Well into my dotage as I am, one of my summertime pursuits of recent years has been to familiarize myself with otherwise unexplored literary vistas. Last summer it was . . . well, I actually don't remember what it was. But I went into this summer with two seemingly unrelated goals: To read the best lay literature available on cosmology in general and quantum mechanics in particular, and the works of Thomas Wolfe.
Without waxing too terribly philosophical, it turns out that understanding the heavens and reading Wolfe are not dissimilar. Wolfe's extraordinarily rhapsodic writing can be like seeing the gear works of the heavens writ large, and his insights equal those of Timothy Ferris, Dennis Overbye and Bill Bryson, whose books I have recently devoured in becoming more attuned to stuff like wormholes, superstrings and grand unification theories.
Anyhow, I was floored by Wolfe's description of the ante-bellum South and what it means to be a Southerner in The Web and the Rock (1937).
"There was an image in George Webber's mind that came to him in childhood and resumed for him the whole dark picture of those decades of defeat and darkness. He saw an old house, set far back from the traveled highway, and many passed along that road, and the troops went by, the dust rose, and the war was over. And no one passed along the road again. He saw an old man go along the path, away from the road, into the house; and the path was overgrown with grass and weeds, with thorny tangle, and with underbrush until the path was lost. And no one ever used the path again. And the man who went into that house never came out it again. And the house stayed on. It shone faintly through that tangled growth like its own ruined spectre, its doors and windows black as eyeless sockets. That was the South. That was the South for thirty years or more.
"That was the South, not of George Webber's life, nor of the lives of his contemporaries -- that was the South they did not know but somehow all of them remembered . . .
"They had come out upon the road again. The road was being paved. More people came now. They cut a pathway to the door again. Some of the weeds were clear. Another house was built. They heard wheels coming and the world was in, yet they were not yet wholly of that world."
I have now read all four of Wolfe's books (he died at the tender age of 37) and can recommend all of them, including The Web and the Rock, which many critics tend to dismiss as his weakest, which I agree with only insofar that the others are so tremendous.