You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

34. The Two Visitors

Ever since George entered the room he had been wondering about the presence of McHarg’s two strangely assorted visitors. Anyone could see at a glance that Bendien and Stoat were not clever men, not men of the spirit, and that neither possessed any qualities of intellect or of perception that could interest a person like Lloyd McHarg. What, then, were they doing here in this simulation of boon companionship so early in the morning?

Mynheer Bendien was obviously just a business man, a kind of Dutch Babbitt. He was, indeed, a hard-bargaining, shrewd importer who plied a constant traffrc between England and Holland, and was intimately familiar with the markets and business practices of both countries. His occupation had left its mark upon him, that same mark which is revealed in a coarsening of perception and a blunting of sensitivity among people of his kind the world over.

As George observed the signs that betrayed what Bendien was beyond any mistaking, he felt confirmed in an opinion that had been growing on him of late. He had begun to see that the true races of mankind are not at all what we are told in youth that they are. They are not defined either by national frontiers or by the characteristics assigned to them by the subtle investigations of anthropologists. More and more George was coming to believe that the real divisions of humanity cut across these barriers and arise out of differences in the very souls of men.

George had first had his attention called to this phenomenon by an observation of H. L. Mencken. In his extraordinary work on the American language, Mencken gave an example of the American sporting writers’ jargon —“Babe Smacks Forty-second with Bases Loaded”— and pointed out that such a headline would be as completely meaningless to an Oxford don as the dialect of some newly discovered tribe of Eskimos. True enough; but what shocked George to attention when he read it was that Mencken drew the wrong inference from his fact. The headline would be meaningless to the Oxford don, not because it was written in the American language, but because the Oxford don had no knowledge of baseball. The same headline might be just as meaningless to a Harvard professor, and for the same reason.

It seemed to George that the Oxford don and the Harvard professor had far more kinship with each other — a far greater understanding of each other’s ways of thinking, feeling, and living — than either would have with millions of people of his own nationality. This observation led George to realise that academic life has created its own race of men who are set apart from the rest of humanity by the affinity of their souls. This academic race, it seemed to him, had innumerable peculiar characteristics of its own, among them the fact that, like the sporting gentry, they had invented their own private languages for communication with one another. The internationalism of science was another characteristic: there is no such thing as English chemistry or American physics or (Stalin to the contrary notwithstanding) Russian biology, but only chemistry, physics and biology. So, too, it follows that one tells a good deal more about a man when one says he is a chemist than when one says he is an Englishman.

In the same way, Babe Ruth would probably feel more closely akin to the English professional cricketer, Jack Hobbs, than to a professor of Greek at Princeton. This would be true also among prize-fighters. George thought of that whole world that is so complete within itself — the fighters, the trainers, the managers, the promoters, the touts, the pimps, the gamblers, the grafters, the hangers-on, the newspaper “experts” in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, and Buenos Aires. These men were not really Americans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, and Argentines. They were simply citizens of the world of prize-fighting, more at home with one another than with other men of their respective nations.

Throughout all the years of his life, George Webber had been soaking up experience like a sponge. This process never ceased with him, but within the last few years he had noticed a change in it. Formerly, in his insatiable hunger to know everything — to see all the faces in a crowd at once, to remember every face that passed him on a city street, to hear all the voices in a room and through the vast, perplexing blur to distinguish what each was saying — he had often felt that he was drowning in some vast sea of his own sensations and impressions. But now he was no longer so overwhelmed by Amount and Number. He was growing up, and out of the very accumulation of experience he was gaining an essential perspective and detachment. Each new sensation and impression was no longer a single, unrelated thing: it took its place in a pattern and sifted down to form certain observable cycles of experience. Thus his incessantly active mind was free to a much greater degree than ever before to remember, digest, meditate, and compare, and to seek relations between all the phenomena of living. The result was an astonishing series of discoveries as his mind noted associations and resemblances, and made recognitions not only of surface similarities but of identities of concept and of essence.

