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Monday, June 17, 2013

"Single Selfishness and Compulsive Greed" explained in great detail by author Thomas Wolfe.

First edition coverTo make a long story short I am not well versed in English  Literature. 
In the  sixth grade I did read The Human Comedy by William Saroyan which I regard as the great American novel.

 In College the English Department and I quarreled over such things as late papers. I left in a huff and went to Slavic Studies Department where they were rolling out an  extensive Russian Literature in English translation Curriculum. There I was always good for a B and sometimes but rarely an A.

Later in mid life I did read the complete works of Shakespeare. I also enjoyed the writng of George Orwell and the novels Evelyn Waugh.

Still my knowledge of the English Language as Literature (except when it is translating Russian) is extremely limited. Therefore  it never ceases to amaze me when I stumble across a rather brilliant work of literature in original English.

My parents liked the American writer Thomas Wolfe (1900-1937 Author of  four novels,  Look Homeward Angel,Of Time and the River and published posthumously, The Web and The Rock and You can't Go Home Again.

In  fact Thomas Wolfe  and  College Basketball may have been the reason why my parents retired to Chapel Hill North Carolina, home of the University of North Carolina. Thomas Wolfe was a graduate of UNC and in his very autobiographical novels he referrers to the town as "Pulpit Hill."

Ever since the early 1960's It was my Mother's contention  that we were living in the last days of the Roman Empire. The reason? Single selfishness and compulsive greed. Read Thomas Wolfe, she would say.

I was in college before I really started listening to my mother.  By then Thomas Wolfe was old. There was another writer a Tom Wolfe who wrote The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test but that was something different.

My mother warned me that reading the original Thomas Wolfe would not be easy. In fact he wrote in all directions at once and benefited from a brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins  who put much of what Wolfe wrote together in a coherent form. I think she expected me to try reading Thomas Wolfe novels  but I didn't which was probably a disappointment.

She passed away in 1997. My father gave me a xerox copy of a page from a book that he said she wanted read at her funeral. A passage was marked off and I was given the honor of reading it. I wasn't sure I could manage without going to pieces but my wife showed me how to read the piece properly. I tried to get her to read it. She is good at that sort of thing but she said it was my place to read it. Somehow I managed the feat. After the service people complimented me(?) on selecting "Thomas Wolfe at his best."

In reality the only  Thomas Wolfe I could actually claim to know the short story entitled, "Who Knows Brooklyn ? Only the Dead Know Brooklyn."  The story was written entirely in the long gone Brooklyn dialect where the neighborhood "Bensonhurst" is pronounced "Bensonhoist" It concerns a man  who rides the subway with a map trying to learn Brooklyn. The locals laugh at him.  The Borough is too big and there isn't enough time on this earth to do it that way. Anyway until you are dead you really won't know Brooklyn and even after death you won't know everything.

The expression single selfishness and compulsive greed is easier, to comprehend.We used it in a story about the possible closing of the Troy Library two years ago. The other day we got a search query containing just those five words. We shudder to think someone was looking to us for enlightenment. We put those five words back into Google to see what turned up and we got last page of 

