Thomas Wolfe: His imperial country at war, possessed of the inspiration for murder
From Look Homeward, Angel (1929)
Fear is a dragon that lives among crowds – and in armies.
He walked by lapping water through the dark. He heard its green wet slap against the crusted pier-piles: he drank its strong cod scent, and watched the loading of great boats drenched in blazing lights as they weltered down slowly into the water. And the night was loud with the rumble of huge cranes, the sudden loose rattle of the donkey-engines, the cries of the overseers, and the incessant rumbling trucks of stevedores within the peer.
His imperial country, for the first time, was gathering the huge thrust of her might. The air was charged with murderous exuberance, rioting and corrupt extravagance.
Through the hot streets of that town seethed the toughs, the crooks, the vagabonds of a nation – Chicago gunmen, bad n-ggers from Texas, Bowery bums, pale Jews with soft palms, from the shops of the city, Swedes from the Middle-West, Irish from New England, mountaineers from Tennessee and North Carolina, whores, in shoals and droves, from everywhere. For these war was a fat, enormous goose raining its golden eggs upon them. There was no thought or belief in any future. There was only the triumphant Now. There was no life beyond the moment. There was only an insane flux and re-flux of getting and spending.
He began to starve. Day crawled into weary day. The fierce eye of July beat down upon the pier with a straight insufferable glare. The boats and trains slid in and out, crammed to the teeth with munitions – with food for the soldiers…And he lay there, with the fading glimmer of the world about him, as the war mounted to its climax of blood and passion during that terrible month…
Eugene returned to Altamont two weeks before the term began at Pulpit Hill. The town and the nation seethed in the yeasty ferment of war. The country was turning into one huge camp. The colleges and universities were being converted into training-camps for officers. Every one was “doing his bit.”
Then, as the cogs of the machine began to grind more smoothly, and the university was converted into a big army post, with its punctual monotony of drilling, eating, studying, inspection, sleeping, he found himself detached, occupying a position of unique and isolated authority.
He Carried On. He Held High the Torch. He Did His Bit. He was editor, reporter, censor, factotum of the paper. He wrote the editorials. He seared them with flaming words. He extolled the crusade. He was possessed of the inspiration for murder.