You Can't Go Home Again

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About The Book

Now available from Thomas Wolfe’s original publisher, the final novel by the literary legend, that “will stand apart from everything else that he wrote” (The New York Times Book Review)—first published in 1940 and long considered a classic of twentieth century literature.

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.”

Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for You Can't Go Home Again includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

INTRODUCTION

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 have a similar or different view of the use of autobiographical elements? Explain.

3. George takes two long journeys by train in You Can’t Go Home Again: from New York City to Libya Hill, and from Berlin to Paris. Discuss the fellow passengers George encounters on each trip. What does George learn from them during each of these train rides?

4. Discuss the depiction of working-class characters in the novel. What tensions simmer between the workers in the Jacks’ building in the chapter "Service Entrance?" What do the fatalities in the building fire suggest about the differences between the workers and the tenants of the building? How do the workers in the Jacks’ building compare to Daisy Purvis, the British charwoman who works for George in his London flat?

5. Consider the role of women in You Can’t Go Home Again. What do Esther Jack, Margaret, and Else mean to George at various points in his life? How are these female characters depicted?

6. Discuss the character of Fox Edwards, George’s editor and "the father of his spirit." (p. 23) Describe the bond between George and Fox. What qualities does George admire in his editor? How are their worldviews different and ultimately incompatible? Why does George decide to break from his "great editor and father-confessor and true friend" in the end? (p. 374)

7. Analyze a scene that is written from another perspective besides George’s, such as Mr. or Mrs. Jack’s, Stephen Hook’s, or Fox Edwards’. How does the world look different through another character’s eyes?

8. Compare George’s impressions of his two homes during the 1930s: America during the Great Depression and Nazi Germany. What forms of suffering and cultural stagnation does George witness in each of these countries? George writes in his letter to Fox, "I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found." (p. 637) Why does George have greater hope for America than for Europe?

9. At the end of the novel, George concludes, "Fame, like Love, was not enough." (p. 622) Discuss George’s encounters with love and fame. Why are they insufficient for him? Which characters help him discover the emptiness of these goals? What does George come to value over fame and love?

10. Compare the 1929 stock market crash that the novel describes to the recent financial crisis in America. Does Wolfe’s depiction of America before and after the crash feel relevant to our time? Why or why not?

11. As a writer, George believes that "if he could only succeed in capturing a fragment of the truth about the life he knew, and make it known and felt by others, it would be a more glorious accomplishment than anything else he could imagine." (p. 426) Do you think that Wolfe has achieved this goal in writing You Can’t Go Home Again? Explain.

12. Discuss the various meanings of the title You Can’t Go Home Again. What are the various homes that George yearns for? Why can’t he return to each of them? What creative and spiritual alternatives to home does he discover?

13. Which writers do you think influenced Wolfe’s style? Which writers from the twentieth and twentieth-first century seem inspired by Wolfe?

14. Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again in the last two years of his life, and it took Edward C. Aswell three years to edit Wolfe’s enormous manuscript after he died. Imagine some of the difficulties in editing Wolfe’s expansive style for publication. What do you think of Aswell’s final result? Do you find the italicized sections that connect some of the chapters—added by Aswell in the editing stage—to be an important addition to the novel? Why or why not?

ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB

1. Get inspired by Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical style and write a few character sketches based on people from your hometown. Assign fictional names to some of those memorable friends and neighbors, and write a sentence or two about each character’s features and behaviors. Consider sharing your character sketches with your group.

2. Party like it’s 1929! Dress up for your book club meeting like partygoers at the Jacks’ apartment in New York City. Check out these fashion drawings for inspiration: http://www.fashion-era.com/C20th_costume_history/1928_silhouettes_1.htm ?

3. Read all about Maxwell Perkins, Thomas Wolfe’s editor and the inspiration for the character Fox Edwards: http://www.nchistoricsites.org/wolfe/perkins.htm. Treat your book club to a movie night featuring another classic that Perkins edited, such as The Great Gatsby, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or From Here to Eternity.

4. View an online exhibit by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, where George and Else witnessed the rise of the Nazi regime in You Can’t Go Home Again: http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/olympics/?lang=en.

5. If your book club enjoyed You Can’t Go Home Again, choose Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, as your next book club selection.
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 (October 2011)
  • Length: 656 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451650501

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Raves and Reviews

“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

“Wolfe wrote as one inspired. No one in his generation had his command of language, his passion, his energy.” --Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker

You Can’t Go Home Again will stand apart from everthing else that [Wolfe] wrote because this is the book of a man who had come to terms with himself, who was on his wa to mastery of his art, who had something profoundly important to say.” –New York Times Book Review

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