You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

22. A Question of Guilt

Throughout George Webber’s boyhood in the little town of Libya Hill, when the great vision of the city burned for ever in his brain, he had been athirst for glory and had wanted very much to be a famous man. That desire had never changed, except to become stronger as he grew older, until now he wanted it more than ever. Yet, of the world of letters in which he dreamed of cutting a great figure, he knew almost nothing. He was now about to find out a few things that were to rob his ignorance of its bliss.

His novel, Home to Our Mountains, was published the first week in November 1929. The date, through the kind of accidental happening which so often affects the course of human events, and which, when looked back on later, seems to have been attended by an element of fatality, coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the Great American Depression.

The collapse of the Stock Market, which had begun in late October, was in some ways like the fall of a gigantic boulder into the still waters of a lake. The suddenness of it sent waves of desperate fear moving in ever-widening circles throughout America. Millions of people in the far-off hamlets, towns, and cities did not know what to make of it. Would its effects touch them? They hoped not. And the waters of the lake closed over the fallen boulder, and for a while most Americans went about their day’s work just as usual.

But the waves of fear had touched them, and life was not quite the same. Security was gone, and there was a sense of dread and ominous foreboding in the air. It was into this atmosphere of false calm and desperate anxiety that Webber’s book was launched.

It is no part of the purpose of this narrative to attempt to estimate the merits or deficiences of Home to Our Mountains. It need only be said here that it was a young man’s first book, and that it had a good many of the faults and virtues of the kind of thing it was. Webber had done what so many beginning writers do: he had written it out of the experience of his own life. And that got him into a lot of trouble.

He was to become convinced as he grew older that if one wants to write a book that has any interest or any value whatever, he has got to write it out of the experience of life. A writer, like everybody else must use what he has to use. He can’t use something that he hasn’t got. If he tries to — and many writers have tried it — what he writes is no good. Everybody knows that.

So Webber had drawn upon the experience of his own life. He had written about his home town, about his family and the people he had known there. And he, had done it in a manner of naked directness and reality that was rather rare in books. That was really what caused the trouble.

Every author’s first book is important. It means the world to him. Perhaps he thinks that what he has done has never been done before. Webber thought so. And in a way he was right. He was still very much under the influence of James Joyce, and what he had written was a Ulysses kind of book. People at home, whose good opinion he coveted more than that of all the rest of the world combined, were bewildered and overwhelmed by it. They, of course, had not read Ulysses. And Webber had not read people. He thought he had, he thought he knew what they were like, but he really didn’t. He hadn’t learned what a difference there is between living with them and writing about them.

A man learns a great deal about life from writing and publishing a book. When Webber wrote his, he had ripped off a mask that his home town had always worn, but he had not quite understood that he was doing it. Only after it was printed and published did he fully realise the fact. All he had meant and hoped to do was to tell the truth about life as he had known it. But no sooner was the thing done — the proofs corrected, the pages printed beyond recall — than he knew that he had not told the truth. Telling the truth is a pretty hard thing. And in a young man’s first attempt, with the distortions of his vanity, egotism, hot passion, and lacerated pride, it is almost impossible. Home to Our Mountains was marred by all these faults and imperfections. Webber knew this better than anybody else, and long before any reader had a chance to tell him so. He did not know whether he had written a great book — sometimes he thought he had, or at least that there were elements of greatness in it. He did know that it was not altogether a true book. Still, there was truth in it. And this was what people were afraid of. This was what made them mad.

As the publication day drew near, Webber felt some apprehension about the reception of his novel in Libya Hill. Ever since his trip home in September he had had a heightened sense of uneasiness and anxiety. He had seen the boom-mad town tottering on the brink of ruin. He had read in the eyes of people on the streets the fear and guilty knowledge of the calamity that impended and that they were still refusing to admit even to themselves. He knew that they were clinging desperately to the illusion of their paper riches, and that madness such as this was unprepared to face reality and truth in any degree whatever.

