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Of Time and the River

A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth



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About The Book

The sequel to Thomas Wolfe's remarkable first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Of Time and the River is one of the great classics of American literature. The book chronicles the maturing of Wolfe's autobiographical character, Eugene Gant, in his desperate search for fulfillment, making his way from small-town North Carolina to the wider world of Harvard University, New York City, and Europe. In a massive, ambitious, and boldly passionate novel, Wolfe examines the passing of time and the nature of the creative process, as Gant slowly but ecstatically embraces the urban life, recognizing it as a necessary ordeal for the birth of his creative genius as a writer.
The work of an exceptionally expressive writer of fertile imagination and startling emotional intensity, Of Time and the River illuminates universal truths about art and life, city and country, past and present. It is a novel that is majestic and enduring. As P. M. Jack observed in The New York Times, "It is a triumphant demonstration that Thomas Wolfe has the stamina to produce a magnificent epic of American life."
This edition, published in celebration of Wolfe's centennial anniversary, contains a new introduction by Pat Conroy.


Chapeter One

About fifteen years ago, at the end of the second decade of this century, four people were standing together on the platform of the railway station of a town in the hills of western Catawba. This little station, really just a suburban adjunct of the larger town which, behind the concealing barrier of a rising ground, swept away a mile or two to the west and north, had become in recent years the popular point of arrival and departure for travellers to and from the cities of the east, and now, in fact, accommodated a much larger traffic than did the central station of the town, which was situated two miles westward around the powerful bend of the rails. For this reason a considerable number of people were now assembled here, and from their words and gestures, a quietly suppressed excitement that somehow seemed to infuse the drowsy mid-October afternoon with an electric vitality, it was possible to feel the thrill and menace of the coming train.

An observer would have felt in the complexion of this gathering a somewhat mixed quality -- a quality that was at once strange and familiar, alien and native, cosmopolitan and provincial. It was not the single native quality of the usual crowd that one saw on the station platforms of the typical Catawba town as the trains passed through. This crowd was more mixed and varied, and it had a strong coloring of worldly smartness, the element of fashionable sophistication that one sometimes finds in a place where a native and alien population have come together. And such an inference was here warranted: the town of Altamont a mile or so away was a well-known resort and the mixed gathering on the station platform was fairly representative of its population. But all of these people, both strange and native, had been drawn here by a common experience, an event which has always been of first interest in the lives of all Americans. This event is the coming of the train.

It would have been evident to an observer that of the four people who were standing together at one end of the platform three -- the two women and the boy -- were connected by the relationship of blood. A stranger would have known instantly that the boy and the young woman were brother and sister and that the woman was their mother. The relationship was somehow one of tone, texture, time, and energy, and of the grain and temper of the spirit. The mother was a woman of small but strong and solid figure. Although she was near her sixtieth year, her hair was jet black and her face, full of energy and power, was almost as smooth and unlined as the face of a girl. Her hair was brushed back from a forehead which was high, white, full, and naked-looking, and which, together with the expression of her eyes, which were brown, and rather worn and weak, but constantly thoughtful, constantly reflective, gave her face the expression of straight grave innocence that children have, and also of strong native intelligence and integrity. Her skin was milk white, soft of texture, completely colorless save for the nose, which was red, broad and fleshy at the base, and curiously masculine.

A stranger seeing her for the first time would have known somehow that the woman was a member of a numerous family, and that her face had the tribal look. He would somehow have felt certain that the woman had brothers and that if he could see them, they would look like her. Yet, this masculine quality was not a quality of sex, for the woman, save for the broad manlike nose, was as thoroughly female as a woman could be. It was rather a quality of tribe and character -- a tribe and character that was decisively masculine.

The final impression of the woman might have been this: -- that her life was somehow above and beyond a moral judgment, that no matter what the course or chronicle of her life may have been, no matter what crimes of error, avarice, ignorance, or thoughtlessness might be charged to her, no matter what suffering or evil consequences may have resulted to other people through any act of hers, her life was somehow beyond these accidents of time, training, and occasion, and the woman was as guiltless as a child, a river, an avalanche, or any force of nature whatsoever.

The younger of the two women was about thirty years old. She was a big woman, nearly six feet tall, large, and loose of bone and limb, almost gaunt. Both women were evidently creatures of tremendous energy, but where the mother suggested a constant, calm, and almost tireless force, the daughter was plainly one of those big, impulsive creatures of the earth who possess a terrific but undisciplined vitality, which they are ready to expend with a whole-souled and almost frenzied prodigality on any person, enterprise, or object which appeals to their grand affections.

This difference between the two women was also reflected in their faces. The face of the mother, for all its amazing flexibility, the startled animal-like intentness with which her glance darted from one object to another, and the mobility of her powerful and delicate mouth, which she pursed and convolved with astonishing flexibility in such a way as to show the constant reflective effort of her mind, was nevertheless the face of a woman whose spirit had an almost elemental quality of patience, fortitude and calm.

The face of the younger woman was large, high-boned, and generous and already marked by the frenzy and unrest of her own life. At moments it bore legibly and terribly the tortured strain of hysteria, of nerves stretched to the breaking point, of the furious impatience, unrest and dissonance of her own tormented spirit, and of impending exhaustion and collapse for her overwrought vitality. Yet, in an instant, this gaunt, strained, tortured, and almost hysterical face could be transformed by an expression of serenity, wisdom, and repose that would work unbelievably a miracle of calm and radiant beauty on the nervous, gaunt, and tortured features.

Now, each in her own way, the two women were surveying the other people on the platform and the new arrivals with a ravenous and absorptive interest, bestowing on each a wealth of information, comment, and speculation which suggested an encyclop?dic knowledge of the history of every one in the community.

" -- Why, yes, child," the mother was saying impatiently, as she turned her quick glance from a group of people who at the moment were the subject of discussion -- "that's what I'm telling you! -- Don't I know?...Didn't I grow up with all those people?...Wasn't Emma Smathers one of my girlhood friends?...That boy's not this woman's child at all. He's Emma Smathers' child by that first marriage."

