You Can’t Go Home Again


Old Kentucky Home

“Something has spoken to me in the night…and told me that I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “[Death is] to lose the earth you know for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”

                                                                               –Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again


Private Tour

Tours are galleries of dead ideals. But if you happen to be on one and paying attention you might learn something. Thomas Wolfe was just a name on the literary canon before this day. A name vaguely familiar and his work, aside from titles, more unfamiliar. After a guided walk through his childhood home, however, he became something more.

Asheville, NC

Old Kentucky Home Entrance

With temperatures still up there even under shade, It wouldn’t have been possible to leave Duke in the car and join the tour had the guide not been kind enough to welcome him along. With good behavior and one other gentleman we were set to enter the trappings of Asheville’s native son.

Wolfe’s Childhood Room

When we are invited to glimpse into the museum of someone’s childhood all matter becomes important. The furniture, the size of the bedroom window, a child’s bed a few inches below carries tremendous significance. In each room portions of the writer’s story are interpreted as they are parlayed. Sometimes things might fall off the guided talk and it’s up to you to catch them. Such as the man who wrote the book You Can’t Go Home Again came home quite often during his lifetime. That he tended to return here even at the pinnacle of success from places like New York and Europe.

As with many writers, he was a loner. He was different. He ranted furiously at the banality and indifference surrounding him. His mother on the other hand was quite the socialite. Events and parties were a constant feature at the house, and she didn’t seem too worried about putting poor little Thomas out of his room in order to host strangers. Today for effect, a leather suitcase lays on the bed of that room to signify a feeling of transience. I can understand the frustration of coming back to a place you once knew. Seeking something it cannot restore you. A place unkind.

It was a fortunate affair to have the luxury of a private tour and ask questions intermittently. It was even more fortunate for me to have it joined by an expert. My counterpart was a living breathing Thomas Wolf encyclopedia. A rather plump man with a certain social ineptitude who seemed more concerned with the appearance of others rather than his own.

His questions weren’t questions at all. More like statements that he had spent way too much time gnawing over. What a relief it was to find a platform where he can reverberate what he consumed over the years. I didn’t mind it at all. From a writer standpoint, it was simply fascinating to watch the other side of success: The super fan.

Wolfe was born in 1900 when book themes such as the “cult of genius” were alive and well. Now, Millennials who see the world as one big kaleidoscope of colors blending into “oneness” may be scratching their heads at that. But not this guy, which, if I had to guess is of the late Boomer variety. He could stomach lots more of Wolfe’s “egocentric, inchoate style” as he described it.

Wolfe’s personal, subjective writing went pages for pages uninhibited. What a delight to hear his fan do the same. He even piggybacked on the guide’s historical details on the writer’s itinerary right up to the publication of Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe wrote about himself and his hometown, Asheville. His protagonist, written after himself, was a marked man who is somehow different from the rest of society. He wished to record everything that had happened to him. The book caused quite a stir when he came back to town.

The fan gushed and sputtered to impress us with his trivial knowledge. He took liberties several times to correct the guide about dates and places from which the writer returned to Asheville. But the one that jarred me the most is when he quibbled over the itinerary of Thomas Wolfe’s body returning home for burial.

Writers write. When they publish their manuscript it sets sail onto a sea of readers, who for good or ill, make that story theirs. This is the magic of the written word. The story infuses the reader’s world. This quixotic relationship the reader enters into, becomes his own, he then must defend it. We see this all the time with fans bickering over stuffy details artists would never wish on their work.

It occurred to me right then why a writer’s work becomes so much more valuable after death. He finally gets out of the way and everyone else has their say.

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