There were long stretches of this book that were somewhat frustrating for me –where I felt that Thomas Wolfe was just so in love with the sound of his own voice (and his prodigious writing talent) that he forgot he was telling a story; but his writing talent is, in fact, prodigious, but the characters are three-dimensional, real, and the story a compelling one, generally well told.
At the end Eugene, the gradually-revealed hero of the story, has survived the torments of his upbringing — his drunken, self-pitying father, his pinched, grasping mother, the tragic death of his disgruntled yet beloved brother, Ben — and is off to Harvard. On his last night in “his” town he encounters the ghost of his brother amongst all of the shadows of their various former selves, and the enervated masonry angels of his father’s livelihood.
And in his vision he saw the fabulous lost cities, buried in the drifted silt of the earth — Thebes, the seven-gated, and all the temples of the Daulian and Phocian lands, and all Oenotria to the Tyrrhene gulf. Sunk in the burial-urn of earth he saw the vanished cultures: the strange sourceless glory of the Incas, the fragments of lost epics upon a broken shard of Gnossic pottery, the buried tombs of the Memphian kings, and imperial dust, wound all about with gold and rotting linen, dead with their thousand bestial gods, their mute unawakened ushabtii, in their finished eternities. (See? But persist. . .)
He saw the billion living of the earth, the thousand billion dead; seas were withered, deserts flooded, mountains drowned; and gods and demons came out of the South, and ruled above the little rocket-flare of centuries, and sank–came to their Northern Lights of death, the muttering death-flared dusk of the completed gods.
But, amid the fumbling march of races to extinction, the giant rhythms of the earth remained. The seasons passed in their majestic processionals, and germinal Spring returned forever on the land–new crops, new men, new harvests, and new gods.
And then the voyages, the search for the happy land. In his moment of terrible vision he saw, in the tortuous ways of a thousand alien places, his foiled quest of himself. And his haunted face was possessed of that obscure and passionate hunger that had woven its shuttle across the seas, that had hung its weft among the Dutch in Pennsylvania, that had darkened his father’s eyes to impalpable desire for wrought stone and the head of an angel. Hill-haunted whose vision of the earth was mountain-walled, he saw the golden cities sicken his eye, the opulent dark splendors turn to dingy gray. His brain was sick with the million books, his eyes with the million pictures, his body sickened on a hundred princely wines.
And rising from his vision, he cried: “I am not there among the cities. I have sought down a million streets, until the goat-cry died within my throat, and I have found no city where I was, no door where I had entered, no place where I had stood.”
. . .
“Fool,” said Ben, “what do you want to find?”
“Myself, and an end to hunger, and the happy land,” he answered. “For I believe in harbors at the end. O Ben, brother, and ghost, and stranger, you who could never speak, give me an answer now!”
Then, as he thought, Ben said: “There is no happy land. There is no end to hunger.”
. . .
He stood naked and alone in darkness, far from the lost world of the streets and faces; he stood upon the ramparts of his soul, before the lost land of himself; heard inland murmurs of lost seas, the far interior music of the horns. The last voyage, the longest, the best.
“O sudden and impalpable faun, lost in the thickets of myself, I will hunt you down until you cease to haunt my eyes with hunger. I heard your foot-falls in the desert, I saw your shadow in old buried cities, I heard your laughter running down a million streets, but I did not find you there And no leaf hangs for me in the forest; I shall lift no stone upon the hills; I shall find no door in any city. But in the city of myself, upon the continent of my soul, I shall find the forgotten language, the lost world, a door where I may enter, and music strange as any ever sounded; I shall haunt you, ghost, along the labyrinthine ways until—–until? O Ben, my ghost, my answer?”
But in the city of myself
upon the continent of my soul
I shall find the forgotten language,
the lost world,
a door where I may enter,
and music strange as any ever sounded.
Yes. Just that.