But even if he had been unaware of these special circumstances of the moment, he would still have had some premonitory consciousness that he was in for something. For he was a Southerner, and he knew that there was something wounded in the South. He knew that there was something twisted, dark, and full of pain which Southerners have known with all their lives — something rooted in their souls beyond all contradiction, about which no one had dared to write, of which no one had ever spoken.

Perhaps it came from their old war, and from the ruin of their great defeat and its degraded aftermath. Perhaps it came from causes yet more ancient — from the evil of man’s slavery, and the hurt and shame of human conscience in its struggle with the fierce desire to own. It came, too, perhaps, from the lusts of the hot South, tormented and repressed below the harsh and outward patterns of a bigot and intolerant theology, yet prowling always, stirring stealthily, as hushed and secret as the thickets of swamp-darkness. And most of all, perhaps, it came out of the very weather of their lives, out of the forms that shaped them and the food that fed them, out of the unknown terrors of the skies above them, out of the dark, mysterious pineland all round them with its haunting sorrow.

Wherever it came from, it was there — and Webber knew it.

But it was not only in the South that America was hurt. There was another deeper, darker, and more nameless wound throughout the land. What was it? Was it in the record of corrupt officials and polluted governments, administrations twisted to the core, the huge excess of privilege and graft, protected criminals and gangster rule, the democratic forms all rotten and putrescent with disease? Was it in “puritanism”— that great, vague name: whatever it may be? Was it in the bloated surfeits of monopoly, and the crimes of wealth against the worker’s life? Yes, it was in all of these, and in the daily tolling of the murdered men, the lurid renderings of promiscuous and casual slaughter everywhere throughout the land, and in the pious hypocrisy of the Press with its swift-forgotten prayers for our improvement, the editorial moaning while the front page gloats.

But it is not only at these outward forms that we must look to find the evidence of a nation’s hurt. We must look as well at the heart of guilt that beats in each of us, for there the cause lies. We must look, and with our own eyes see, the central core of defeat and shame and failure which we have wrought in the lives of even the least of these, our brothers. And why must we look? Because we must probe to the bottom of our collective wound. As men, as Americans, we can no longer cringe away and lie. Are we not all warmed by the same sun, frozen by the same cold, shone on by the same lights of time and terror here in America? Yes, and if we do not look and see it, we shall be all damned together.

So George Webber had written a book in which he had tried, with only partial success, to tell the truth about the little segment of life that he had seen and known. And now he was worried about what the people back in his home town would think of it. He thought a few of them would “read it”. He was afraid there would be “talk”. He supposed that there might even be a protest here and there, and he tried to prepare himself for it. But when it came, it went so far beyond anything he had feared might happen that it caught him wholly unawares and almost floored him. He had felt, but had not known before, how naked we are here in America.

It was a time when the better-known gentlemen and lady authors of the South were writing polished bits of whimsey about some dear Land of Far Cockaigne, or ironic little comedies about the gentle relics of the Old Tradition in the South, or fanciful bits about Negro mongrels along the Battery in Charleston, or, if passion was in the air, amusing and light-hearted tales about the romantic adulteries of dusky brethren and their “high-yaller gals” on a plantation somewhere. There wasn’t much honesty or essential reality in these books, and the people who wrote them had not made much effort to face the facts in the life round them. One wrote about Cockaigne because it was far enough away to be safe; and if one wanted to write about adultery, or about crime and punishment of any sort, it was a good deal safer to let it happen to a group of darkies than to the kind of people one had to live with every day.

Home to Our Mountains was a novel that did not fit into any of these standardised patterns. It didn’t seem to have much pattern at all. The people of Libya Hill hardly knew what to make of it at first. Then they recognised themselves in it. From that point on, they began to live it all over again. People who had never bought a book before bought this one. Libya Hill alone bought two thousand copies of it. It stunned them, it overwhelmed them, and in the end it made them fight.

For George Webber had used the scalpel in a way that that section of the country was not accustomed to. His book took the hide off of the whole community, and as a result of this it also took the hide off of George Webber.