"Well, that's news to me," the younger woman answered. "That's certainly news to me. I never knew Steve Randolph had been married more than once. I'd always thought that all that bunch were Mrs. Randolph's children."

"Why, of course not!" the mother cried impatiently. "She never had any of them except Lucille. All the rest of them were Emma's children. Steve Randolph was a man of forty-five when he married her. He'd been a widower for years -- poor Emma died in childbirth when Bernice was born -- nobody ever thought he'd marry again and nobody ever expected this woman to have any children of her own for she was almost as old as he was -- why, yes! -- hadn't she been married before, a widow, you know, when she met him, came here after her first husband's death from some place way out West -- oh, Wyoming, or Nevada or Idaho, one of those States, you know -- and had never had chick nor child, as the saying goes -- till she married Steve. And that woman was every day of forty-four years old when Lucille was born."

"Uh-huh!...Ah-hah!" the younger woman muttered absently, in a tone of rapt and fascinated interest, as she looked distantly at the people in the other group, and reflectively stroked her large chin with a big, bony hand. "So Lucille, then, is really John's half-sister?"

"Why, of course!" the mother cried. "I thought every one knew that. Lucille's the only one that this woman can lay claim to. The rest of them were Emma's."

" -- Well, that's certainly news to me," the younger woman said slowly as before. "It's the first I ever heard of it....And you say she was forty-four when Lucille was born?"

"Now, she was all of that," the mother said. "I know. And she may have been even older."

"Well," the younger woman said, and now she turned to her silent husband, Barton, with a hoarse snigger, "it just goes to show that while there's life there's hope, doesn't it? So cheer up, honey," she said to him, "we may have a chance yet." But despite her air of rough banter her clear eyes for a moment had a look of deep pain and sadness in them.

"Chance!" the mother cried strongly, with a little scornful pucker of the lips -- "why, of course there is! If I was your age again I'd have a dozen -- and never think a thing of it." For a moment she was silent, pursing her reflective lips. Suddenly a faint sly smile began to flicker at the edges of her lips, and turning to the boy, she addressed him with an air of sly and bantering mystery:

"Now, boy," she said -- "there's lots of things that you don't always thought you were the last -- the youngest -- didn't you?"

"Well, wasn't I?" he said.

"H'm!" she said with a little scornful smile and an air of great mystery -- "There's lots that I could tell you -- -- "

"Oh, my God!" he groaned, turning towards his sister with an imploring face. "More mysteries!...The next thing I'll find that there were five sets of triplets after I was born -- Well, come on, Mama," he cried impatiently. "Don't hint around all day about it....What's the secret now -- how many were there?"

"H'm!" she said with a little bantering, scornful, and significant smile.

"O Lord!" he groaned again -- "Did she ever tell you what it was?" Again he turned imploringly to his sister.

She snickered hoarsely, a strange high-husky and derisive falsetto laugh, at the same time prodding him stiffly in the ribs with her big fingers:

"Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi," she laughed. "More spooky business, hey? You don't know the half of it. She'll be telling you next you were only the fourteenth."

"H'm!" the older woman said, with a little scornful smile of her pursed lips. "Now I could tell him more than that! The fourteenth! Pshaw!" she said contemptuously -- "I could tell him -- -- "

"O God!" he groaned miserably. "I knew it!...I don't want to hear it."

"K, k, k, k, k," the younger woman snickered derisively, prodding him in the ribs again.

"No, sir," the older woman went on strongly -- "and that's not all either! -- Now, boy, I want to tell you something that you didn't know," and as she spoke she turned the strange and worn stare of her serious brown eyes on him, and levelled a half-clasped hand, fingers pointing, a gesture loose, casual, and instinctive and powerful as a man's. -- "There's a lot I could tell you that you never heard. Long years after you were born, child -- why, at the time I took you children to the Saint Louis Fair -- " here her face grew stern and sad, she pursed her lips strongly and shook her head with a short convulsive movement -- "oh, when I think of it -- to think what I went through -- oh, awful, awful, you know," she whispered ominously.

"Now, Mama, for God's sake, I don't want to hear it!" he fairly shouted, beside himself with exasperation and foreboding. "God-damn it, can we have no peace -- even when I go away!" he cried bitterly and illogically. "Always these damned gloomy hints and revelations -- this Pentland spooky stuff," he yelled -- "this damned I-could-if-I-wanted-to-tell-you air of mystery, horror, and damnation!" he shouted incoherently. "Who cares? What does it matter?" he cried, adding desperately, "I don't want to hear about it -- No one cares."

"Why, child, now, I was only saying -- " she began hastily and diplomatically.

"All right, all right, all right," he muttered. "I don't care -- -- "

"But, as I say, now," she resumed.

"I don't care!" he shouted. "Peace, peace, peace, peace, peace," he muttered in a crazy tone as he turned to his sister. "A moment's peace for all of us before we die. A moment of peace, peace, peace."

"Why, boy, I'll vow," the mother said in a vexed tone, fixing her reproving glance on him, "what on earth's come over you? You act like a regular crazy man. I'll vow you do."

"A moment's peace!" he muttered again, thrusting one hand wildly through his hair. "I beg and beseech you for a moment's peace before we perish!"

"K, k, k, k, k," the younger woman snickered derisively, as she poked him stiffly in the ribs -- "There's no peace for the weary. It's like that river that goes on forever," she said with a faint loose curving of lewd humor around the edges of her generous big mouth -- "Now you see, don't you?" she said, looking at him with this lewd and challenging look. "You see what it's like now, don't you?...You're the lucky one! You got away! You're smart enough to go way off somewhere to college -- to Boston -- Harvard -- anywhere -- but you're away from it. You get it for a short time when you come home. How do you think I stand it?" she said challengingly. "I have to hear it all the time....Oh, all the time, and all the time, and all the time!" she said with a kind of weary desperation. "If they'd only leave me alone for five minutes some time I think I'd be able to pull myself together, but it's this way all the time and all the time and all the time. You see, don't you?"

But now, having finished, in a tone of hoarse and panting exasperation, her frenzied protest, she relapsed immediately into a state of marked, weary, and dejected resignation.