In this way he had become aware of the world of waiters, who, more than any other class of men, seemed to him to have created a special universe of their own which had almost obliterated nationality and race in the ordinary sense of those words. For some reason George had always been especially interested in waiters. Possibly it was because his own beginnings had been small-town middle class, and because he had been accustomed from birth to the friendship of working people, and because the experience of being served at table by a man in uniform had been one of such sensational novelty that its freshness had never worn off. Whatever the reason, he had known hundreds of waiters in many different countries, had talked to them for hours at a time, had observed them intimately, and had gathered tremendous stores of knowledge about their lives — and out of all this had discovered that there are not really different nationalities of waiters but rather a separate race of waiters, whole and complete within itself. This seemed to be true even among the French, the most sharply defined, the most provincial, and the most unadaptive nationality George had ever known. It surprised him to observe that even in France the waiters seemed to belong to the race of waiters rather than to the race of Frenchmen.

This universe of waiterdom has produced a type whose character is as precisely distinguished as that of the Mongolian. It has a spiritual identity that unites it as no mere feelings of patriotism could ever do. And this spiritual identity — a unity of thought, of purpose, and of conduct — has produced unmistakable physical characteristics. After George became aware of this, he got so that he could recognise a waiter no matter where he saw him, whether in the New York subway or on a Paris bus or in the streets of London. He tested his observation many times by accosting men he suspected of being waiters and engaging them in conversation, and nine times out of ten he found that his guess had been right. Something in the feet and legs gave them away, something in the way they moved and walked and stood. It was not merely that these men had spent most of their lives standing on their feet and hurrying from kitchen to table in the execution of their orders. Other classes of men, such as policemen, also lived upon their feet, and yet no one could mistake a policeman in mufti for a waiter. (The police of all countries, George discovered, formed another separate race.)

The gait of an old waiter can best be described as gingery. It is a kind of gouty shuffle, painful, rheumatic, and yet expertly nimble, too, as if the man has learned by every process of experience to save his feet. It is the nimbleness that comes from years of “Yes, sir. Right away, sir,” or of “Oui, monsieur. Je viens. Toute de suite.” It is the gait of service, of despatch, of incessant haste to be about one’s orders, and somehow the whole soul and mind and character of the waiter is in it.

If one wishes an instant insight into the emotional and spiritual differences between the race of waiters and the race of policemen, all one needs to do is to observe the gaits of each. Compare a waiter as he approaches a table at the peremptory command of an impatient customer, and a policeman, whether in New York, London, Paris, or Berlin, as he approaches the scene of a disorder or accident. A man is lying stretched out on the pavement, let us say: he has had a heart attack, or has been struck by a motor-car, or has been assaulted and beaten by thugs. People are standing round in a circle. Watch the policeman as he comes up. Does he hurry? Does he rush to the scene? Does he come forward with the quick, shuffling, eager, and solicitous movement of the waiter? He does not. He advances deliberately, ponderously, with a heavy and flat-footed tread, taking the scene in slowly as he approaches, with an appraising and unrelenting look. He is coming not to take orders but to give them. He is coming to assume command of the situation, to investigate, to disperse the crowd, to do the talking, and not to be talked to. His whole bearing expresses a certain primitive brutality of vested authority, as well as all the other related mental and spiritual qualities that proceed from the exercise of licensed power. And in all these things which issue from his own peculiar vision of life and of the world, he is almost the exact reverse of the waiter.

Since this is true, can anyone doubt that waiters and policemen belong to separate races? Does it not follow that a French waiter is more closely akin to a German waiter than to a French gendarme?

Mynheer Bendien had attracted George’s interest from the first. It was not merely that he was Dutch. That fact was unmistakable. He had a Halsian floridity, a Halsian heartiness and gusto, a Halsian heaviness — a kind of Dutch grossness that is quite different from German grossness in that it is mixed with a certain delicacy, or rather smallness. This delicacy or smallness is most often evident in the expression and shape of the mouth. So, now, with Mynheer Bendien. His lip was full and pouting, but also a little prim and smug. It was the characteristic Dutch lip — the lip of a small and cautious people, with a very good notion about which side their bread is buttered on. In any town throughout Holland one can see them behind the shuttered windows of their beautiful and delicate houses — see them quietly and privily enjoying the very best of everything and smacking those full, pouting, sensual little lips together.

