I caught glimpses of the great, the rich, the fortunate ones of all the earth living supinely upon the very best of everything and taking the very best for granted as their right. I saw them enjoying a special privilege which had been theirs so long that it had become a vested interest: they seemed to think it was a law ordained by nature that they should be forever life’s favorite sons. At the same time I began to be conscious of the submerged and forgotten Helots down below, who with their toil and sweat and blood and suffering unutterable supported and nourished the mighty princelings at the top.
‘You sink it is so bad here now?—ze vay sings are wiz ze Party and zese stupid people? You sink it vould be better if zere vas anozzer party, like in America? Zen,’ he said, not waiting for an answer, ‘I sink you are mistaken, It /is/ bad here, of gourse, but I sink it vill be soon no better wiz you. Zese bloody fools—you find zem everyvhere. Zey are ze same wiz you, only in a different vay.’ Suddenly he looked at George earnestly and searchingly. ‘You sink zat you are free in America—no?’ He shook his head and went on: ‘I do not sink so. Ze only free ones are zese dret-ful people. Here, zey are free to tell you vhat you must read, vhat you must believe, and I sink zat is also true in America. You must sink and feel ze vay zey do—you must say ze sings ze vant you to say—or zey kill you. Ze only difference is zat here zey haf ze power to do it. In America zey do not haf it yet, but just vait—zey vill get it. Ve Chermans haf shown zem ze vay. … Zese people here—zey say zat zey are Nazis. I sink zat zey are more honest. In New York, zey call zemselves by some fine name. Zey are ze /Salon-Kommunisten/. Zey are ze Daughters of ze Revolution . Zey are ze American Legion. Zey are ze business men, ze Chamber of Commerce. Zey are one sing and anozzer, but zey are all ze same, and I sink zat zey are Nazis, too. You vill find everyvhere zese bloody people.
Franz Heilig in Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, ch. 39 (p. 504 in ISBN 0-06-080986-8)
But it was not only in the South that America was hurt. There was another deeper, darker, and more nameless wound throughout the land. What was it? Was it in the record of corrupt official and polluted governments, administrations twisted to the core, the huge excess of privilege and graft, protected criminals and gangster rule, the democratic forms all rotten and putrescent with disease? Was it in ‘puritanism’—that great, vague name: whatever it may be? Was it in the bloated surfeits of monopoly, and the crimes of wealth against the worker’s life? Yes, it was in all of these, and in the daily tolling of the murdered men, the lurid renderings of promiscuous and casual slaughter everywhere throughout the land, and in the pious hypocrisy of the press with its swift-forgotten prayers for our improvement, the editorial moaning while the front page gloats.
Life had recently become too short for many things that people had once found time for. Life was simply too short for the perusal of any book longer than two hundred pages. As for /War and Peace/—no doubt all ‘they’ said of it was true—but as for oneself—well, one had tried, and really it was quite too—too—oh, well, life simply was too short. So life that year was far to short to be bothered by Tolstoy, Whitman, Dreiser, or Dean Swift. But life was not too short that year to be passionately concerned with Mr. Piggy Logan and his circus of wire dolls.
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.
Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again, ch. 1 (p. 11 in ISBN 0-06-080986-8)
This is man, and one wonders why he wants to live at all. A third of his life is lost and deadened under sleep; another third is given to a sterile labor; a sixth is spent in all his goings and his comings, in the moil and shuffle of the streets, in thrusting, shoving, pawing. How much of him is left, then, for a vision of the tragic stars? How much of him is left to look upon the everlasting earth? How much of him is left for glory and the making of great songs? A few snatched moments only from the barren glut and suck of living.
Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again, near the end of ch. 27 (p. 338 in the 1989 printing of the Perennial Library paperback ed., ISBN 0-06-080986-8).
(This originally posted 21 November 2010, and migrated to Tumblr as part of my conceptual reorganization of my web presence.)