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.
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.