Holland is a wonderful little country, and the Dutch are a wonderful little people. Just the same it is a little country, they are a little people, and George did not like little countries or little people. For in the look of those little, fat, wet, pouting mouths there is also something cautious and self-satisfied, something that kept nicely out of war in 1914 while its neighbours were bleeding to death, something that feathered its nest and fattened its purse at the expense of dying men, something that maintained itself beautifully clean, beautifully prim, and beautifully content to live very quietly and simply in those charming, beautiful houses, without any show or fuss whatever upon the best of everything.

In all these respects Mynheer Bendien was indubitably Dutch. But he was also something else as well, and this was what made George observe him with fascinated interest. For, alongside his Dutchness, he also wore that type look which George had come to recognise as belonging to the race of small business men. It was a look which he had discovered to be common to all members of this race whether they lived in Holland, England, Germany, France, the United States, Sweden, or Japan. There was a hardness and grasping quality in it that showed in the prognathous jaw. There was something a little sly and tricky about the eyes, something a little amoral in the sleekness of the flesh, something about the slightly dry concavity of the face and its vacuous expression in repose which indicated a grasping self-interest and a limited intellectual life. It was the kind of face that is often thought of as American. But it was not American. It belonged to no nationality. It belonged simply and solely to the race of small business men everywhere.

He was obviously the kind of man who would have found an instant and congenial place for himself among his fellow business men in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, or Kalamazoo. He would have felt completely at home at one of the weekly luncheons of the Rotary Club. He would have chewed his cigar with the best of them, wagged his head approvingly as the president spoke of some member as having “both feet on the ground”, entered gleefully into all the horseplay, the heavy-handed kind of humour known as “kidding”, and joined in the roars of laughter that greeted such master-strokes of wit as collecting all the straw hats in the cloak-room, bringing them in, throwing them on the floor, and gleefully stamping them to pieces. He would also have nodded his red face in bland agreement as the speaker aired again all the quackery about “service”, “the aims of Rotary”, and its “plans for world peace”.

George could easily imagine Mynheer Bendien pounding across the continental breadth of the United States in one of the crack trains, striking up a conversation with other men of substance in the smoking room of the pullman car, pulling fat cigars from his pocket and offering them to his new-found companions, chewing on his own approvingly and nodding with ponderous affirmation as someone said: “I was talking to a man in Cleveland the other day, one of the biggest glue and mucilage producers in the country, a fellow who has learned his business from the ground up and knows what he’s talking about ——” Yes, Mynheer Bendien would have recognised his brother, his kinsman, his twin spirit wherever he found him,, and would instantly have established a connection and a footing of proper familiarity with him, as McHarg and Webber could never have done, even though the stranger might be an American like themselves.

George knew McHarg’s antipathy for this kind of man. It was an antipathy which he had savagely expressed in swingeing and satiric fiction — an antipathy which, George had felt, had a quality of almost affectionate concern in its hatred, but which was hatred nonetheless. Why, then, had McHarg invited this man to his room? Why had he sought out his companionship?

The reason became plain enough as he thought about it. Although McHarg and Webber could never belong to Bendien’s world, there was something of Bendien in both of them — more in McHarg, perhaps, than in himself. Though they belonged to separate worlds, there was still another world to which each of them could find a common entry. This was the world of natural humanity, the world of the earthly, eating, drinking, companionable, and company-loving man. Every artist feels the need of this world desperately. His nature is often torn between opposing poles of loneliness and gregariousness. Isolation he must have to do his work. But fellowship is also a necessity without which he is lost, since the lack of it removes him from all the naturalness of life which he demands more than any other man alive, and which he must share in if he is to grow and prosper in his art. But his need for companionship often betrays him through its very urgency. His hunger and thirst for life often lay him open to the stupidity of fools and the trickery and dishonesty of Philistines and rascals.

