Near the end of the posthumously published You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe muses, through the eyes of his literary alter ego, George Webber “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” According to a superb website simply called “How Books Got Their Titles,” Wolfe got the title for his novel while having dinner with a friend. He told her how people of his home town of Asheville were really quite put out by his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, going so far as to make threats on his life (even today those feelings have not died. Rumor has it that the fire a couple years ago in the Thomas Wolfe house was set by unforgiving descendants of slighted Ashevillians). His companion commented: “But don’t you know you can’t go home again?” and in reply Wolfe asked her: “Can I have that? I mean for a title…I’m writing a piece…and I’d like to call it that. It says exactly what I mean.”
Going back home was, for Wolfe, a great theme, one that he was already confronting in the title of his very first novel. He did not return home to Asheville, North Carolina for many years. In fact, he tried once and, due to some misunderstanding he missed the station. And that was the end of his attempts. But while it is true that you cannot go home and enter back into those halcyon days of youth, most of us can, physically at least, go home. Last weekend, I did a book signing in Burlington, Vermont, where I grew up. There have been times when I have gotten what I felt was a distinctly cold shoulder from the Queen City of Vermont—particularly when I moved from Washington, D.C. back to Burlington four years after college. I had been caught up by then in what Wolfe once described as “the monstrous fumbling of all life,” had snubbed Burlington by leaving her and, worse, had thought less of her after living in a much bigger city. But this time, returning to Burlington with my brother Paul, both of us in our early forties, the town seemed a bit forgiving.
The thermometer, certainly, was not welcoming. It read 18 degrees but the wind chill brought it down to around zero. The wind knifed through our clothing just as it had when the two of us had a paper route in the South End of Burlington and staggered around with the (then robust) Burlington Free Press in the bitter cold darkness of early morning. (Editors note: Thomas Wolfe also had a paper route, well described in Look Homeward, Angel.)
Upon reaching the city, we visited Rice Memorial High School, where our father taught English and America Lit for 36 years. We met my high school best friend, Christian, who is now the Dean of Students there. We also went down the long main hallway, past the room where our father had taught, to the room of Rob Brown, the chairman of the English Department. Mr. Brown is in his 30th year at Rice, and is one of the most brilliant teachers Rice has been lucky enough to have in the past three decades.
We hadn’t eaten lunch, so we made a quick trip to Bove’s, a Burlington institution run by a former alumnus of Rice. Though the prices have changed (but not considerably), the cocktail menu remains the same as ever. The “Ward 8” cocktail, invented by Bove’s is still on the menu. So does the soft Italian bread, and the butter (in pats sandwiched between light cardboard and a little piece of waxed paper, and the deliciousness of the tomato sauce. We both had a $3.50 martini.
The book signing was held at Hopkins Bookshop, in the corner of St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s, which faces on what was that night a very choppy lake, has always looked to me as though it had been built with giant building blocks.
That is an impression from childhood. I have been looking at that building for probably thirty years. Our mother did the bookkeeping for Hopkins for decades. I have written about Hopkins in a previous blog. Quite the experience it was to be at that wonderful bookstore, one of the last independents still standing in Burlington. Except for the changing titles on the shelves, time there seems to have stood still. The owner, Dinny, looks no different than when I saw her ten or more years ago. The racks of cards are still there, the tiny bathroom—about the size of an airline bathroom—and the little back room where we used to go to pick up our mother when she was done with the bookkeeping.
To the book signing came Rice faculty and some friends from our youth. Later, after the event was over, our uncle John arrived. He’d taken the ferry from Plattsburgh, across the frigid lake. We went out for dinner at Leunig’s, which was founded in 1980 and named after an Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig. Its sophistication (it actually replaced an old A & W restaurant) caused a stir on upper Church Street that I remember, though it was years and years before I ate there. Growing up, we didn’t go out to dinner often, and certainly not at French bistros. Who should we run into while dining at that Burlington institution but my girlfriend from seventh grade? Neither my brother nor I had seen her since we left middle school.
With the trip to Rice, lunch at Bove’s, and the signing at Hopkins, the unexpected meeting at Leunig’s, it did feel as though Burlington—despite her forbidding temperatures—had made some sort of concessionary gesture to us.
Portrait of the artist as a young man: