You Can't Go Home Again

by Thomas Wolfe

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

An overarching theme in Thomas Wolfe's posthumously-published 1940 novel is that the fleeting moments of our past are the things we sometimes cling to in our minds as the construct of home. Our obsession with the past as a time and place of security is illusive at best. George Webber grapples with the paradox that a sense of rootedness in a place is not the anchor we might like to believe it to be; our life journeys are where we always dwell temporarily.

Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America—that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, that is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.

Wolfe's novel is also concerned with class division. In both America and Europe, George observes the gulf between the rich and poor, and he finds himself increasingly put off by the vacuousness and immorality of the wealthy elites as he spends time in their world. His disgust with what unchecked capitalism has produced is expressed succinctly in these lines:

At these repeated signs of decadence in a society which had once been the object of his envy and his highest ambition, Webber's face had begun to take on a look of scorn . . . Yes, all these people looked at one another with untelling eyes. Their speech was casual, quick, and witty. But they did not say the things they knew. And they knew everything. They had seen everything. They had accepted everything. And they received every new intelligence now with a cynical and amused look in their untelling eyes. Nothing shocked them anymore. It was the way things were. It was what they had come to expect of life . . . He himself had not yet come to that, he did not want to come to it.

In Europe, George discovers another uncomfortable truth: the barbarism that has arisen in Nazi Germany is simply a recent reminder that mankind's existence is atavistic; humanity has not evolved into a civilized society that uniformly rejects evil and barbarism. This realization is shocking to George and causes him to rethink what he believed about the essential truths of life. He reflects upon what German friends have recounted during Hitler's rise and in the grip of the Third Reich:

Their tales of woe and fear unspeakable gushed forth and beat upon my ears. They told me stories of their friends and relatives who had said unguarded things in public and disappeared without a trace, stories of the Gestapo, stories of neighbours' quarrels and petty personal spite turned into political persecution, stories of concentration camps and pogroms, stories of rich Jews stripped and beaten and robbed of everything they had and then denied the right to earn a pauper's wage, stories of well-bred Jewesses despoiled and turned out of their homes and forced to kneel and scrub off anti-Nazi slogans scribbled on the pavements while young barbarians dressed like soldiers formed a ring and prodded them with bayonets and made the quiet places echo with the shameless laughter of their mockery. It was a picture of the Dark Ages come again—shocking beyond belief, but true as the hell that man forever creates for himself.

And finally, Wolfe's novel offers the observation that as a species, human beings have...

(This entire section contains 766 words.)

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an innate ability to keep moving forward in life. If one can retain sufficient sanity and vigor, he argues, one's life will go on. Time moves in a single direction, and we are carried along in its momentum. Throughout the novel, Wolfe returns again and again to the subject of the American character in all of its strengths and imperfections. George Webber's odyssey to know himself as a human being, an American, and a citizen of the larger world is captured in these lines:

The human mind is a fearful instrument of adaptation, and in nothing is this more clearly shown than in its mysterious powers of resilience, self-protection, and self-healing. Unless an event completely shatters the order of one's life, the mind, if it has youth and health and time enough, accepts the inevitable and gets itself ready for the next happening like a grimly dutiful American tourist who, on arriving at a new town, looks around him, takes his bearings, and says, "Well, where do I go from here?"