George could see what had happened to McHarg. He himself had gone through the same experience many times. McHarg, it is true, was a great man, a man famous throughout the world, a man who had now attained the highest pinnacle of success to which a writer could aspire. But on just this account his disillusionment and disappointment must have been so much the greater and the more crushing.

And what disillusionment, what disappointment, was this? It was a disappointment that all men know — the artist most of all — The disappointment of reaching for the flower and having it fade the moment your fingers touch it. It was the disappointment that comes from the artist’s invincible and unlearning youth, from the spirit of indomitable hope and unwavering adventure, the spirit that is defeated and cast down ten thousand times but that is lost beyond redemption never, the spirit that, so far from learning wisdom from despair, acceptance from defeat, cynicism from disillusionment, seems to grow stronger at every rebuff, more passionate in its convictions the older it grows, more assured of its ultimate triumphant fulfilment the more successive and conclusive its defeats.

McHarg had accepted his success and his triumph with the exultant elation of a boy. He had received the award of his honorary degree, symbolising the consummation of his glory, with blazing images of impossible desire. And then, almost before he knew it, it was over. The thing was his, it had been given to him, he had it, he had stood before the great ones of the earth, he had been acclaimed and lauded, all had happened — and yet, nothing had happened.

Then, of course, he took the inevitable next step. With a mind surcharged with frre, with a heart thirsting for some impossible fulfilment, he took his award, and copies of all the speeches, programmes, and tributes, sailed for Europe, and began to go from place to place; looking for something that he had no name for, something that existed somewhere, perhaps — but where he did not know. He went to Copenhagen — wine, women, aquavit, and members of the Press, then women, wine, members of the Press, and aquavit again. He went to Berlin — members of the Press, wine, women, whisky, women, wine, and members of the Press. So then to Vienna — women, wine, whisky, members of the Press. Finally to Baden–Baden for a “cure”— cure, call it, if you will, for wine, women, and members of the Press — cure, really, for life-hunger, for life-thirst, for life-triumph, for life-defeat, life-disillusionment, life-loneliness, and lifeboredom — cure for devotion to men and for disgust of them, cure for love of life and for weariness of it — last of all, cure for the cureless, cure for the worm, for the flame, for the feeding mouth, for the thing that eats and rests not ever till we die. Is there not some medicine for the irremediable? Give us a cure, for God’s sake, for what ails us! Take it! Keep it! Give it back again! Oh, let us have it! Take it from us, damn you, but for God’s sake bring it back! And so good night.

Therefore this wounded lion, this raging cat of life, forever prowling past a million portals of desire and destiny, had flung himself against the walls of Europe, seeking, hunting, thirsting, starving, and lashing himself into a state of frenzied bafflement, and at last had met — a red-faced Dutchman from the town of Amsterdam, and had knocked about with the red-faced Dutchman for three days on end, and now hates red-faced Dutchman’s guts and would to God that he could pitch him out of the window, bag and baggage, and wonders how in God’s name the whole thing began, and how he can ever win free from it and be alone again — and so now is here, pacing the carpet of his hotel room in London.

The presence of Mr. Donald Stoat was more puzzling. Mynheer Bendien at least had a certain earthy congeniality to recommend him to McHarg’s interest. Mr. Stoat had nothing. Everything about the man was calculated to rub McHarg the wrong way. He was pompous and pretentious, his judgments, such as they were, were governed by a kind of moral bigotry that was infuriating, and, to cap it all, he was a complete and total fool.

He had inherited from his father a publishing business with a good name and a record of respected accomplishment. Under his leadership it had degenerated into a business largely devoted to the fabrication of religious tracts and text-books for the elementary grades. Its fiction list was pitiful. Mr. Stoat’s literary and critical standards were derived from a pious devotion to the welfare of the jeune fille. “Is it a book,” he would whisper hoarsely to any aspiring new author, at the same time rolling his eyebrows about —“is it a book that you would be willing for your young daughter to read?” Mr. Stoat had no young daughter, but in his publishing enterprises he always acted on the hypothesis that he did have, and that no book should be printed which he would be unwilling to place in her hands. The result, as may be imagined, was fudge and taffy, slop and goo.