In Libya Hill, a day or two before the publication of the book, Margaret Shepperton met Harley McNabb on the street. They exchanged greetings and stopped to talk.

“Have you seen the book?” he said.

“Yes, George sent me an advance copy,” she answered, beaming at him, “and he signed it for me, too. But I haven’t read it. It just came this morning. Have you seen it?”

“Yes,” he said. “We have a review copy in the office.”

“What do you think of it?” She looked at him with the expression of a large and earnest woman who lets herself be governed considerably by the opinion of those round her mean —“now you’ve been to college, Harley,” she began jestingly, but also rather eagerly. “It may be deep stuff to me — but you ought to know — you’re educated — you ought to be a judge about these things. What I mean is, do you think it’s good?”

He was silent for a moment, his lean hand fingering the bowl of his blackened briar, on which he puffed thoughtfully. Then:

“Margaret,” he said, “it’s pretty rough . . . Now don’t get excited,” he added quickly as he saw her large face contract with anxiety and concern. “No use getting excited about it — but”— he paused, puffing on his pipe, his eyes staring off into vacancy —“there — there are some pretty rough things in it. It’s — it’s pretty frank, Margaret.”

She felt the gathering in her of sharp tensions, a white terror, personal, immediate, as she said almost hoarsely:

“About me? About me, Harley? Is that what you mean? Are there things in it — about me?” Her face was tortured now, and she felt an indescribable sense of fear and guilt.

“Not only about you,” he said. “About — well, Margaret, about everybody — about a lot of people here in town . . . You’ve known him all your life, haven’t you? You see — well — he’s put in everybody he ever knew. Some of it is going to be pretty hard to take.”

For a moment, in a phrase she was fond of using, she “went all to pieces”. She began to talk wildly, incoherently, her large features contorted under the strain:

“Well, now, I’m sure I don’t know what he’s got to say about me! . . . Well, now, if anyone feels that way —” without knowing how anyone felt. “What I mean to say is, I certainly don’t feel that I’ve got anything to be ashamed of . . . You know me, Harley,” she went on eagerly, almost beseechingly, “I’m known in this town — I’ve got friends here — everybody knows me . . . Well, I certainly have nothing to conceal.”

“I know you haven’t, Margaret,” he said. “Only — well, there’s going to be talk.”

She felt emptied out, hollow, her knees were weak. His words had almost knocked her over. If he said it, it must be so, even though she did not yet understand what it was he had said. She only knew that she was in the book, and that Harley didn’t like it; and his opinion stood for something, for a great deal, in her own eyes and in the eyes of the whole town. He represented what her mind called, somewhat vaguely, “the high-brow element”. He had always been “a fine man”. He stood for truth, for culture, for learning, and for high integrity. So she looked at him with her bewildered face and stricken eyes, and, just as a young soldier, with his entrails shot out in his hands, speaks to the commander of his life, saying in his deadly fear and peril: “Is it bad, General? Do you think it’s bad?”— so now she said hoarsely to the editor, hanging on his words:

“Harley, do you think it’s bad?”

He looked away again into blue vacancy and puffed gravely on his pipe before he answered:

“It’s pretty bad, Margaret . . . But don’t worry. We’ll see what happens.”

Then he was gone, leaving her alone there, bleakly staring at the pavement of the small, familiar street. Unseen motes of the familiar life swept round her, the pale light of the sun fell on her, and she remained there staring with gaunt face. How much time went by she did not know, but all at once ——

“0 Margaret!”

At the lush voice, sugared with the honey of its owner’s sweetness, she turned, blindly smiling, and stiffly blurted out a word of greeting.

“Aren’t you just so proud of him? He always liked you better than anybody else! Aren’t you simply thrilled to death?” The voice rose to a honeyed lilt, and in the pale light the face was now shaped into the doelike contours of a china doll. “I’ll declayah! I’m so thrilled! I know you must be walkin’ on ayah! Why, I just cain’t wait! I’m just dyin’ to read it! I know that you’re the proudest thing that evah lived!”