You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

48. Credo

I have never before made a statement of belief [George wrote in his conclusion to Fox], although I have believed in many things and said that I believed in them. But I have never stated my belief in concrete terms because almost every element of my nature has been opposed to the hard framework, the finality, of formulation.
Just as you are the rock of life, I am the web; just as you are Time’s granite, so, I think, am I Time’s plant. My life, more than that of anyone I know, has taken on the form of growth. No man that I have known was ever more deeply rooted in the soil of Time and Memory, the weather of his individual universe, than was I. You followed me through the course of that whole herculean conflict. For four years, as I lived and worked and explored the jungle depths of Brooklyn — jungle depths coincident with those of my own soul — you were beside me, you followed, and you stuck.
The Magical Campus: University of North Carolina Writings, 1917-1920
You never had a doubt that I would finish — make an end — round out the cycle — come to the whole of it. The only doubt was mine, enhanced, tormented by my own fatigue and desperation, and by the clacking of the feeble and malicious little tongues which, knowing nothing, whispered that I would never make an end again because I could not begin. We both knew how grotesquely false this was — so false and so grotesque that it was sometimes the subject of an anguished and exasperated laugh. The truth was so far different that my own fears were just the opposite: that I might never make an end to anything again because I could never get through telling what I knew, what I felt and thought and had to say about it.
That was a giant web in which I was caught, the product of my huge inheritance — the torrential recollectiveness, derived out of my mother’s stock, which became a living, million-fibred integument that bound me to the past, not only of my own life, but of the very earth from which I came, so that nothing in the end escaped from its inrooted and all-feeling explorativeness. The way the sunlight came and went upon a certain day, the way grass felt between bare toes, the immediacy of noon, the slamming of an iron gate, the halting skreak upon the corner of a street car, the liquid sound of shoe leather on the pavements as men came home to lunch, the smell of turnip greens, the clang of ice-tongs, and the clucking of a hen — and then Time fading like a dream, Time melting to oblivion, when I was two years old. Not only this, but all lost sounds and voices, forgotten memories exhumed with a constant pulsing of the ‘brain’s great ventricle, until I lived them in my dreams, carrying the stupendous and unceasing burden of them through the unresting passages of sleep. Nothing that had ever been was lost. It all came back in an endless flow, even the blisters of the paint upon the mantelpiece in my father’s house, the smell of the old leather sofa with my father’s print upon it, the smell of dusty bottles and of cobwebs in the cellar, the casual stomping of a slow, gaunt hoof upon the pulpy lumber of a livery stable floor, the proud lift and flourish of a whisking tail, and the oaty droppings. I lived again through all times and weathers I had known — through the fag-ends of wintry desolation in the month of March and the cold, bleak miseries of ragged red at sunset, the magic of young green in April, the blind horror and suffocation of concrete places in mid-summer sun where no limits were, and October with the smell of fallen leaves and wood smoke in the air. The forgotten moments and unnumbered hours came back to me with all the enormous cargo of my memory, together with lost voices in the mountains long ago, the voices of the kinsmen dead and never seen, and the houses they had built and died in, and the rutted roads they trod upon, and every unrecorded moment that Aunt Maw had told me of the lost and obscure lives they led long, long ago. So did it all revive in the ceaseless pulsings of the giant ventricle, so did the plant go back, stem by stem, root by root, and filament by filament, until it was complete and whole, compacted of the very earth that had produced it, and of which it was itself the last and living part.
You stayed beside me like the rock you are until I unearthed the plant, followed it back through every fibre of its pattern to its last and tiniest enrootment in the blind, dumb earth. And now that it is finished, and the circle come full swing — we, too, are finished, and I have a thing to say:
I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found. And this belief, which mounts now to the catharsis of knowledge and conviction, is for me — and I think for all of us —— not only our own hope, but America’s everlasting, living dream. I think the life which we have fashioned in America, and which has fashioned us — the forms we made, the cells that grew, the honeycomb that was created — was self-destructive in its nature, and must be destroyed. I think these forms are dying, and must die, just as I know that America and the people in it are deathless, undiscovered, and immortal, and must live.
I think the true discovery of America is before us. I think the true fulfilment of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty and immortal land, is yet to come. I think the true discovery of our own democracy is still before us. And I think that all these things are certain as the morning, as inevitable as noon. I think I speak for most men living when I say that our America is Here, is Now, and beckons on before us, and that this glorious assurance is not only our living hope, but our dream to be accomplished.
I think the enemy is here before us, too. But I think we know the forms and faces of the enemy, and in the knowledge that we know him, and shall meet him, and eventually must conquer him is also our living hope. I think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I think we know that all his faces wear one mask. I think the enemy is single selfishness and compulsive greed. I think the enemy is blind, but has the brutal power of his blind grab. I do not think the enemy was born yesterday, or that he grew to manhood forty years ago, or that he suffered sickness and collapse in 1929, or that we began without the enemy, and that our vision faltered, that we lost the way, and suddenly were in his camp. I think the enemy is old as Time, and evil as Hell, and that he has been here with us from the beginning. I think he stole our earth from us, destroyed our wealth, and ravaged and despoiled our land. I think he took our people and enslaved them, that he polluted the fountains of our life, took unto himself the rarest treasures of our own possession, took our bread and left us with a crust, and, not content, for the nature of the enemy is insatiate — tried finally to take from us the crust.
I think the enemy comes to us with the face of innocence and says to us:
“I am your friend.”
I think the enemy deceives us with false words and lying phrases, saying:
“See, I am one of you — I am one of your children, your son, your brother, and your friend. Behold how sleek and fat I have become — and all because I am just one of you, and your friend. Behold how rich and powerful I am-and all because I am one of you — shaped in your way of life, of thinking, of accomplishment. What I am, I am because I am one of you, your humble brother and your friend. Behold,” cries Enemy, “the man I am, the man I have become, the thing I have accomplished — and reflect. Will you destroy this thing? I assure you that it is the most precious thing you have. It is yourselves, the projection of each of you, the triumph of your individual lives, the thing that is rooted in your blood, and native to your stock, and inherent in the traditions of America. It is the thing that all of you may hope to be,” says Enemy, “for”— humbly —“am I not just one of you? Am I not just your brother and your son? Am I not the living image of what each of you may hope to be, would wish to be, would desire for his own son? Would you destroy this glorious incarnation of your own heroic self? If you do, then,” says Enemy, “you destroy yourselves — you kill the thing that is most gloriously American, and in so killing, kill yourselves.”
He lies! And now we know he lies! He is not gloriously, or in any other way, ourselves. He is not our friend, our son, our brother. And he is not American! For, although he has a thousand familiar and convenient faces, his own true face is old as Hell.
Look about you and see what he has done.
Dear Fox, old friend, thus we have come to the end of the road that we were to go together. My tale is finished  and so farewell.
But before I go, I have just one more thing to tell you:
Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying:
“To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth 
“Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, towards which the conscience of the world is tending — a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”

