You Can't Go Home Again

by Thomas Wolfe

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

You Can't Go Home Again is a novel by American writer Thomas Wolfe. The novel was published in 1940, after Wolfe had passed away. The story of the book centers on a struggling writer, George Webber, who finds success in publishing a book heavily-based on his hometown of Libya Hill. Although the book was a commercial success and received critical acclaim, the people of Libya Hill intensely criticized how Webber depicted the town and its citizens. This led to the townspeople threatening to harm Webber through countless hate mail.

Wolfe's novel was set and published during the early twentieth century and thus depicted how the American landscaped had changed in the past few decades. The United States was becoming more active in foreign affairs at the turn of the century, starting with the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War, and the country's involvement in World War I's Western Front. Domestically, this affected the attitude of the American people and how they saw themselves in relation to the rest of the world.

Another major event that shaped American society was the Great Depression during the 1930s. America, symbolized by the town of Libya Hill, went from a country on the rise as a beacon of democracy and wealth due to major foreign affairs, to a country in shambles. The illusion of prosperity and social safety was shattered. In the novel, Wolfe criticizes the rise of capitalism in America, and how it has affected everyone from Main Street to Wall Street. The idyllic caricature of the United States as a land of opportunity transitioned into a portrait of a land of opportunists. Attaining wealth and fighting each other to reach the top of the social ladder became more important than the concept of community.

The rise of capitalism in America is juxtaposed with the rise of fascism in Europe, particularly Germany. The story takes the protagonist to Paris, where he meets fellow expatriates living a self-defined, constructed utopia of bohemians, and to Berlin where he feels the shadow of Adolf Hitler. When he returns to the United States, it doesn't feel like home anymore, and he wonders if he could ever go back to that "home" of nostalgia, pondering if it ever existed at all.

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