Margaret stammered out something through stiff, smiling lips, and then was left alone again, her big gaunt face strained into vacancy. She went about the business that had brought her to town. She went through the motions automatically. And all the while she was thinking:

“So, he’s written about us! That’s what it is!” Her mind rushed furiously on through a chaos of unresolved emotions. “Well, I’m sure I don’t know what it’s all about, but there’s one thing certain —my conscience is clear. If anyone thinks they’ve got anything on me, they’re very much mistaken . . . Now, if he wants to criticise me”— in her mind the word implied a derogatory appraisal of a person’s life and conduct —“why he can go right ahead. I’ve lived all my life in this town, and everybody knows — no matter what anybody says — that I’ve never done anything immoral.” By this word she meant solely and simply a deviation from the standards of sexual chastity. “Now I’m sure I don’t know what Harley meant by its being hard to take and people will talk, but I know I’ve got nothing to be ashamed about . . . ”

Her mind was full of frantic questions. A hundred apprehensions, fears, and terrors swept through her. But through it all there were shafts of stubborn strength and loyalty:

“Whatever it’s about, I know there can’t be any harm in it. We’ve all done things we’re sorry for, but we’re not bad people, any of us. No one I know is really very bad. He couldn’t harm us if he wanted to. And,” she added, “he wouldn’t want to.”

To her brother, Randy, when he came home that night, she said:

“Well, we’re in for it! . . . I saw Harley McNabb on the street and he said the book is pretty bad . . . Now, I don’t know what he said about you— Ho! Ho! Ho! — but my conscience is clear!”

Randy followed her back to the kitchen and they talked about it long and earnestly while Margaret cooked supper. They were both puzzled and bewildered by what McNabb had said. Neither of them had yet read the book, so they searched their memories for all sorts of things that might be in it, but they couldn’t imagine what it was. Supper was late that night, and when Margaret brought it to the table it was burned.

Three weeks later, in New York, George sat in the back room of his dismal flat on Twelfth Street, reading his morning mail. He had always wanted letters. Now he had them. It seemed to him that all the letters he had been waiting for all his life, all the letters he had longed for, all the letters that had never come, had now descended in a flood.

He remembered all the years, all the weary and unnumbered days and hours of waiting, after he had first left home for college. He remembered that first year away from home, his freshman year, and how it seemed to him that he was always waiting for a letter that never came. He remembered how the students gathered for their mail twice a day, at noon and then again at night when they had finished dinner. He remembered the dingy little post office on the main street of the little college town, and the swarm of students shuffling in and out — the whole street dense with them, the dingy little post office packed with them, opening their boxes, taking out their mail, milling round the delivery window.

Everyone, it seemed, got letters except himself.

Here were boys packed in the corners, leaning against the walls, propped up against trees, squatted on steps and porch rails and the verandas of fraternity houses, walking oblivious across the village street — all immersed, all reading, all buried in their letters. Here was the boy who had only one girl and wanted no one but the girl he had, who had wormed himself away into a corner, just out of contact with that noisy and good-natured crowd, where he read slowly, carefully, word for word, the letter that she wrote him every day. Here was another lad, a sleek and handsome youth, one of the Casanovas of the campus, walking along and skimming the contents of a dozen scented epistles, shuffling through the pages and responding with a touch of complaisant satisfaction to the gibes of his fellows over his latest conquest. Here were boys reading letters from their friends, from boys in other colleges, from older brothers and from younger sisters, from fathers, mothers, and from favourite aunts and uncles. From all these people these boys received the tokens of friendship, kinship, fellowship, and love — the emotions that give a man his place, that secure him in the confident, brave knowledge of his home, that wall his soul about with comfort, and that keep him from the desolation of an utter nakedness, from the dreadful sense of his atomic nullity in the roofless openness of life.

It seemed to him that everyone had this, except himself.