"Well, I know, I know," she said in a weary and indifferent voice."...Forget about it....Talking does no good....Just try to make the best of it the little time you're here....I used to think something could be done about it...but I know different now," she muttered, although she would have been unable to explain the logical meaning of these incoherent and disjointed phrases.

"Hah?...What say?" the mother now cried sharply, darting her glances from one to another with the quick, startled, curiously puzzled intentness of an animal or a bird. "What say?" she cried sharply again, as no one answered. "I thought -- -- "

But fortunately, at this moment, this strange and disturbing flash in which had been revealed the blind and tangled purposes, the powerful and obscure impulses, the tormented nerves, the whole tragic perplexity of soul which was of the very fabric of their lives, was interrupted by a commotion in one of the groups upon the platform, and by a great guffaw of laughter which instantly roused these three people from this painful and perplexing scene, and directed their startled attention to the place from which the laughter came.

And now again they heard the great guffaw -- a solid "Haw! Haw! Haw!" which was full of such an infectious exuberance of animal good-nature that other people on the platform began to smile instinctively, and to look affectionately towards the owner of the laugh.

Already, at the sound of the laugh, the young woman had forgotten the weary and dejected resignation of the moment before, and with an absent and yet eager look of curiosity in her eyes, she was staring towards the group from which the laugh had come, and herself now laughing absently, she was stroking her big chin in a gesture of meditative curiosity, saying:

"Hah! Hah! Hah!...That's George Pentland....You can tell him anywhere by his laugh."

"Why, yes," the mother was saying briskly, with satisfaction. "That's George all right. I'd know him in the dark the minute that I heard that laugh. -- And say, what about it? He's always had it -- why, ever since he was a kid-boy -- and was going around with Steve....Oh, he'd come right out with it anywhere, you know, in Sunday school, church, or while the preacher was sayin' prayers before collection -- that big, loud laugh, you know, that you could hear, from here to yonder, as the sayin' goes....Now I don't know where it comes from -- none of the others ever had it in our family; now we all liked to laugh well enough, but I never heard no such laugh as that from any of 'em -- there's one thing sure, Will Pentland never laughed like that in his life -- Oh, Pett, you know! Pett!" -- a scornful and somewhat malicious look appeared on the woman's face as she referred to her brother's wife in that whining and affected tone with which women imitate the speech of other women whom they do not like -- "Pett got so mad at him one time when he laughed right out in church that she was goin' to take the child right home an' whip him. -- Told me, says to me, you know -- 'Oh, I could wring his neck! He'll disgrace us all,' she says, 'unless I cure him of it,' says, 'He burst right out in that great roar of his while Doctor Baines was sayin' his prayers this morning until you couldn't hear a word the preacher said.' Said, 'I was so mortified to think he could do a thing like that that I'd a-beat the blood right out of him if I'd had my buggy whip,' says, 'I don't know where it comes from' -- oh, sneerin'-like, you know," the woman said, imitating the other woman's voice with a sneering and viperous dislike -- "'I don't know where it comes from unless it's some of that common Pentland blood comin' out in him' -- 'Now you listen to me,' I says; oh, I looked her in the eye, you know" -- here the woman looked at her daughter with the straight steady stare of her worn brown eyes, illustrating her speech with the loose and powerful gesture of the half-clasped finger-pointing hand -- " 'you listen to me. I don't know where that child gets his laugh,' I says, 'but you can bet your bottom dollar that he never got it from his father -- or any other Pentland that I ever heard of -- for none of them ever laughed that way -- Will, or Jim, or Sam, or George, or Ed, or Father, or even Uncle Bacchus,' I said -- 'no, nor old Bill Pentland either, who was that child's great-grandfather -- for I've seen an' heard 'em all,' I says. 'And as for this common Pentland blood you speak of, Pett' -- oh, I guess I talked to her pretty straight, you know," she said with a little bitter smile, and the short, powerful, and convulsive tremor of her strong pursed lips -- "'as for that common Pentland blood you speak of, Pett,' I says, 'I never heard of that either -- for we stood high in the community,' I says, 'and we all felt that Will was lowerin' himself when he married a Creasman!'"

"Oh, you didn't say that, Mama, surely not," the young woman said with a hoarse, protesting, and yet abstracted laugh, continuing to survey the people on the platform with a bemused and meditative curiosity, and stroking her big chin thoughtfully as she looked at them, pausing from time to time to grin in a comical and rather formal manner, bow graciously, and murmur:

"How-do-you-do? ah-hah? How-do-you-do, Mrs. Willis?"

"Haw! Haw! Haw!" Again the great laugh of empty animal good nature burst out across the station platform, and this time George Pentland turned from the group of which he was a member and looked vacantly around him, his teeth bared with savage joy, as, with two brown fingers of his strong left hand, he dug vigorously into the muscular surface of his hard thigh. It was an animal reflex, instinctive and unconscious, habitual to him in moments of strong mirth.

He was a powerful and handsome young man in his early thirties, with coal-black hair, a strong thick neck, powerful shoulders, and the bull vitality of the athlete. He had a red, sensual, curiously animal and passionate face, and when he laughed his great guffaw, his red lips were bared over two rows of teeth that were white and regular and solid as ivory.

-- But now, the paroxysm of that savage and mindless laughter having left him, George Pentland had suddenly espied the mother and her children, waved to them in genial greeting, and excusing himself from his companions -- a group of young men and women who wore the sporting look and costume of "the country club crowd" -- he was walking towards his kinsmen at an indolent swinging stride, pausing to acknowledge heartily the greetings of people on every side, with whom he was obviously a great favorite.

As he approached, he bared his strong white teeth again in greeting, and in a drawling, rich-fibred voice, which had unmistakably the Pentland quality of sensual fulness, humor, and assurance, and a subtle but gloating note of pleased self-satisfaction, he said:

"Hello, Aunt Eliza, how are you? Hello, Helen -- how are you, Hugh?" he said in his high, somewhat accusing, but very strong and masculine voice, putting his big hand in an easy affectionate way on Barton's arm. "Where the hell you been keepin' yourself anyway?" he said accusingly. "Why don't some of you folks come over to see us sometime? Ella was askin' about you all the other day -- wanted to know why Helen didn't come around more often."

