The Drunken Beggar on Horseback
It was the hour of twilight on a soft spring day toward the end of April in the year of Our Lord 1929, and George Webber leaned his elbows on the sill of his back window and looked out at what he could see of New York. His eye took in the towering mass of the new hospital at the end of the block, its upper floors set back in terraces, the soaring walls salmon colored in the evening light. This side of the hospital, and directly opposite, was the lower structure of the annex, where the nurses and the waitresses lived. In the rest of the block half a dozen old brick houses, squeezed together in a solid row, leaned wearily against each other and showed their backsides to him.
The air was strangely quiet. All the noises of the city were muted here into a distant hum, so unceasing that it seemed to belong to silence. Suddenly, through the open windows at the front of the house came the raucous splutter of a truck starting up at the loading platform of the warehouse across the street. The heavy motor warmed up with a full-throated roar, then there was a grinding clash of gears, and George felt the old house tremble under him as the truck swung out into the street and thundered off. The noise receded, grew fainter, then faded into the general hum, and all was quiet as before.
As George leaned looking out of his back window a nameless happiness welled within him and he shouted over to the waitresses in the hospital annex, who were ironing out as usual their two pairs of drawers and their flimsy little dresses. He heard, as from a great distance, the faint shouts of children playing in the streets, and, near at hand, the low voices of the people in the houses. He watched the cool, steep shadows, and saw how the evening light was moving in the little squares of yards, each of which had in it something intimate, familiar, and revealing—a patch of earth in which a pretty woman had been setting out flowers, working earnestly for hours and wearing a big straw hat and canvas gloves; a little plot of new-sown grass, solemnly watered every evening by a man with a square red face and a bald head; a little shed or playhouse or workshop for some business man’s spare-time hobby; or a gay-painted table, some easy lounging chairs, and a huge bright-striped garden parasol to cover it, and a good-looking girl who had been sitting there all afternoon reading, with a coat thrown over her shoulders and a tall drink at her side.
Through some enchantment of the quiet and the westering light and the smell of April in the air, it seemed to George that he knew these people all around him. He loved this old house on Twelfth Street, its red brick walls, its rooms of noble height and spaciousness, its old dark woods and floors that creaked; and in the magic of the moment it seemed to be enriched and given a profound and lonely dignity by all the human beings it had sheltered in its ninety years. The house became like a living presence. Every object seemed to have an animate vitality of its own—walls, rooms, chairs, tables, even a half-wet bath towel hanging from the shower ring above the tub, a coat thrown down upon a chair, and his papers, manuscripts, and books scattered about the room in wild confusion.
The simple joy he felt at being once more a part of such familiar things also contained an element of strangeness and unreality. With a sharp stab of wonder he reminded himself, as he had done a hundred times in the last few weeks, that he had really come home again—home to America, home to Manhattan’s swarming rock, and home again to love; and his happiness was faintly edged with guilt when he remembered that less than a year before he had gone abroad in anger and despair, seeking to escape what now he had returned to.
In his bitter resolution of that spring a year ago, he had wanted most of all to get away from the woman he loved. Esther Jack was much older than he, married and living with her husband and grown daughter. But she had given George her love, and given it so deeply, so exclusively, that he had come to feel himself caught as in a trap. It was from that that he had wanted to escape—that and the shameful memory of their savage quarrels, and a growing madness in himself which had increased in violence as she had tried to hold him. So he had finally left her and fled to Europe. He had gone away to forget her, only to find that he could not; he had done nothing but think of her all the time. The memory of her rosy, jolly face, her essential goodness, her sure and certain talent, and all the hours that they had spent together returned to torture him with new desire and longing for her.
Thus, fleeing from a love that still pursued him, he had become a wanderer in strange countries. He had traveled through England, France, and Germany, had seen countless new sights and people, and—cursing, whoring, drinking, brawling his way across the continent—had had his head bashed in, some teeth knocked out, and his nose broken in a beer-hall fight. And then, in the solitude of convalescence in a Munich hospital, lying in bed upon his back with his ruined face turned upward toward the ceiling, he had had nothing else to do but think. There, at last, he had learned a little sense. There his madness had gone out of him, and for the first time in many years he had felt at peace within himself.