At least I think it is the last page of You Can't Go Home Again. I thought my parents, now both deceased, had everything Thomas Wolfe had written but I couldn't find anything in the basement. Of course I recognized the passage marked above which  I read at my Mother's funeral. My father never told me what exactly it was or where it came from other than it was Thomas Wolfe. The autobiographical Wolfe uses the name "Fox" for his editor Maxwell Perkins and refers to himself as "George". In his first novel Look Homeward Angel  he calls himself "Eugene."

While  all famous authors are quoted  it is rare to find two significant ones the same page and significantly the last page of the last work. The book was published three year after the author's death. Maxwell Perkins is believed to have pawed through boxes of the voluminous author's writing and pieced together the author's autobiographical chronology ending in what was obviously intended as a farewell.

I am sure my mother was aware of all that and more.

Of the missing books I am less sure. My father's second wife was not particularly bookish and they might have been tossed. Or in a version I prefer, My father fell victim of a Senior scam. Some kids came by and said they'd put up or take down his storm windows for a nominal fee. It was only after they left that Dad noticed all Thomas Wolfe books were gone. In Chapel Hill North Carolina that would not be that unusual. The kids Probably sold the books to buy basketball tickets.

The Baldwin Library has all of Wolfe's Novels and short stories as well as a literary analysis of Brooklyn the by famous authors who lived there.

Wolfe's legacy is also available for  Barnes Noble or Amazon  E-readers or in  bound volumes in the $11 to $14 range. Both vendors offer substantial samples you can read before you buy. For the experienced Wolfe reader Barnes Noble also offers a $22 book on the University writings of the author 1917 to 1920. (shown above). The introduction is written by an another well known Southern  author Pat Conroy (The Great Santini and Prince of Tides).

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