"Well, George, I tell you how it is," the young woman said with an air of great sincerity and earnestness. "Hugh and I have intended to come over a hundred times, but life has been just one damned thing after another all summer long. If I could only have a moment's peace -- if I could only get away by myself for a moment -- if they would only leave me alone for an hour at a time, I think I could get myself together again -- do you know what I mean, George?" she said hoarsely and eagerly, trying to enlist him in her sympathetic confidence -- "If they'd only do something for themselves once in a while -- but they all come to me when anything goes wrong -- they never let me have a moment's peace -- until at times I think I'm going crazy -- I get queer -- funny, you know," she said vaguely and incoherently. "I don't know whether something happened Tuesday or last week or if I just imagined it." And for a moment her big gaunt face had the dull strained look of hysteria.

"The strain on her has been very great this summer," said Barton in a deep and grave tone. "It's -- it's," he paused carefully, deeply, searching for a word, and looked down as he flicked an ash from his long cigar, "it's -- been too much for her. Everything's on her shoulders," he concluded in his deep grave voice.

"My God, George, what is it?" she said quietly and simply, in the tone of one begging for enlightenment. "Is it going to be this way all our lives? Is there never going to be any peace or happiness for us? Does it always have to be this way? Now I want to ask you -- is there nothing in the world but trouble?"

"Trouble!" he said derisively. "Why, I've had more trouble than any one of you ever heard of....I've had enough to kill a dozen people...but when I saw it wasn't goin' to kill me, I quit worryin'....So you do the same thing," he advised heartily. "Hell, don't worry, Helen!...It never got you anywhere....You'll be all right," he said. "You got nothin' to worry over. You don't know what trouble is."

"Oh, I'd be all right, George -- I think I could stand anything -- all the rest of it -- if it wasn't for Papa....I'm almost crazy from worrying about him this summer. There were three times there when I knew he was gone....And I honestly believe I pulled him back each time by main strength and determination -- do you know what I mean?" she said hoarsely and eagerly -- "I was just determined not to let him go. If his heart had stopped beating I believe I could have done something to make it start again -- I'd have stood over him and blown my breath into him -- got my blood into him -- shook him," she said with a powerful, nervous movement of her big hands -- "anything just to keep him alive."

"She's -- she's -- saved his life -- time after time," said Barton slowly, flicking his cigar ash carefully away, and looking down deeply, searching for a word.

"He'd -- he'd -- have been a dead man long ago -- if it hadn't been for her."

"Yeah -- I know she has," George Pentland drawled agreeably. "I know you've sure stuck by Uncle Will -- I guess he knows it, too."

"It's not that I mind it, George -- you know what I mean?" she said eagerly. "Good heavens! I believe I could give away a dozen lives if I thought it was going to save his life!...But it's the strain of it....Month after month...year after year...lying awake at night wondering if he's all right over there in that back room in Mama's house -- wondering if he's keeping warm in that old cold house -- -- "

"Why, no, child," the older woman said hastily. "I kept a good fire burnin' in that room all last winter -- that was the warmest room in the whole place -- there wasn't a warmer -- -- "

But immediately she was engulfed, swept aside, obliterated in the flood-tide of the other's speech.

" -- Wondering if he's sick or needs me -- if he's begun to bleed again -- oh! George, it makes me sick to think about it -- that poor old man left there all alone, rotting away with that awful cancer, with that horrible smell about him all the time -- everything he wears gets simply stiff with that rotten corrupt matter -- Do you know what it is to wait, wait, wait, year after year, and year after year, never knowing when he's going to die, to have him hang on by a thread until it seems you've lived forever -- that there'll never be an end -- that you'll never have a chance to live your own life -- to have a moment's peace or rest or happiness yourself? My God, does it always have to be this way?...Can I never have a moment's happiness?...Must they always come to me? Does everything have to be put on my shoulders?...Will you tell me that?" Her voice had risen to a note of frenzied despair. She was glaring at her cousin with a look of desperate and frantic entreaty, her whole gaunt figure tense and strained with the stress of her hysteria.

"That's -- that's the trouble now," said Barton, looking down and searching for the word. "She's...she's...made the goat for every one....She...she has to do it all....That's...that's the thing that's got her down."

"Not that I mind -- if it will do any good....Good heavens, Papa's life means more to me than anything on earth....I'd keep him alive at any cost as long as there was a breath left in him....But it's the strain of it, the strain of it -- to wait, to wait year after year, to feel it hanging over you all the time, never to know when he will die -- always the strain, the strain -- do you see what I mean, George?" she said hoarsely, eagerly, and pleadingly. "You see, don't you?"

"I sure do, Helen," he said sympathetically, digging at his thigh, and with a swift, cat-like grimace of his features. "I know it's been mighty tough on you....How is Uncle Will now?" he said. "Is he any better?"

"Why, yes," the mother was saying, "he seemed to improve -- " but she was cut off immediately.

"Oh, yes," the daughter said in a tone of weary dejection. "He pulled out of this last spell and got well enough to make the trip to Baltimore -- we sent him back a week ago to take another course of treatments....But it does no real good, George....They can't cure him....We know that now....They've told us that....It only prolongs the agony....They help him for a little while and then it all begins again....Poor old man!" she said, and her eyes were wet. "I'd give everything I have -- my own blood, my own life -- if it would do him any good -- but, George, he's gone!" she said desperately. "Can't you understand that?...They can't save him!...Nothing can save him!...Papa's a dead man now!"

George looked gravely sympathetic for a moment, winced swiftly, dug hard fingers in his thigh, and then said:

"Who went to Baltimore with him?"

"Why, Luke's up there," the mother said. "We had a letter from him yesterday -- said Mr. Gant looks much better already -- eats well, you know, has a good appetite -- and Luke says he's in good spirits. Now -- -- "

"Oh, Mama, for heaven's sake!" the daughter cried. "What's the use of talking that way?...He's not getting any better....Papa's a sick man -- dying -- good God! Can no one ever get that into their heads!" she burst out furiously. "Am I the only one that realizes how sick he is?"