And, later, he remembered his first years in the city, his years of wandering, his first years of living utterly alone. Here, too, even more than in his college days, it seemed to him that he was always waiting for a letter that never came. That was the time when he had eaten out his heart at night in the cell-like privacy of little rooms. That was the time when he had beaten his knuckles raw and bloody at the walls that hemmed him in. That was the time — and it was ten thousand times of longing, disappointment, bitter grief, and loneliness — when his unresting mind had written to himself the letters that never came. Letters from the noble, loyal, and gracious people he had never known. Letters from the heroic and great-hearted friends that he had never had. Letters from the faithful kinsmen, neighbours, schoolmates who had all forgotten him.

Well, he had them now — all of them — and he had not foreseen it.

He sat there in his room and read them, numb in the city’s roar. Two shafts of light sank through the windows to the floor. Outside, the cat crept trembling at his merciless stride along the ridges of the back-yard fence.

Anonymous, in pencil, on a sheet of ruled tablet paper:

“Well author old lady Flood went away to Florida yestiddy after a so-called litterary book arrived from a so-called author that she thought she knew. Oh God how can you have this crime upon your soal. I left your pore dere aunt Maggie lying on her back in bed white as a sheet where she will never rise again where you have put her with your murder pen. Your dere friend Margaret Shepperton who was always like a sister to you is ruined and disgraced for life you have made her out no better than a wanton woman. You have murdered and disgraced your friends never come back here you are the same as dead to all of us we never want to see your face again. I never believed in linch law but if I saw a mob drag that monkeyfied karkus of yours across the Public Square I would not say a word. How can you sleep at night with this crime upon your soal. Destroy this vile and dirty book at once let no more copies be published the crime that you have done is worse than Cain.”

On a postcard, sealed in an envelope:

“We’ll kill you if you ever come back here. You know who.”

From an old friend:

“My dear boy,

“What is there to say? It has come, it is here, it has happened — and now I can only say, as that good woman who brought you up and now lies dead and buried on the hill would have said: ‘0 God! If I had only known!’ For weeks I have waited for nothing else except the moment when your book should come and I should have it in my hands. Well, it has come now. And what is there to say?

“You have crucified your family in a way that would make the agony of Christ upon the Cross seem light in the comparison. You have laid waste the lives of your kinsmen, and of dozens of your friends, and to us who loved you like our own you have driven a dagger to the heart, and twisted it, and left it fixed there where it must always stay.”

From a sly and hearty fellow who thought he understood:

“ . . . if I had known you were going to write this kind of book, I could have told you lots of things. Why didn’t you come to me? I know dirt about the people in this town you never dreamed of.”

Letters like this last one hurt him worst of all. They were the ones that made him most doubt his purpose and accomplishment. What did such people think he had been trying to write — nothing but an encyclopaedia of pornography, a kind of prurient excavation of every buried skeleton in town? He saw that his book had unreefed whole shoals of unsuspected bitterness and malice in the town and set evil tongues to wagging. The people he had drawn upon to make the characters in his book writhed like hooked fish on a line, and the others licked their lips to see them squirm.

Those who were the victims of all this unleashed malice now struck back, almost to a man, at the hapless author — at him whom they considered to be the sole cause of their woe. Day after day their letters came, and with a perverse satisfaction in his own suffering, a desire to take upon himself now all the searing shame that he had so naively and so unwittingly brought to others, he read and reread every bitter word of every bitter letter, and his senses and his heart were numb.

They said at first that he was a monster against life, that he had fouled his own nest. Then they said he had turned against the South, his mother, and spat upon her and defiled her. Then they levelled against him the most withering charge they could think of, and said he was “not Southern”. Some of them even began to say that he was “not American”. This was really rather hard on him, George thought with a wry, grim humour, for if he was not American, he was not anything at all.

And during those nightmarish first weeks following the publication of his book, only two rays of warmth and comforting assurance came to him from anyone he knew.