George had met Mr. Stoat quite casually some years before he had later been invited to his house. He was married to a large, full-bosomed female with a grim jaw who wore a perpetually frozen grin round the edges of her mouth and eyeglasses which were attached to a cord of black silk. This formidable lady was devoted to art and had not let her marriage to Mr. Stoat interfere with that devotion. Indeed she had not let marriage interfere even with her name, but had clung to her resounding maidenly title of Cornelia Fosdick Sprague. She and Mr. Stoat maintained a salon, to which a great many people who shared Cornelia Fosdick Sprague’s devotion to art repaired at regular intervals, and it was to one of these meetings of the elect that George had been invited. He still remembered it vividly. Mr. Stoat had telephoned him a few days after their first casual meeting and had pressed the invitation upon him.

“You must come, my boy,” Mr. Stoat had wheezed over the wire. “You can’t afford to miss this, you know. Henrietta Saltonstall Spriggins is going to be there. You must meet her. And Penelope Buchanan Pipgrass is going to give a reading from her poems. And Hortense Delancey McCracken is going to read her latest play. You simply must come, by all means.”

So urged, George accepted and went, and it was quite an occasion. Mr. Stoat met him at the door and with a pontifical flourish of the eyebrows led him into the presence of Cornelia Fosdick Sprague. After he had made his obeisances Mr. Stoat piloted the young man about the room and with repeated flourishes of the eyebrows introduced him to the other guests. There was an astonishing number of formidable-looking females, and, like the imposing Cornelia, most of them had three names. As Mr. Stoat made the introductions he fairly smacked his lips over the triple-barrelled sonority of their titles.

George noticed with amazement that all of these women bore a marked resemblance to Cornelia Fosdick Sprague. Not that they really looked like her in feature. Some were tall, some were short, some were angular, some were fat, but all of them had a certain overwhelming quality in their bearing. This quality became a crushing air of absolute assurance and authority when they spoke of art. And they spoke of art a great deal. Indeed, it was the purpose of these meetings to speak of art. Almost all of these ladies were not only interested in art, but were “artists” themselves. That is to say, they were writers. They wrote one-act plays for the Little Theatre, or they wrote novels, or essays and criticism, or poems and books for children.

Henrietta Saltonstall Spriggins read one of her wee stories for tiny tots about a little girl waiting for Prince Charming. Penelope Buchanan Pipgrass read some of her poems, one about a quaint organ-grinder, and another about a whimsical old rag man. Hortense Delancey McCracken read her play, a sylvan fantasy laid in Central Park, with two lovers sitting on a bench in the springtime and Pan prancing round in the background, playing mad music on his pipes and leering slyly out at the lovers from behind trees. In all of these productions there was not a line that could bring the blush of outraged modesty to the cheek of the most innocent young girl. Indeed, the whole thing was just too damned delightful for words.

After the readings they all sat round and drank pale tea and discussed what they had read in fluty voices. George remembered vaguely that there were two or three other men present, but they were pallid figures who faded into the mist, hovering in the background like wan ghosts, submissive and obscure attendants, husbands even, to the possessors of those sonorous and triple-barrelled names.

George never went back again to Cornelia Fosdick Sprague’s salon, and had seen nothing more of Mr. Donald Stoat. Yet here he was, the last person in the world he would have expected to find in Lloyd McHarg’s apartment. If Mr. Stoat had ever read any of McHarg’s books — a most improbable circumstance — his moral conscience must have been outraged by the mockery with which, in almost every one of them, McHarg had assaulted the cherished ideals and sacred beliefs that Mr. Stoat held dear. Yet here he was sipping his dry sherry in McHarg’s room with all the aplomb of one who was accustomed to such familiar intimacy.

