I wrote this back in 2010 and posted it to a blog I used to have. It’s probably somewhat boring unless you know the book or have read some literary fiction in your life. There’s an idea in Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica about how humans keep repeating the same stories over and over, across decades, national histories, and whole civilizations. This writing stabs at that. The words from Wolfe’s journals (that became his book) written back in the 1920s or 1930s seem to fit today rather well.
You Can’t Go Home Again
“Sometimes it seems to me…that America went off the track somewhere…. Instead of going ahead and developing along the line in which the country started out, it got shunted off in another direction — and now we look around and see we’ve gone places we didn’t mean to go.”
A quote from someone long dead. The great American writer. Where did that beast go? Certainly not home again, they wouldn’t have recognized him.
I just finished reading the last book of Thomas Wolfe. It was written in the 1930s during the beginning of the great depression. I’m always amazed when reading old books how they speak so much to these times. Does anything really change or have we just cycled through and come back around?
“Suddenly we realize that America has turned into something ugly — and vicious — and corroded at the heart of its power with easy wealth and graft and special privilege…. And the worst of it is the intellectual dishonesty which all this corruption has bred. People are afraid to think straight — afraid to face themselves — afraid to look at things and see them as they are.”
It was over a year ago, driving eastward across America, that I kept thinking of the phrase “You Can’t Go Home Again.” I thought that I must read that book but instead I read Wolfe’s first novel “Look Homeward Angel.” I wanted to believe in going home again. So I sat around on a piece of ground once my hometown looking for something or someone to show me the way. Frankly I felt lost and alienated. My own words and the words of others seemed hollow somehow.
“We’ve become like a nation of advertising men, all hiding behind catch phrases like ‘prosperity’ and ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘the American way.’ And the real things like freedom, and equal opportunity, and the integrity and worth of the individual — things that have belonged to the American dream since the beginning — they have just become words too. The substance has gone out of them — they’re not real anymore.”
Why, I wondered, is everyone wearing suits and going to “work”? Weren’t we supposed to be the generation that opted out of that? Redefined that? Instead we are getting caught up in it as if truth and justice is just one more legal statute or mission statement away. Are we so scared of what we know, of our new knowledge and true power that we want to confine it to old worn out ways of doing things?
“The leaders of the nation had fixed their gaze so long upon the illusions of a false prosperity that they had forgotten what America looked like. Now they saw it — saw its newness, its raw crudeness, and its strength — and turned their shuddering eyes away. … “Conditions are fundamentally sound,” they said — by which they meant to reassure themselves that nothing now was really changed, that things were as they always had been, and as they always would be, forever and ever, amen.”
I think that a year ago I wasn’t ready to believe in the new America I felt inside of me. I had lived it — in it’s meagre infancy — until it was shunted by the fearful, the old guard, but just as sure as I was wrong thinking that I might go home again I know now that…
“…they were wrong. They did not know that you can’t go home again. America had come to the end of something, and to the beginning of something else. But no one knew what that something else would be, and out of the change and uncertainty and wrongness of the leaders grew fear and desperation… Through it all there was only one certainty…. America was still America, and whatever new thing came out of it would be American.”