For he had learned some of the things that every man must find out for himself, and he had found out about them as one has to find out—through error and through trial, through fantasy and illusion, through falsehood and his own damn foolishness, through being mistaken and wrong and an idiot and egotistical and aspiring and hopeful and believing and confused. As he lay there in the hospital he had gone back over his life, and, bit by bit, had extracted from it some of the hard lessons of experience. Each thing he learned was so simple and obvious, once he grasped it, that he wondered why he had not always known it. All together, they wove into a kind of leading thread, trailing backward through his past, and out into the future. And he thought that now, perhaps, he could begin to shape his life to mastery, for he felt a sense of new direction deep within him, but whither it would take him he could not say.
And what had he learned? A philosopher would not think it much, perhaps, yet in a simple human way it was a good deal. Just by living, by making the thousand little daily choices that his whole complex of heredity, environment, conscious thought, and deep emotion had driven him to make, and by taking the consequences, he had learned that he could not eat his cake and have it, too. He had learned that in spite of his strange body, so much off scale that it had often made him think himself a creature set apart, he was still the son and brother of all men living. He had learned that he could not devour the earth, that he must know and accept his limitations. He realized that much of his torment of the years past had been self-inflicted, and an inevitable part of growing up. And, most important of all for one who had taken so long to grow up, he thought he had learned not to be the slave of his emotions.
Most of the trouble he had brought upon himself, he saw, had come from leaping down the throat of things. Very well, he would look before he leaped hereafter. The trick was to get his reason and his emotions pulling together in double harness, instead of letting them fly off in opposite directions, tearing him apart between them. He would try to give his head command and see what happened: then if head said, “Leap!”—he’d leap with all his heart.
And that was where Esther came in, for he had really not meant to come back to her. His head had told him it was better to let their affair end as it had ended. But no sooner had he arrived in New York than his heart told him to call her up—and he had done it. Then they had met again, and after that things followed their own course.
So here he was, back with Esther—the one thing he had once been sure would never happen. Yes, and very happy to be back. That was the queerest part of it. It seemed, perversely, that he ought to be unhappy to be doing what his reason had told him not to do. But he was not. And that was why, as he leaned there musing on his window sill while the last light faded and the April night came on, a subtle worm was gnawing at his conscience and he wondered darkly at how great a lag there was between his thinking and his actions.
He was twenty-eight years old now, and wise enough to know that there are sometimes reasons of which the reason knows nothing, and that the emotional pattern of one’s life, formed and set by years of living, is not to be discarded quite as easily as one may throw away a battered hat or worn-out shoe. Well, he was not the first man to be caught on the horns of this dilemma. Had not even the philosophers themselves been similarly caught? Yes—and then written sage words about it:
“A foolish consistency,” Emerson had said, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
And great Goethe, accepting the inevitable truth that human growth does not proceed in a straight line to its goal, had compared the development and progress of mankind to the reelings of a drunken beggar on horseback.
What was important, perhaps, was not that the beggar was drunk and reeling, but that he was mounted on his horse, and, however unsteadily, was going somewhere.
This thought was comforting to George, and he pondered it for some time, yet it did not altogether remove the edge of guilt that faintly tinged his contentment. There was still a possible flaw in the argument:
His inconsistency in coming back to Esther—was it wise or foolish? . . . Must the beggar on horseback forever reel?
Esther awoke as quick and sudden as a bird. She lay upon her back and stared up at the ceiling straight and wide. This was her body and her flesh, she was alive and ready in a moment.
She thought at once of George. Their reunion had been a joyous rediscovery of love, and all things were made new again. They had taken up the broken fragments of their life and joined them together with all the intensity and beauty that they had known in the best days before he went away. The madness that had nearly wrecked them both had now gone out of him entirely. He was still full of his unpredictable moods and fancies, but she had not seen a trace of the old black fury that used to make him lash about and beat his knuckles bloody against the wall. Since he returned he had seemed quieter, surer, in better control of himself, and in everything he did he acted as if he wanted to show her that he loved her. She had never known such perfect happiness. Life was good.
