Point of View

When the Crash came home

April 24, 2009 

— Thomas Wolfe's most celebrated novel, "Look Homeward, Angel," appeared Oct. 18, 1929, 10 days before the stock market crash. The Depression ensuing became real to him, his family and friends. During much of the period of the nation's greatest suffering from the economic collapse, Wolfe lived in Brooklyn, witnessing first-hand the desperation of working men and women.

Back home in Asheville, a real-estate bubble burst explosively in his mother's face and her bank pressed her for payments. The National Cash Register Co., for whom a brother-in-law worked, demanded that salesmen meet quotas while throwing extravagant parties for the successful few. Salesmen lagging in sales found themselves mercilessly slammed for falling short of dictated goals.

In Manhattan, princes of the business world were leaping to their deaths from tall buildings while the unemployed and homeless crowded into subway tunnels and public restrooms for heat and shelter. Wolfe saw it all, felt what he saw deeply and pondered the cause.

His explanation, as expressed in "You Can't Go Home Again," grew from a conviction he explained to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, a conservative who believed that government involvement in remedying economic woes was mistaken. The problem, Wolfe contended, was "single selfishness and compulsive greed."

In a later passage, one giving vividness and force to his conviction through personification of it as "The Enemy," Wolfe wrote:

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 as old as Time, and evil as Hell, and that he has been 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 in our 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.

This embodiment of selfishness and greed speaks loudly to anyone currently trying to fathom the behavior of bankers and executives at such firms as AIG and such swindlers as Bernard Madoff. The root of our current problem comes back to the scheming and deception of the privileged few out to make a fast buck.

But, optimist that he was, Wolfe thought that the American people would triumph, would overpower if not vanquish the enemy, would live to see the achievement of the American dream. That optimism is expressed in a passage often quoted by politicians:

I think the true discovery of America is before us. I think the true fulfillment of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty and immortal land is yet to come. I think the true discovery of our democracy is still before us. And I think that all these things are certain as the morning, as inevitable as noon.

I dare say that Wolfe would energetically champion President Barack Obama in his struggles with the latest manifestation of the enemy. He staunchly supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt, seeing in him the will to combat the enemy. The battle has once more been enjoined, and Wolfe's words speak powerfully to anyone seeking to know a cause for and a move toward a cure for our current economic woes.

John Idol is a retired English professor and an authority on Thomas Wolfe.

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