"No, now I was only sayin'," the mother began hastily -- "Well, as I say, then," she went on, "Luke's up there with him -- and Gene's on his way there now -- he's goin' to stop off there tomorrow on his way up north to school."

"Gene!" cried George Pentland in a high, hearty, bantering tone, turning to address the boy directly for the first time. "What's all this I hear about you, son?" He clasped his muscular hand around the boy's arm in a friendly but powerful grip. "Ain't one college enough for you, boy?" he drawled, becoming deliberately ungrammatical and speaking good-naturedly but with a trace of the mockery which the wastrel and ne'er-do-well sometimes feels towards people who have had the energy and application required for steady or concentrated effort. "Are you one of those fellers who needs two or three colleges to hold him down?"

The boy flushed, grinned uncertainly, and said nothing.

"Why, son," drawled George in his hearty, friendly and yet bantering tone, in which a note of malice was evident, "you'll be gettin' so educated an' high brow here before long that you won't be able to talk to the rest of us at all....You'll be floatin' around there so far up in the clouds that you won't even see a roughneck like me, much less talk to him" -- As he went on with this kind of sarcasm, his speech had become almost deliberately illiterate, as if trying to emphasize the superior virtue of the rough, hearty, home-grown fellow in comparison with the bookish scholar.

" -- Where's he goin' to this time, Aunt Eliza?" he said, turning to her questioningly, but still holding the boy's arm in his strong grip. "Where's he headin' for now?"

"Why," she said, stroking her pursed serious mouth with a slightly puzzled movement, "he says he's goin' to Harvard. I reckon," she said, in the same puzzled tone, "it's all right -- I guess he knows what he's about. Says he's made up his mind to go -- I told him," she said, and shook her head again, "that I'd send him for a year if he wanted to try it -- an' then he'll have to get out an' shift for himself. We'll see," she said. "I reckon it's all right."

"Harvard, eh?" said George Pentland. "Boy, you are flyin' high!...What you goin' to do up there?"

The boy, furiously red of face, squirmed, and finally stammered:

"Why...I...guess...I guess I'll do some studying!"

"You guess you will!" roared George. "You'd damn well better do some studying -- I bet your mother'll take it out of your hide if she finds you loafin' on her money."

"Why, yes," the mother said, nodding seriously, "I told him it was up to him to make the most of this -- -- "

"Harvard, eh!" George Pentland said again, slowly looking his cousin over from head to foot. "Son, you're flyin' high, you are!...Now don't fly so high you never get back to earth again!...You know the rest of us who didn't go to Harvard still have to walk around upon the ground down here," he said. "So don't fly too high or we may not even be able to see you!"

"George! George!" said the young woman in a low tone, holding one hand to her mouth, and bending over to whisper loudly as she looked at her young brother. "Do you think any one could fly very high with a pair of feet like that?"

George Pentland looked at the boy's big feet for a moment, shaking his head slowly in much wonderment.

"Hell, no!" he said at length. "He'd never get off the ground!...But if you cut 'em off," he said, "he'd go right up like a balloon, wouldn't he? Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw!" The great guffaw burst from him, and grinning with his solid teeth, he dug blindly at his thigh.

"Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi," the sister jeered, seeing the boy's flushed and angry face and prodding him derisively in the ribs -- "This is our Harvard boy! k, k, k, k!"

"Don't let 'em kid you, son," said George now in an amiable and friendly manner. "Good luck to you! Give 'em hell when you get up there!...You're the only one of us who ever had guts enough to go through college, and we're proud of you!...Tell Uncle Bascom and Aunt Louise and all the rest of 'em hello for me when you get to Boston....And remember me to your father and Luke when you get to Baltimore....Good-bye, Gene -- I've got to leave you now. Good luck, son," and with a friendly grip of his powerful hand he turned to go. "You folks come over sometime -- all of you," he said in parting. "We'd like to see you." And he went away.

At this moment, all up and down the platform, people had turned to listen to the deep excited voice of a young man who was saying in a staccato tone of astounded discovery:

"You don't mean it!...You swear she did!...And you were there and saw it with your own eyes!...Well, if that don't beat all I ever heard of!...I'll be damned!" after which ejaculation, with an astounded falsetto laugh, he looked about him in an abstracted and unseeing manner, thrust one hand quickly and nervously into his trouser's pocket in such a way that his fine brown coat came back, and the large diamond-shaped pin of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity was revealed, and at the same time passing one thin nervous hand repeatedly over the lank brown hair that covered his small and well-shaped head, and still muttering in tones of stupefied disbelief -- "Lord! Lord!...What do you know about that?" suddenly espied the woman and her two children at the other end of the platform, and without a moment's pause, turned on his heel, and walked towards them, at the same time muttering to his astonished friends:

"Wait a minute!...Some one over here I've got to speak to!...Back in a minute!"

He approached the mother and her children rapidly, at his stiff, prim and somewhat lunging stride, his thin face fixed eagerly upon them, bearing towards them with a driving intensity of purpose as if the whole interest and energy of his life was focussed on them, as if some matter of the most vital consequence depended on his reaching them as soon as possible. Arrived, he immediately began to address the other youth without a word of greeting or explanation, bursting out with the sudden fragmentary explosiveness that was part of him:

"Are you taking this train, too?...Are you going today?...Well, what did you decide to do?" he demanded mysteriously in an accusing and challenging fashion. "Have you made up your mind yet?...

"Pett Barnes says you've decided on Harvard. Is that it?"

"Yes, it is."

"Lord, Lord!" said the youth, laughing his falsetto laugh again. "I don't see how you can!...You'd better come on with me....What ever got into your head to do a thing like that?" he said in a challenging tone. "Why do you want to go to a place like that?"

"Hah? What say?" The mother who had been looking from one to the other of the two boys with the quick and startled attentiveness of an animal, now broke in:

"You know each other....Hah?...You're taking this train, too, you say?" she said sharply.