Outside, on Park Avenue, the people had begun to move along the sidewalks once more, the streets of the city began to fill and thicken. Upon the table by her bed the little clock ticked eagerly its pulse of time as if it hurried forward forever like a child toward some imagined joy, and a clock struck slowly in the house with a measured, solemn chime. The morning sun steeped each object in her room with casual light, and in her heart she said, “It is now.”
Nora brought coffee and hot rolls, and Esther read the paper. She read the gossip of the theatre, and she read the names of the cast that had been engaged for the new German play that the Community Guild was going to do in the fall, and she read that “Miss Esther Jack has been engaged to design the show.” She laughed because they called her “Miss,” and because she could see the horrified look on his face when he read it, and because she remembered his expression when the little tailor thought she was his wife, and because it gave her so much pleasure to see her name in the paper—“Miss Esther Jack, whose work has won her recognition as one of the foremost modern designers.”
She was feeling gay and happy and pleased with herself, so she put the paper in her bag, together with some other clippings she had saved, and took them with her when she went downtown to Twelfth Street for her daily visit to George. She handed them to him, and sat opposite to watch his face as he read them. She remembered all the things they had written about her work:
“. . . subtle, searching, and hushed, with a wry and rueful humor of its own. . . .”
“. . . made these old eyes shine by its deft, sure touch of whimsey as nothing else in this prodigal season of dramatic husks has done. . . .”
“. . . the gay insouciance of her unmannered settings, touched with those qualities which we have come to expect in all her ardent services to that sometimes too ungrateful jade, the drama . . . .”
“. . . the excellent fooling that is implicit in these droll sets, elvishly sly, mocking, and, need we add or make apology for adding, expert? . . .”
She could hardly keep from laughing at the scornful twist of his mouth and the mocking tone of his comment as he bit off the phrases.
“‘Elvishly sly!’ Now isn’t that too God-damned delightful!” he said with mincing precision. “‘Made these old eyes shine!’ Why, the quaint little bastard! . . . ‘That sometimes too ungrateful jade!’ Oh, deary me, now! . . . ‘And need we add—!’ I am swooning, sweetheart: pass the garlic!”
He threw the papers on the floor with an air of disgust and turned to her with a look of mock sternness that crinkled the corners of his eyes.
“Well,” he said, “do I get fed, or must I starve here while you wallow in this bilge?”
She could control herself no longer and shrieked with glee. “I didn’t do it!” she gasped. “I didn’t write it! I can’t help it if they write like that! Isn’t it awful?”
“Yes, and you hate it, don’t you?” he said. “You lap it up! You are sitting there licking your lips over it now, gloating on it, and on my hunger! Don’t you know, woman, that I haven’t had a bite to eat all day? Do I get fed, or not? Will you put your deft whimsey in a steak?”
“Yes,” she said. “Would you like a steak?”
“Will you make these old eyes shine with a chop and a delicate dressing of young onions?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
He came over and put his arms about her, his eyes searching hers in a look of love and hunger. “Will you make me one of your sauces that is subtle, searching, and hushed?”
“Yes,” she said. “Whatever you like I will make it for you.”
“Why will you make it for me?” he asked.
It was like a ritual that both of them knew, and they fastened upon each word and answer because they were so eager to hear it from each other.
“Because I love you. Because I want to feed you and to love you.”
“Will it be good?” he said.
“It will be so good that there will be no words to tell its goodness,” she said. “It will be good because I am so good and beautiful, and because I can do everything better than any other woman you will ever know, and because I love you with all my heart and soul, and want to be a part of you.”
“Will this great love get into the food you cook for me?”
“It will be in every morsel that you eat. It will feed your hunger as you’ve never been fed before. It will be like a living miracle, and will make you better and richer as long as you live. You will never forget it. It will be a glory and a triumph.”
