Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Going Home: A Meditation

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Going Home: A Meditation

Article excerpt

Address to the Thomas Wolfe Society, Thirty-Fifth Annual Meeting, Final Session, 25 May 2013, Grove Hotel, Boise, Idaho.

This essay is a meditation on Thomas Wolfe's famous phrase, "You can't go home again"--the title of his posthumously published fourth novel. Almost immediately after publication, Wolfe's phrase entered American consciousness and its lexicon, seeming to encapsulate a truth that resonates on many levels. But what exactly does it mean? Or more accurately, what different meanings does it evoke, both for Wolfe and for us? When we examine this phrase more closely, when we turn it inside and out--or, as some contemporary scholars would say, "problematize" it--we find that its connotations are nearly inexhaustible. I want to focus on two fundamental questions: (1) What is home? and (2) Why can't we go back to it? I will begin with the second question and return later to the first.

These issues arise particularly in Boise because for me this is a kind of coming home. I went to junior high and high school in Idaho Falls, located on the opposite side of the state. Although a resident there for five years, I never felt at home. Part of the discomfort was cultural. We lived as gentiles in an area that was 75% Mormon, so my Jewish and Catholic best friends and I were clearly marked as outsiders. Moreover, the gorgeous Idaho landscape that I inhabited daily differed from the gentler climes I was used to--and it could be deadly. One female high school friend froze to death on a routine date when she panicked and ran out into a snowstorm after her boyfriend's car broke down only a few miles from town. Nature in Idaho is breathtaking but can kill you if you are not savvy and fully prepared. Everyone in those days drove around with blankets, chains, canned food, and other items in the car trunk in case of emergencies far from civilization. I still take similar precautions out of habit.

But let me back up to the beginning. All of us emerge from the womb of our mothers, the first forceful expulsion from that warm and comforting home. This is captured emblematically in the eviction of our species from the Biblical Garden of Eden. We are cast into life whether or not we desire to be there, whether or not we can find a home in a complex, challenging external reality. As existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre puts it, "man first exists, encounters himself, goes out into the world, and then defines himself" (29; my translation). At birth, we are drawn out to life without our permission from parents and circumstances we did not choose, and life thereafter is what we make of it.

The world's religions, none more so than Christianity, focus in no small measure on finding or creating a hospitable home, in this world or the next. The Bible, when viewed from this optic, begins with the expulsion from the idyllic garden in Genesis 2 and ends with a return to the soothing breast of God, which awaits every true believer--not in this world but in heaven. Christian tradition seems to concede that a home is not to be found on this tawdry, sin-laced planet but in the next life, a home in the spirit but not in the flesh of everyday humans. "Going home," in this context, signifies dying and entering incarnate eternal life. Wolfe was not a conventional Christian, but he knew his Biblical stories and passages and relied on them regularly. Though in many ways an optimist, he was well aware of the shortcomings that orthodox Christians find in the environment around them.

So the quest for a home is doomed, some might say, from the start by our existential situation as humans. We cannot return to the circumstances before our birth, to the warm comfort of total nurturing. It is physically impossible; short of suicide, we cannot refuse life, however troubled it might become. But Wolfe's phrase also has resonance in the Heraclitean sense encapsulated in the title of his second novel, Of Time and the River. In this formulation, time is a river and we cannot step into the same water twice. …

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