"Ah-hah-hah!" the young man laughed abruptly, nervously; grinned, made a quick stiff little bow, and said with nervous engaging respectfulness: "Yes, Ma'am!...Ah-hah-hah!...How d'ye do!...How d'ye do, Mrs. Gant?" He shook hands with her quickly, still laughing his broken and nervous "ah-hah-hah" -- "How d'ye do," he said, grinning nervously at the younger woman and at Barton. "Ah-hah-hah! How d'ye do!"

The older woman still holding his hand in her rough worn clasp looked up at him a moment calmly, her lips puckered in tranquil meditation:

"Now," she said quietly, in the tone of a person who refuses to admit failure, "I know you. I know your face. Just give me a moment and I'll call you by your name."

The young man grinned quickly, nervously, and then said respectfully in his staccato speech:

"Yes, Ma'am....Ah-hah-hah....Robert Weaver."

"Ah-h, that's so!" she cried, and shook his hand with sudden warmth. "You're Robert Weaver's boy, of course."

"Ah-hah-hah!" said Robert, with his quick nervous laugh. "Yes, Ma'am....That's right....Ah-hah-hah....Gene and I went to school together. We were in the same class at the University."

"Why, of course!" she cried in a tone of complete enlightenment, and then went on in a rather vexed manner, "I'll vow! I knew you all along! I knew that I'd seen you just as soon as I saw your face! Your name just slipped my mind a moment -- and then, of course, it all flashed over me....You're Robert Weaver's boy!...And you are," she still held his hand in her strong, motherly and friendly clasp, and looking at him with a little sly smile hovering about the corners of her mouth, she was silent a moment, regarding him quizzically -- "now, boy," she said quietly, "you may think I've got a pretty poor memory for names and faces -- but I want to tell you something that may surprise you....I know more about you than you think I do. Now," she said, "I'm going to tell you something and you can tell me if I'm right."

"Ah-hah-hah!" said Robert respectfully. "Yes, Ma'am."

"You were born," she went on slowly and deliberately, "on September 2nd, 1898, and you are just two years and one month and one day older than this boy here -- " she nodded to her own son. "Now you can tell me if I'm right or wrong."

"Ah-hah-hah!" said Robert. "Yes, Ma'am....That's right....You're absolutely right," he cried, and then in an astounded and admiring tone, he said: "Well, I'll declare....If that don't beat all!...How on earth did you ever remember it!" he cried in an astonished tone that obviously was very gratifying to her vanity.

"Well, now, I'll tell you," she said with a little complacent smile -- "I'll tell you how I know....I remember the day you were born, boy -- because it was on that very day that one of my own children -- my son, Luke -- was allowed to get up out of bed after havin' typhoid fever....That very day, sir, when Mr. Gant came home to dinner, he said -- 'Well, I was just talking to Robert Weaver on the street and everything's all right. His wife gave birth to a baby boy this morning and he says she's out of danger.' And I know I said to him, 'Well, then, it's been a lucky day for both of us. McGuire was here this morning and he said Luke is now well enough to be up and about. He's out of danger.' -- And I reckon," she went on quietly, "that's why the date made such an impression on me -- of course, Luke had been awfully sick," she said gravely, and shook her head, "we thought he was goin' to die more than once -- so when the doctor came and told me he was out of danger -- well, it was a day of rejoicin' for me, sure enough. But that's how I know -- September 2nd, 1898 -- that's when it was, all right, the very day when you were born."

"Ah-hah-hah!" said Robert. "That is certainly right....Well, if that don't beat all!" he cried with his astounded and engaging air of surprise. "The most remarkable thing I ever heard of!" he said solemnly.

"So the next time you see your father," the woman said, with the tranquil satisfaction of omniscience, "you tell him that you met Eliza Pentland -- he'll know who I am, boy -- I can assure you -- for we were born and brought up within five miles from each other and you can tell him that she knew you right away, and even told you to the hour and minute the day when you were born!...You tell him that," she said.

"Yes, Ma'am!" said Robert respectfully, "I certainly will!...I'll tell him!...That is certainly a remarkable thing....Ah-hah-hah!...Beats all I ever heard of!...Ah-hah-hah," he kept bowing and smiling to the young woman and her husband, and muttering "ah-hah-hah!...Pleased to have met you....Got to go now: some one over here I've got to see...but I'll certainly tell him...ah-hah-hah....Gene, I'll see you on the train....Good-bye....Good-bye....Glad to have met you all....Ah-hah-hah....Certainly a remarkable thing....Good-bye!" and turning abruptly, he left them, walking rapidly along at his stiff, prim, curiously lunging stride.

The younger woman looked after the boy's tall form as he departed, stroking her chin in a reflective and abstracted manner:

"So that's Judge Robert Weaver's son, is it?...Well," she went on, nodding her head vigorously in a movement of affirmation. "He's all right....He's got good manners....He looks and acts like a gentleman....You can see he's had a good bringing up....I like him!" she declared positively again.

"Why, yes," said the mother, who had been following the tall retreating form with a reflective look, her hands loose-folded at her waist -- "Why, yes," she continued, nodding her head in a thoughtful and conceding manner that was a little comical in its implications -- "He's a good-looking all-right sort of a boy....And he certainly seems to be intelligent enough." She was silent for a moment, pursing her lips thoughtfully and then concluded with a little nod -- "Well, now, the boy may be all right....I'm not saying that he isn't....He may turn out all right, after all."

"All right?" her daughter said, frowning a little and showing a little annoyance, but with a faint lewd grin around the corners of her mouth -- "what do you mean by all right, Mama? Why, of course he's all right....What makes you think he's not?"

The other woman was silent for another moment: when she spoke again, her manner was tinged with portent, and she turned and looked at her daughter a moment in a sudden, straight and deadly fashion before she spoke:

"Now, child," she said, "I'm going to tell you: perhaps everything will turn out all right for that boy -- I hope it does -- but -- -- "

"Oh, my God!" the younger woman laughed hoarsely but with a shade of anger, and turning, prodded her brother stiffly in the ribs. "Now we'll get it!" she sniggered, prodding him, "k-k-k-k-k! What do you call it?" she said with a lewd frowning grin that was indescribably comic in its evocations of coarse humor -- "the low down? -- the dirt? -- Did you ever know it to fail? -- The moment that you meet any one, and up comes the family corpse."

