In late September we decided, spur of the moment almost, to break loose from our self-imposed Covid semi-quarantine, and rent a house overlooking the Pisgah Mountains outside Asheville, which we had visited many times before, and loved. This time, we would not be doing our usual sightseeing, or sampling the fine restaurants there, but hunker down at an elevation of 2,000 feet looking at the distant mountains rising to 5,000 plus feet from our outdoor balcony. There, we would sit in our rocking chairs and read, without the cacophony of politics swamping the airwaves. I haven’t read a good book for a while and I selected 3 novels for our visit, the first being Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, which I read in college but not since. What better place to channel Wolfe’s thoughts but in the very place he so soulfully wrote about?
My college copy was long gone, but I found one from my son’s remaining books in our home, the one he read in college 20 plus years ago. So I dove into the book as soon as we arrived, unpacked and ordered groceries to be delivered. Sitting there on the porch, or in the living room which had the same view, reading that novel was a special experience, and although I vaguely remembered the story, and I knew quite a bit about Wolfe from my other readings, and we twice visited his mother’s boarding house in Asheville which is now a museum, I did not remember the details of the novel and was almost shocked by the numerous and casual derogatory references to blacks and Jews. What did I think about those passages when I first read the novel more than 50 years ago? Or was that simply more acceptable in those days? As a boy from New York City, I never felt the way young Eugene Gant and his friends did, but wasn’t I nonplussed by the language and the overt racism? If I wasn’t then, I admit I found them jarring now.
Wolfe, however, wrote what he witnessed, without judgement. This is the way people thought, particularly in the western Carolinas. It was just a part of life. I felt this over and over again rereading the novel. Some of the language relating to that theme was just downright painful.
I made an attempt to put that disturbing language aside, as this is, indeed, the great American novel, just as Wolfe intended. Its sprawling themes and description of a brilliant young writer coming of age is peerless. The prose is potent and poetic. Eugene Gant is tested, time and time again, only to rise like the Phoenix, break loose the chains of childhood and set course towards his destiny. Only Wolfe could write these words of unmitigated optimism and the raw youth of genius:
Eugene was untroubled by thought of a goal. He was made with such ecstasy as he had never known. He was a centaur, moon-eyed and wild of mane, torn apart with hunger for the golden world. He became at times almost incapable of coherent speech. While talking with people, he would whinny suddenly into their startled faces, and leap away, his face contorted with an idiot joy. He would hurl himself squealing through the streets and along the paths, touched with the ecstasy of a thousand unspoken desires. The world lay before him for his picking-full of opulent cities, golden vintages, glorious triumphs, lovely women, full of a thousand unmet and magnificent possibilities. Nothing was dull or tarnished. The strange enchanted coasts were unvisited. He was young and he could never die.
Can you imagine Wolfe’s euphoria when he wrote this, and I wonder mine reading it the first time almost the same age as when he wrote those words? Yes, I was going out into the world to make my own way, no real goals, but to live, live, live. I could never die; he could never die. And here I am, becoming an old man (although some would argue, I already am).
Before I finished the novel I was snapped out of the dream of youth by a startling development in our lives. Ann and I had a sudden offer to buy our house. For years we had considered this, even putting it on the market before Covid made us take it off. I’ve always said that once we are out of boating, and this last summer that became a reality, it would be time to leave the waterway, and downsize to a gated community where some responsibilities are assumed by the association. Without getting into details regarding timing, where we’re going (locally), etc., we accepted the offer and found a house in the community we were interested moving into. What is the saying? Watch what you wish for? This new house has come with its own set of problems, ones we’ve addressed over the years in the house we’re leaving. I feel our present home is almost an extension of myself; I am so sensitive to anything out of place, such as an unexplained sound that might require maintenance.
Our home is set up for our own unique life styles. For me it’s writing and playing the piano, neither of which I’ve been able to do to any great extent during all this turmoil. I’m forcing myself to write this entry, before I forget our respite in the Asheville area. We came back early because of these real estate transactions and now we are in the thick of it, including preparing to move, a four day process even though it is fairly local.
One does not fully appreciate the weight of the accumulated “stuff” one gathers over two decades, especially when a house has so much storage. When in doubt, keep! Stuff owns you and now we are paying the price, not only a stiff one because of the totality of “things” but given our age and during such a dangerous time. It’s all sinking in now and we along with the realization. And there is no turning back.
So for the next two months, our life is really not our own and while we will make our best efforts to socially distance and mask up for all the movers, vendors, agents, etc. we must see during this period, we’re hoping to make it through the tunnel without the virus. This may be my last entry for a while with the exception – hopefully -- of a celebratory one after the election. An America without Trump might even have me singing Eugene Gant’s optimism, not of youth of course, but of a future of normalcy, less strident dialogue, people coming together, our country rejoining the world community.
In the meantime, the profound words of Carl Sandburg resonate: Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.