“Then this will be such food as no one ever ate before,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “It will be.”
And it was so. There was never anything like it in the world before April had come back again.
So now they were together. But things were not quite the same between them as they had once been. Even on the surface they were different. No longer now for them was there a single tenement and dwelling place. From the first day of his return he had flatly refused to go back to the house on Waverly Place which the two of them had previously shared for work and love and living. Instead, he had taken these two large rooms on Twelfth Street, which occupied the whole second floor of the house and could be made into one enormous room by opening the sliding doors between them. There was also a tiny kitchen, just big enough to turn around in. The whole arrangement suited George perfectly because it gave him both space and privacy. Here Esther could come and go as she liked; here they could be alone together whenever they wished; here they could feed at the heart of love.
The most important thing about it, however, was that this was his place, not theirs, and that fact reestablished their relations on a different level. Henceforth he was determined not to let his life and love be one. She had her world of the theatre and of her rich friends which he did not want to belong to, and he had his world of writing which he would have to manage alone. He would keep love a thing apart, and safeguard to himself the mastery of his life, his separate soul, his own integrity.
Would she accept this compromise? Would she take his love, but leave him free to live his life and do his work? That was the way he told her it must be, and she said yes, she understood. But could she do it? Was it in a woman’s nature to be content with all that a man could give her, and not forever want what was not his to give? Already there were little portents that made him begin to doubt it.
One morning when she came to see him and was telling him with spirit and great good humor about a little comedy she had witnessed in the street, suddenly she stopped short in the middle of it, a cloud passed over her face, her eyes became troubled, and she turned to him and said:
“You do love me, don’t you, George?”
“Yes,” he said. “Of course. You know I do.”
“Will you never leave me again?” she asked, a little breathless. “Will you go on loving me forever?”
Her abrupt change of mood and her easy assumption that he or any human being could honestly pledge himself to anyone or anything forever struck him as ludicrous, and he laughed.
She made an impatient gesture with her hand. “Don’t laugh, George,” she said. “I need to know. Tell me. Will you go on loving me forever?”
Her seriousness, and the impossibility of giving her an answer annoyed him now, and he rose from his chair, stared down blankly at her for a moment, and then began pacing back and forth across the room. He paused once or twice and turned to her as if to speak, but, finding it hard to say what he wanted to say, he resumed his nervous pacing.
Esther followed him with her eyes; their expression betraying her mixed feelings, in which amusement and exasperation were giving way to alarm.
“What have I done now?” she thought. “God, was there ever anybody like him! You never can tell what he’ll do! All I did was ask him a simple question and he acts like this! Still, it’s better than the way he used to act. He used to blow up and call me vile names. Now he just stews in his own juice and I can’t tell what he’s thinking. Look at him—pacing like a wild animal in a cage, like a temperamental and introspective monkey!”
As a matter of fact, in moments of excitement George did look rather like a monkey. Barrel-chested, with broad, heavy shoulders, he walked with a slight stoop, letting his arms swing loosely, and they were so long that they dangled almost to the knees, the big hands and spatulate fingers curving deeply in like paws. His head, set down solidly upon a short neck, was carried somewhat forward with a thrusting movement, so that his whole figure had a prowling and half-crouching posture. He looked even shorter than he was, for, although he was an inch or two above the middle height, around five feet nine or ten, his legs were not quite proportionate to the upper part of his body. Moreover, his features were small—somewhat pug-nosed, the eyes set very deep in beneath heavy brows, the forehead rather low, the hair beginning not far above the brows. And when he was agitated or interested in something, he had the trick of peering upward with a kind of packed attentiveness, and this, together with his general posture, the head thrust forward, the body prowling downward, gave him a distinctly simian appearance. It was easy to see why some of his friends called him Monk.
Esther watched him a minute or two, feeling disappointed and hurt that he had not answered her. He stopped by the front window and stood looking out, and she went over and quietly put her arm through his. She saw the vein swell in his temple, and knew there was no use in speaking.