What was he doing here? What on earth did it mean?

George did not have to wait long for an answer. The telephone rang. McHarg snapped his fingers sharply and sprang for the instrument with an exclamation of overwrought relief.

“Hello, hello!” He waited a moment, his inflamed and puckered face twisted wryly to one side. “Hello, hello, hello!” he said feverishly and rattled the receiver hook. “Yes, yes. Who? Where?” A brief pause. “Oh, it’s New York,” he cried, and then impatiently: “All right, then! Put them through!”

George had never before seen the transatlantic telephone in operation, and he watched with feelings of wonder and disbelief. A vision of the illimitable seas passed through his mind. He remembered storms that he had been in and the way great ships were tossed about; he thought of the enormous curve of the earth’s surface and of the difference in time; and yet in a moment McHarg, his voice calm now, began to speak quietly as if he were talking to someone in the next room:

“Oh, hello Wilson,” he said. “Yes, I can hear you perfectly. Of course . . . Yes, yes, it’s true. Of course it is!” he cried, with a return to his former manner of feverish annoyance. “No, I’ve broken with him completely . . . No, I don’t know where I’m going. I haven’t signed up with anyone yet . . . All right, all right,” impatiently. “Wait a minute,” he said curtly. “Let me do the talking. I won’t do anything until I see you . . . No that’s not a promise to go with you,” he said angrily. “It’s just a promise that I won’t go anywhere else till I see you.” A moment’s pause while McHarg listened intently. “You’re sailing when? . . . Oh, to-night! The Berengaria. Good. I’ll see you here then next week . . . All right. Good-bye, Wilson,” he snapped, and hung up.

Turning away from the phone, he was silent a moment, looking a little rueful in his wry, puckered way. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders and a little sigh, he said:

“Well, cat’s out of the bag, I guess. The news has got round. They all know I’ve left Bradford–Howell. I suppose they’ll all be on my tail now. That was Wilson Fothergill,” he said, mentioning the name of one of America’s largest publishers. “He’s sailing to-night.” Suddenly his face was twisted with demonic glee. He laughed a high, dry cackle. “Christ, Georgie!” he squeaked, prodding Webber in the ribs. “Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it marvellous? Can you beat it?”

Mr. Donald Stoat cleared his throat with premonitory emphasis and arched his eyebrows significantly. “I hope,” he said, “that before you come to any terms with Fothergill, you will talk to me and listen to what I have to say.” There was a weighty pause, then he concluded pontifically: “Stoat — the House of Stoat — would like to have you on its list.”

“What’s that? What’s that?” said McHarg feverishly. “Stoat!” he cried suddenly. “Stoat?” He winced nervously in a kind of convulsion of jangled nerves, then paused, trembling and undecided, as if he did not know whether to spring upon Mr. Stoat or to spring out the window. Snapping his bony fingers sharply, he turned to Webber and shrieked again in a shrill, falsetto cackle: “Did you hear it, Georgie? Isn’t it wonderful? K-k-k-k-k — Stoat!” he squeaked, prodding Webber in the ribs again. “The House of Stoat! Can you beat it? Isn’t it marvellous? Isn’t it — All right, all right,” he said, breaking off abruptly and turning upon the astounded Mr. Stoat. “All right, Mr. Stoat, we’ll talk about it. But some other time. Come in to see me next week,” he said feverishly.

With that he grasped Mr. Stoat by the hand, shook it in farewell, and with his other arm practically lifted that surprised gentleman from his chair and escorted him across the room. “Good-bye, goodbye! Come in next week . . . Good-bye, Bendien!” he now said to the Dutchman, seizing him by the hand, lifting him from the chair, and repeating the process. He herded the two before him with his bony arms outstretched as if he were shooing chickens, and finally got them out of the door, talking rapidly all the time, saying: “Goodbye, good-bye. Thanks for coming in. Come back to see me again. Georgie and I have to go to lunch now.”

At last he closed the door on them, turned, and came back in the room. He was obviously unstrung.

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