Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
From among the several million recorded words that Wolfe wrote during his career, the phrase that concludes one work and was chosen as the title for this novel has been probably the best-known of all the expressions he ever used. The adage “you can’t go home again” evidently was suggested first by Ella Winter, the widow of the writer Lincoln Steffens. This phrase seems apt, not on the most obvious literal level but rather in the sense that, in the flux of time and life, old ties and associations cannot remain the same, unchanged. Once they have been outgrown or cast off, old ways must be set aside as part of a past which cannot easily again be recaptured.
Wolfe’s last novel opens with George Webber’s return to New York, where Esther Jack receives him. He is apprised that his manuscript has been favorably reviewed by a well-known publishing house, which has sent an advance check for five hundred dollars. He also learns that his aged maiden aunt has died, and he travels southward, to return home for the first time in many years. On the way he meets Nebraska Crane, a friend and companion from his boyhood days who, though he has made a name for himself as a professional baseball player, feels that the best period of his career is behind him.
When George arrives in Libya Hill, he is treated by some as a visiting local celebrity. In newspapers, he is quoted with some inventiveness as expressing the fondest sentiments possible about his native city. Libya Hill has been overtaken by frenetic speculation in real estate and, in fact, in all realms of business, which temporarily has transformed it into a boom town. There is a pervasive atmosphere of change, both superficial and permanent. George, who feels oddly isolated even on native ground, comes to sense that his visit has been an act of farewell more than a homecoming.
Somewhat later, after his novel has been published, George ruefully, but with some amusement, notes the reaction it has stirred up among local people. Because much of his book was essentially based upon real characters, he has received letters complaining with some vehemence of the shame and disgrace he has brought upon those who once were his neighbors and friends. One anonymous writer threatens to kill him. On the other hand, someone else has offered to provide him with even more salacious material should he care to inquire.
By this time, George’s affair with Esther has run its course; after some oddly harrowing scenes at one of her social gatherings, he decides that he can turn away decisively from what he regards as her artificially cultivated, high-society circles and way of life. He turns instead to other women for short periods of time but finds none of them particularly endearing or even compatible. All the while, he has also become aware of changing fortunes all around him, brought about by the onset of the...
(The entire section is 1178 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
As George Webber looks out the window of his New York apartment on a spring day in 1929, he is filled with happiness. The bitter despair of the previous year has been lost somewhere in the riotous time he has spent in Europe, and now it is good to be back in New York with the feeling that he knows where he is going. His book has been accepted by a great publishing firm, and Foxhall Edwards, the best editor of the house, has been assigned to help him with the corrections and revisions. George has also resumed his old love affair with Esther Jack, who, married and the mother of a grown daughter, nevertheless returns his love with tenderness and passion. This love, however, is a flaw in George’s otherwise great content, for he and Esther seem to be pulling in different directions. She is a famous stage designer who mingles with a sophisticated artistic set, whereas George thinks that he can find himself completely only if he lives among and understands the little people of the world.
Before George’s book is published, he tries for the first time to go home again. Home is Libya Hill, a small city in the mountains of Old Catawba. When the aunt who reared George dies, he goes back to Libya Hill for her funeral. There he learns that he can never really go home again, for home is no longer the quiet town of his boyhood; rather, it is a growing city of money-crazy speculators who are concerned only with making huge fortunes out of real estate.
George finds some satisfaction in the small excitement he creates in Libya Hill because he has written a book that is soon to be published. Even that pleasure is not to last long, however, for when he returns to New York and his book—which is about Libya Hill and the people he knew there—is published, almost all the citizens of Libya Hill write him letters filled with threats and curses. George’s only motive had been to tell the truth as he sees it, but his old friends and relatives in Libya Hill seem to think that he spied on them throughout his boyhood in order to gossip about them in later years. Even the small fame he receives in New York, where his book is favorably reviewed by the critics, cannot make up for the abusive letters from Libya Hill.
George feels he can redeem himself only by working feverishly on his new book. He moves to Brooklyn, first breaking off his relationship with Esther. This severance from Esther is difficult, but George cannot live a lie himself and attempts to write the truth. In Brooklyn, he does learn to know and love the little people—the derelicts, the prostitutes, the petty criminals—and he learns that they, like so-called good men and women, are all representative of America. George’s only real friend is Foxhall Edwards, who has become like a father to him. Edwards is a great man, a gifted editor and a genius at understanding and encouraging those who, like George, find it difficult to believe in...
(The entire section is 1192 words.)