Outside, the little Jewish tailors were coming from the office of their union next door and were standing in the street. They were pale, dirty, and greasy, and very much alive. They shouted and gesticulated at one another, they stroked each other gently on the cheek in mounting fury, saying tenderly in a throttled voice: “Nah! Nah! Nah!” Then, still smiling in their rage, they began to slap each other gently in the face with itching finger tips. At length they screamed and dealt each other stinging slaps. Others cursed and shouted, some laughed, and a few said nothing, but stood darkly, somberly apart, feeding upon their entrails.
Then the young Irish cops charged in among them. There was something bought and corrupt about their look. They had brutal and brainless faces, full of pride. Their jaws were loose and coarse, they chewed gum constantly as they shoved and thrust their way along, and they kept saying:
“Break it up, now! Break it up! All right! Keep movin’!”
The motors roared by like projectiles, and people were passing along the pavement. There were the faces George and Esther had never seen before, and there were the faces they had always seen, everywhere: always different, they never changed; they welled up from the sourceless springs of life with unending fecundity, with limitless variety, with incessant movement, and with the monotony of everlasting repetition. There were the three girl-friends who pass along the streets of life forever. One had a cruel and sensual face, she wore glasses, and her mouth was hard and vulgar. Another had the great nose and the little bony features of a rat. The face of the third was full and loose, jeering with fat rouged lips and oily volutes of the nostrils. And when they laughed, there was no warmth or joy in the sound: high, shrill, ugly, and hysterical, their laughter only asked the earth to notice them.
In the street the children played. They were dark and strong and violent, aping talk and toughness from their elders. They leaped on one another and hurled the weakest to the pavement. The policemen herded the noisy little tailors along before them, and they went away. The sky was blue and young and vital, there were no clouds in it; the trees were budding into leaf; the sunlight fell into the street, upon all the people there, with an innocent and fearless life.
Esther glanced at George and saw his face grow twisted as he looked. He wanted to say to her that we are all savage, foolish, violent, and mistaken; that, full of our fear and confusion, we walk in ignorance upon the living and beautiful earth, breathing young, vital air and bathing in the light of morning, seeing it not because of the murder in our hearts.
But he did not say these things. Wearily he turned away from the window.
“There’s forever,” he said. “There’s your forever.”
You Can't Go Home Again
A twentieth-century classic, Thomas Wolfe’s magnificent novel is both the story of a young writer longing to make his mark upon the world and a sweeping portrait of America and Europe from the Great Depression through the years leading up to World War II.
Driven by dreams of literary success, George Webber has left his provincial hometown to make his name as a writer in New York City. When his first novel is published, it brings him the fame he has sought, but it also brings the censure of his neighbors back home, who are outraged by his depiction of them. Unsettled by their reaction and unsure of himself and his future, Webber begins a search for a greater understanding of his artistic identity that takes him deep into New York’s hectic social whirl; to London with an uninhibited group of expatriates; and to Berlin, lying cold and sinister under Hitler’s shadow. He discovers a world plagued by political uncertainty and on the brink of transformation, yet he finds within himself the capacity to meet it with optimism and a renewed love for his birthplace. He is a changed man yet a hopeful one, awake to the knowledge that one can never fully “go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…away from all the strife and conflict of the world…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.”
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Thomas Wolfe’s classic novel of American hope and perseverance during the Great Depression takes on new relevance in our time.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Discuss the opening chapter, "The Drunken Beggar on Horseback," when twenty-eight-year-old George Webber relaxes in his New York City apartment with his lover, Esther Jack. Why has George returned to New York and to Esther after his travels in Europe? What causes him to wonder, "Must the beggar on horseback forever reel?" (p. 7) What changes in George and Esther’s relationship does this first chapter foretell?
2. When George wrote his first novel, Home to Our Mountains, "He had distilled every line of it out of his own experience of life. . . . Of course it was fiction, but it was made as all honest fiction must be, from the stuff of human life." (pp. 16–17) What are the consequences of George’s use of autobiographical material in his novel? Do you agree that all great fiction comes from personal experience? Do you think today’s writers h see more