered and shell torn with savage explosions of brick, cement, and harsh new stucco-And in the interspaces only the embowered remnants of the old and pleasant town remained — timid, retreating, overwhelmed — to remind one of the liquid leather shuffle in the quiet streets at noon when the men came home to lunch, and of laughter and low voices in the leafy rustle of the night. For this was lost!

An old and tragic light was shining faintly on the time-enchanted hills. George thought of Mrs. Delia Flood, and what she had said of Aunt Maw’s hope that some day he’d come home again to stay.. And as he stood there with Margaret quietly by his side the old and tragic light of fading day shone faintly on their faces, and all at once it seemed to him that they were fixed there like a prophecy with the hills and river all round them, and that there was something lost, intolerable, foretold and come to pass, something like old time and destiny — some magic that he could not say.

Down by the river’s edge, in darkness now, he heard the bell, the whistle, and the pounding wheel of the night express coming into town, there to pause for half an hour and then resume its northward journey. It swept away from them, leaving the lonely thunder of its echoes in the hills and the flame-flare of its open firebox for a moment, and then just heavy wheels and rumbling cars as the great train pounded on the rails across the river — and, finally, nothing but the silence it had left behind. Then, farther off and almost lost in the traffic of the town, he heard again and for the last time its wailing cry, and it brought to him once more, as it had done for ever in his childhood, its wild and secret exultation, its pain of going, and its triumphant promise of morning, new lands, and a shining city. And something in his heart was saying, like a demon’s whisper that spoke of flight and darkness: “Soon! Soon! Soon!”

Then they got in the car and drove rapidly away from the great hill of the dead, the woman towards the certitude of lights, the people, and the town; the man towards the train, the city, and the unknown future.

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