I’ve been working my way through Thomas Wolfe’s last novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, for the past few weeks, reserving it for flights to and from North Carolina as a way to while away the time. I just finished it and feel a sadness for having done so, somethingI haven’t felt for some time from a piece of literature.
The old cliché of the “Great American Novel” comes to mind; Wolfe avidly pursued it, as no one has before or since, and in places, actually quite a few places, he manages to write it. His descriptions of New York City during the Great Depression rival, and outrank Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. His Whitmanesque elegies to the vastness of America, the rawness of the countryside, the power of the cities, the perspective an expatriate has of the nation looking homeward from a Europe poised on the brink of war, is a very fine thing indeed.
Time has not treated Wolfe well. Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway held their own through the decades following this Golden Age of American Literature, but Wolfe fell by the wayside, his reputation perhaps diminished by the perception that he was highly edited (by the legendary Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner, then Edward Aswell at Harper), unstructured, and completely autobiographical. The balls of the man, who threw his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina to the world, naming names as it were, in his first novel, Look Homeward Angel, is amazing, the quintessential proof that a novelist makes no friends in mining the stuff of his or her own life and relations in building their masterpieces.
There are so many great passages, so many great lines, it is staggering to consider that Aswell assembled You Can’t Go Home Again from an eight foot packing case of notes and 35 notebooks. The sadness of the conclusion and the foreknowledge of Wolfe in the conclusion, in predicting his own death, is wrenching:
“Something has spoke to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year, something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where.”
And so he died at the age of 38 of tuberculosis.