One was a letter from Randy Shepperton. As a boy, and later as a student at college, Randy had possessed a spirit that always burned with the quick, pure flame of a Mercutio. And now, in spite of what life had done to him — the evidence of which George had seen in his troubled eyes and deeply furrowed face — his letter showed that he was still essentially the same old Randy. What he wrote was full of understanding about the book; he saw its purpose clearly, and he gave, George thought, a shrewd appraisal of its accomplishment and its weaknesses; and he ended with a generous burst of pride and honest pleasure in the thing itself. Not a word about personalities, not a breath of all the gossip in the town, not even a hint that he had recognised himself among the portraits George had drawn.

The other ray of comfort was of quite another kind. One day the telephone rang, and it was Nebraska Crane howling his friendship over the wire:

“Hi, there, Monkus! That you? How you makin’ out, boy?”

“Oh, all right, I guess,” George answered, in a tone of resignation which he could not conceal even in the pleasure that he felt at hearing the hearty ring of the familiar voice.

“You sound sorta down in the mouth,” said Nebraska, full of immediate concern. “What’s the matter? Ain’t nothin’ wrong with you, is there?”

“Oh, no. No. It’s nothing. Forget it.” Then, shaking off the mood that had been with him for days, he began to respond with something of the warmth he felt for his old friend. “God, I’m glad to hear from you, Bras! I can’t tell you how glad I am! How are you, Bras?”

“Oh, cain’t complain,” he shouted lustily. “I think maybe they’re gonna give me a contrack for one more year. Looks like it, anyways. If they do, we’ll be all set.”

“That’s swell, Bras! That’s wonderful! . . . And how is Myrtle?”

“Fine! Fine! . . . Say”— he howled —“she’s here now! She’s the one put me up to callin’ you. I never woulda thought of it. You know me! . . . We been readin’ all about you — about that book you wrote. Myrtle’s been tellin’ me about it. She’s cut out all the pieces from the papers . . . That sure went over big, didn’t it?”

“It’s doing pretty well, I suppose,” said George without enthusiasm. “It seems to be selling all right, if that’s what you mean.”

“Well, now, I knowed it!” said Nebraska. “Me an’ Myrtle bought a copy . . . I ain’t read it yet,” he added apologetically.

“You don’t have to.”

“I’m goin’ to, I’m goin’ to,” he howled vigorously. “Just as soon as I git time.”

“You’re a damned liar!” George said good-naturedly. “You know you never will!”

“Why, I will!” Nebraska solemnly declared. “I’m just waitin’ till I git a chance to settle down . . . Boy, you shore do write ’em long, don’t you?”

“Yes, it is pretty long.”

“Longest darn book I ever seen!” Nebraska yelled enthusiastically. “Makes me tard just to tote it roun’!”

“Well, it made me tired to write it.”

“Dogged if I don’t believe you! I don’t see how you ever thought up all them words . . . But I’m gonna read it! . . . Some of the boys on the Club know about it already. Jeffertz was talkin’ to me about it the other day.”


“Jeffertz — Matt Jeffertz, the ketcher.”

“Has he read it?”

“Naw, he ain’t read it yet, but his wife has. She’s a big book-reader an’ she knows all about you. They knowed I knowed you, an’ that’s how come he tells me —”

“Tells you what?” George broke in with a feeling of sudden panic.

“Why, that you got me in there!” he yelled. “Is that right!” George reddened and began to stammer:

“Well, Bras, you see ——”

“Well, that’s what Matt’s wife said!” Nebraska shouted at the top of his lungs, without waiting for an answer. “Said I’m in there so’s anyone would know me! . . . What’d you say about me, Monk? You sure it’s me?”

“Well — you see, now, Bras — it was like this ——”

“What’s eatin’ on you, boy? It is me, ain’t it? . . . Well, what d’you know?” he yelled with evident amazement and delight. “Ole Bras right there in the book!” His voice grew low and more excited as, evidently turning to Myrtle, he said: “It’s me, all right!” Then, to George again: “Say, Monk”— solemnly —“you shore do make me feel mighty proud! That’s what I called you up to tell you.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02