" -- Well, now, child, I'm not saying anything against the boy -- perhaps it won't touch him -- maybe he'll be the one to escape -- to turn out all right -- but -- -- "

"Oh, my God!" the younger woman groaned, rolling her eyes around in a comical and imploring fashion. "Here it comes."

"You are too young to know about it yourself," the other went on gravely -- "you belong to another generation -- you don't know about it -- but I do." She paused again, shook her pursed lips with a convulsive pucker of distaste, and then looking at her daughter again in her straight and deadly fashion, said slowly, with a powerful movement of the hand:

"There's been insanity in that boy's family for generations back!"

"Oh, my God! I knew it!" the other groaned.

"Yes, sir!" the mother said implacably -- "and two of his aunts -- Robert Weaver's own sisters died raving maniacs -- and Robert Weaver's mother herself was insane for the last twenty years of her life up to the hour of her death -- and I've heard tell that it went back -- -- "

"Well, deliver me," the younger woman checked her, frowning, speaking almost sullenly. "I don't want to hear any more about it....It's a mighty funny thing that they all seem to get along now -- better than we let's let bygones be bygones...don't dig up the past."

Turning to her brother with a little frowning smile, she said wearily: "Did you ever know it to fail?...They know it all, don't they?" she said mysteriously. "The minute you meet any one you like, they spill the dirt....Well, I don't care," she muttered. "You stick to people like that....He looks like a nice boy and -- " with an impressed look over towards Robert's friends, she concluded, "he goes with a nice crowd....You stick to that kind of people. I'm all for him."

Now the mother was talking again: the boy could see her powerful and delicate mouth convolving with astonishing rapidity in a series of pursed thoughtful lips, tremulous smiles, bantering and quizzical jocosities, old sorrow and memory, quiet gravity, the swift easy fluency of tears that the coming of a train always induced in her, thoughtful seriousness, and sudden hopeful speculation.

"Well, boy," she was now saying gravely, "you are going -- as the sayin' goes -- "here she shook her head slightly, strongly, rapidly with powerful puckered lips, and instantly her weak worn eyes of brown were wet with tears" -- as the sayin' goes -- to a strange land -- a stranger among strange people. -- It may be a long long time," she whispered in an old husky tone, her eyes tear-wet as she shook her head mysteriously with a brave pathetic smile that suddenly filled the boy with rending pity, anguish of the soul, and a choking sense of exasperation and of woman's unfairness" -- I hope we are all here when you come back again....I hope you find us all alive...." She smiled bravely, mysteriously, tearfully. "You never know," she whispered, "you never know."

"Mama," he could hear his voice sound hoarsely and remotely in his throat, choked with anguish and exasperation at her easy fluency of sorrow," -- Mama -- in Christ's name! Why do you have to act like this every time some one goes away!...I beg of you, for God's sake, not to do it!"

"Oh, stop it! Stop it!" his sister said in a rough, peremptory and yet kindly tone to the mother, her eyes grave and troubled, but with a faint rough smile about the edges of her generous mouth. "He's not going away forever! Why, good heavens, you act as if some one is dead! Boston's not so far away you'll never see him again! The trains are running every day, you know....Besides," she said abruptly and with an assurance that infuriated the boy, "he's not going today, anyway. Why, you haven't any intention of going today, you know you haven't," she said to him. "He's been fooling you all along," she now said, turning to the mother with an air of maddening assurance. "He has no idea of taking that train. He's going to wait over until tomorrow. I've known it all along."

The boy went stamping away from them up the platform, and then came stamping back at them while the other people on the platform grinned and stared.

"Helen, in God's name!" he croaked frantically. "Why do you start that when I'm all packed up and waiting here at the God-damned station for the train! You know I'm going away today!" he yelled, with a sudden sick desperate terror in his heart as he thought that something might now come in the way of going. "You know I am! Why did we come here? What in Christ's name are we waiting for if you don't think I'm going?"


The young woman laughed her high, husky laugh which was almost deliberately irritating and derisive -- "Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!" -- and prodded him in the ribs with her large stiff fingers. Then, almost wearily, she turned away, plucking at her large chin absently, and said: "Well, have it your own way! It's your own funeral! If you're determined to go today, no one can stop you. But I don't see why you can't just as well wait over till tomorrow."

"Why, yes!" the mother now said briskly and confidently. "That's exactly what I'd do if I were you!...Now, it's not going to do a bit of harm to any one if you're a day or so late in gettin' there....Now I've never been there myself," she went on in her tone of tranquil sarcasm, "but I've always heard that Harvard University was a good big sort of place -- and I'll bet you'll find," the mother now said gravely, with a strong slow nod of conviction -- "I'll bet you'll find that it's right there where it always was when you get there. I'll bet you find they haven't moved a foot," she said, "and let me tell you something, boy," she now continued, looking at him almost sternly, but with the ghost of a smile about her powerful and delicate mouth " -- now I haven't had your education and I reckon I don't know as much about universities as you do -- but I've never heard of one yet that would run a feller away for bein' a day late as long as he's got money enough to pay his tuition....Now you'll find 'em waitin' for you when you get there -- and you'll get in," she said slowly and powerfully. "You don't have to worry about that -- they'll be glad to see you, and they'll take you in a hurry when they see you've got the price."

"Now, Mama," he said in a quiet frenzied tone, "I beg of you, for God's sake, please, not to -- -- "

"All right, all right," the mother answered hastily in a placating tone, "I was only sayin' -- -- "

"If you will kindly, please, for God's sake -- -- "

"K-k-k-k-k-k!" his sister snickered, poking him in the ribs.

But now the train was coming. Down the powerful shining tracks a half mile away, the huge black snout of the locomotive swung slowly round the magnificent bend and flare of the rails that went into the railway yards of Altamont two miles away, and with short explosive thunders of its squat funnel came barging slowly forward. Across the golden pollenated haze of the warm autumnal afternoon they watched it with numb lips and an empty hollowness of fear, delight, and sorrow in their hearts.

