You Can't Go Home Again

by Thomas Wolfe

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The major theme of this book, as expressed in the title, emerges from the experiences George has in New York, London, and, especially, in Nazi Germany. They add up to an awakening that means he can't or won't "go home again" to his old, complacent, optimistic ideas about life. He can no longer escape into youth or art or romantic love or dreams of artistic glory.

Instead, George communicates is that he has seen profound evil, which he calls the "enemy." He defines the enemy as the rich and the powerful who pretend to be like ordinary people, all the while oppressing and hurting the common man. He writes:

Behold how sleek and fat I have become—and all because I am just one of you, and your friend. Behold how rich and powerful I am—and all because I am one of you—shaped in your way of life, of thinking, of accomplishment. . . .

He lies! And now we know he lies! He is not gloriously, or in any other way, ourselves.

Many of the experiences in the book describe or explain the evil he experiences. In the New York City of the Great Depression, for example, he describes how men live on the streets in hunger and want while others live in wealth. In England, he describes his fruitless attempts to raise awareness in the mind of the maid who brings him his morning breakfast. She is full of identification with the rich and powerful possibly losing their great homes to taxation. What about you, he asks? How can you feel sorry for them when, even if they lose their grand estates, they will still have far more than you ever will? But she persists in believing they are just like her.

In Germany, he is first thrilled with being hailed as a literary "lion," then gradually comes to understand the constant terror and violence under which the people there live. It shocks him to the core. He realizes that common people are spied on all the time and can trust nobody. He is profoundly moved when he witnesses the arrest of a terrified Jew trying to cross the border. He understands that, like the rich in New York and England, Hitler, pretending to represent the face of the common people, has nothing in common with them. Nazism represents a barbaric, old evil, crawling out from under a rock. As he puts it, eloquently and powerfully:

The experiences of that final summer in Germany had a profound effect upon George Webber. He had come face to face with something old and genuinely evil in the spirit of man which he had never known before, and it shook his inner world to its foundations. Not that it produced a sudden revolution in his way of thinking. For years his conception of the world and of his own place in it had been gradually changing, and the German adventure merely brought this process to its climax. It threw into sharp relief many other related phenomena which George had observed in the whole temper of the times, and it made plain to him, once and for all, the dangers that lurk in those latent atavistic urges which man has inherited from his dark past.

Hitlerism, he saw, was a recrudescence of an old barbarism. Its racial nonsense and cruelty, its naked worship of brute force, its suppression of truth and resort to lies and myths, its ruthless contempt for the individual, its anti-intellectual and anti-moral dogma that to one man alone belongs the right of judgment and decision, and that for all...

(This entire section contains 767 words.)

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others virtue lies in blind, unquestioning obedience--each of these fundamental elements of Hitlerism was a throwback ... That primitive spirit of greed and lust and force had always been the true enemy of mankind.

The main message he wants readers to take away is that too much power, money ("greed"), and lust in the hands of too few individuals is the "enemy" or evil humankind must face. He finds it all over in the 1930s world he witnesses but particularly in Hitler. Finally, he examines himself and acknowledges his own "atavistic" urges and the need to fight them. George simply can't go home again to believing the world is a kind and benign place. We all have to struggle and overcome our barbaric tendencies, he argues, if we are going to build a decent earth in which to live. The words, written in the mid 1930s, are prescient, as his world is soon going to erupt into a terrible world war, though he won't live to see it.




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