And from the sensual terror, the ecstatic tension of that train's approach, all things before, around, about the boy came to instant life, to such sensuous and intolerable poignancy of life as a doomed man might feel who looks upon the world for the last time from the platform of the scaffold where he is to die. He could feel, taste, smell, and see everything with an instant still intensity, the animate fixation of a vision seen instantly, fixed forever in the mind of him who sees it, and sense the clumped dusty autumn masses of the trees that bordered the tracks upon the left, and smell the thick exciting hot tarred caulking of the tracks, the dry warmth and good worn wooden smell of the powerful railway ties, and see the dull rusty red, the gaping emptiness and joy of a freight car, its rough floor whitened with soft siltings of thick flour, drawn in upon a spur of rusty track behind a warehouse of raw concrete blocks, and see with sudden desolation, the warehouse flung down rawly, newly, there among the hot, humid, spermy, nameless, thick-leaved field-growth of the South.

Then the locomotive drew in upon them, loomed enormously above them, and slowly swept by them with a terrific drive of eight-locked pistoned wheels, all higher than their heads, a savage furnace-flare of heat, a hard hose-thick hiss of steam, a moment's vision of a lean old head, an old gloved hand of cunning on the throttle, a glint of demon hawk-eyes fixed forever on the rails, a huge tangle of gauges, levers, valves, and throttles, and the goggled blackened face of the fireman, lit by an intermittent hell of flame, as he bent and swayed with rhythmic swing of laden shovel at his furnace doors.

The locomotive passed above them, darkening the sunlight from their faces, engulfing them at once and filling them with terror, drawing the souls out through their mouths with the God-head of its instant absoluteness, and leaving them there, emptied, frightened, fixed forever, a cluster of huddled figures, a bough of small white staring faces, upturned, silent, and submissive, small, lonely, and afraid.

Then as the heavy rust-black coaches rumbled past, and the wheels ground slowly to a halt, the boy could see his mother's white stunned face beside him, the naked startled innocence of her eyes, and feel her rough worn clasp upon his arm, and hear her startled voice, full of apprehension, terror, and surprise, as she said sharply:

"Hah? What say? Is this his train? I thought -- -- "

It was his train and it had come to take him to the strange and secret heart of the great North that he had never known, but whose austere and lonely image, whose frozen heat and glacial fire, and dark stern beauty had blazed in his vision since he was a child. For he had dreamed and hungered for the proud unknown North with that wild ecstasy, that intolerable and wordless joy of longing and desire, which only a Southerner can feel. With a heart of fire, a brain possessed, a spirit haunted by the strange, secret and unvisited magic of the proud North, he had always known that some day he should find it -- his heart's hope and his father's country, the lost but unforgotten half of his own soul, -- and take it for his own.

And now that day had come, and these two images -- call them rather lights and weathers of man's soul -- of the world-far, lost and lonely South, and the fierce, the splendid, strange and secret North were swarming like a madness through his blood. And just as he had seen a thousand images of the buried and silent South which he had known all his life, so now he had a vision of the proud fierce North with all its shining cities, and its tides of life. He saw the rocky sweetness of its soil and its green loveliness, and he knew its numb soft prescience, its entrail-stirring ecstasy of coming snow, its smell of harbors and its traffic of proud ships.

He could not utter what he wished to say and yet the wild and powerful music of those two images kept swelling in him and it seemed that the passion of their song must burst his heart, explode the tenement of bright blood and agony in which they surged, and tear the sinews of his life asunder unless he found some means to utter them.

But no words came. He only knew the image of man's loneliness, a feeling of sorrow, desolation, and wild mournful secret joy, longing and desire, as sultry, moveless and mysterious in its slow lust as the great rivers of the South themselves. And at the same moment that he felt this wild and mournful sorrow, the slow, hot, secret pulsings of desire, and breathed the heavy and mysterious fragrance of the lost South again, he felt suddenly and terribly, its wild strange pull, the fatal absoluteness of its world-lost resignation.

Then, with a sudden feeling of release, a realization of the incredible escape that now impended for him, he knew that he was waiting for the train, and that the great life of the North, the road to freedom, solitude and the enchanted promise of the golden cities was now before him. Like a dream made real, a magic come to life, he knew that in another hour he would be speeding world-ward, life-ward, North-ward out of the enchanted, time-far hills, out of the dark heart and mournful mystery of the South forever.

And as that overwhelming knowledge came to him, a song of triumph, joy, and victory so savage and unutterable, that he could no longer hold it in his heart was torn from his lips in a bestial cry of fury, pain, and ecstasy. He struck his arms out in the shining air for loss, for agony, for joy. The whole earth reeled about him in a kaleidoscopic blur of shining rail, massed heavy greens, and white empetalled faces of the staring people.

And suddenly he was standing there among his people on the platform of the little station. All things and shapes on earth swam back into their proper shape again, and he could hear his mother's voice, the broken clatter of the telegraph, and see, there on the tracks, the blunt black snout, the short hard blasts of steam from its squat funnel, the imminent presence, the enormous bigness of the train.

Copyright © 1935 by Charles Scribner's Sons

Copyright © 1963 by Paul Gitlin Administrator, C.T.A.

About The Author

Courtesy of the Thomas Wolfe Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, NC

Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938) was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and educated at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University. He taught English at New York University and traveled extensively in Europe and America. Wolfe created his legacy as a classic American novelist with Look Homeward, Angel; Of Time and the River; A Stone, a Leaf, a Door; and From Death to Morning.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (September 8, 1999)
  • Length: 896 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684867854

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“In 1949, when I was sixteen, I stumbled on Thomas Wolfe, who died at thirty-eight in 1938, and who made numerous adolescents aside from me devotees of literature for life. In Wolfe, everything was heroically outsized, whether it was the voracious appetite for experience of Eugene Gant, the hero of his first two novels, or of George Webber, the hero of his last two. The hero's loneliness, his egocentrism, his sprawling consciousness gave rise to a tone of elegiac lyricism that was endlessly sustained by the raw yearning for an epic existence—for an epic American existence. And, in those postwar years, what imaginative young reader didn't yearn for that?”

– Philip Roth

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