Thomas Wolfe Said: “You Can Never Go Home Again – But He Also Said: “Some Things Never Change”

At least three years ago, I wrote, quoting Thomas Wolfe, who said: “You Can Never Go Home Again,” and in many ways that is true. But this weekend, I did risk trying to go back home for my 50th High School Reunion, and I discovered that, as the well-known agricultural genius Jerry Caulder said, “Thomas Wolfe never lived in Gideon or he would have never said, ‘You can’t go home again.’

As it turns out, Thomas Wolfe also wrote: “Some Things Will Never Change.”

“Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.

“The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows, the delicate web of children’s voices in bright air–these things will never change.

“The glitter of sunlight on roughened water, the glory of the stars, the innocence of morning, the smell of the sea in harbors, the feathery blur and smoky buddings of young boughs, and something there that comes and goes and never can be captured, the thorn of spring, the sharp and tongueless cry–these things will always be the same.

“All things belonging to the earth will never change–the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth–all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth–these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.

“The tarantula, the adder, and the asp will also never change. Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.”  From p. 40 of Signet Edition of Thomas Wolfe‘s You Can’t Go Home Again – (1940):

I am about to share what I wrote several years ago, naming ways that people cannot return to their childhood homes, but before I do that, I want to add that, in returning to my sweet little town’s homecoming this week, I have discovered that there is about my childhood in Gideon a something that is as permanent and as indelible as —–

“The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows…. the glitter of sunlight on roughened water, the glory of the stars, the innocence of morning, the smell of the sea in harbors…” Thomas Wolfe

The beginning of my observations about the impossibility of returning home follows: [Again, I wrote this at least three years ago]

When Cotton Was King

By Jacki Kellum

Although I lived most of my life in Mississippi, I actually grew up in Gideon, a very small farm community in Southeast Missouri. Gideon is specifically in the very southeastern part of Southeast Missouri–the Bootheel part that juts down below the rest of the Missouri state line– downward into what would otherwise be Arkansas and/or Tennessee.

Cotton at Harvest – Jacki Kellum Colored Pencil Drawing – Drawn in 2017 – Sold in 2018 to Steve Hawkins

When I was a child, I was surrounded for miles by cotton fields, cotton gins, and the dark, rich soil that the Mississippi River had deposited there in earlier years. Because this is the flood zone of the Mississippi River, the soil is so very rich that hardly any of it is wasted on trees. Occasionally, you might see a narrow line of vegetation, crossing the terrain; but that would probably be on the banks of one of the small creek-like waterways that were long ago dug there to catch the river, should it flood again.

One Ditch – Jacki Kellum Watercolor – Painted 2018

Collectively, the waterways around home were called The Floodways. Individually, each of the bodies of water had one of the following less than illustrious names: 1 Ditch, 2 Ditch, 3 Ditch, etc. That is the honest truth.  During the 1950s and 1960s, there wasn’t a lot of effusiveness or ornamentation about Southeast Missouri, but it was enough. In fact, it was more than enough, and in many ways, I’d give anything to get back to the Gideon of my childhood again, but that playground is gone in every way but that of my mind.

Fortunately, my memory of childhood is still very sharp.  One thing I recall is that when I was a child, life was rather immobile. We had cars, but there was very little jumping behind the wheel and darting here and there. My diminutive hometown was actually fairly self-sufficient, and at that time, there was not much need to commute far beyond there. That, in itself, added to the quietness and simplicity of my childhood.

Although I grew up inside the town of Gideon, most of the area’s people lived outside the town’s limits–out on farms. In the Bootheel, tiny communities like Gideon formed around the schools that were established to teach all of the area’s children. The farm kids were brought in on school buses. A few of the farm communities even had a store or two. When I was very young in Gideon, there was a nice 1950s doctor’s office, a little department store, a dime store, a hardware store, a drugstore with a soda fountain, and an IGA grocery store. I could write an entire series of books about how my time in each of those places affected me–how they made me who I am today. Yet, all of those venues are gone now.

“You can never go home again.” – Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe is correct in saying that no one can ever really go home again. The people of home change and emotionally, returning home can simply never fully happen for anyone; but for folks who grew up in the Bootheel of Missouri, returning home is also physically impossible. The stores, the offices, and the churches of our childhoods are gone.

Many cannot understand the devastation of knowing that a huge block of your life is simply gone. Thomas Wolfe is correct in saying that no one can ever really go home again. For Southeast Missouri, times have truly changed since the 1950s. Places that were once sweet, little communities are shadows of themselves–ghost towns now.  Gideon’s one industry–the box factory–closed many years ago, and the stores followed in quick succession. Most of the town is boarded shut. Farming fell on hard times, too. Cotton is no longer the King there; but former Gideonites, my age and older, remember when he was. That is when the people of Gideon lived fairly well.

Even though I did not actually live on a farm, my childhood was determined by Cotton, and my calendar was punctuated by the various stages of its growth cycle. The winter was slow and quiet. The spring was an awakening time of planting, and summer was a time of growing. During the fall, the air was filled with cotton lint drifting from the cotton gins and compresses. The roads were lined with wagons going to and from the gins, and life became the everyday business of harvesting cotton. Farm people came to town on Saturdays, when they got haircuts, bought a few groceries, etc., and Sunday was Church Day.

Cotton Picking Blues – Jacki Kellum Colored Pencil – Sold in 2018 to Jerry Caulder

When I was a child, a kid’s summer ended in July, when school classes resumed.  About 6 weeks later, school was dismissed again for “cotton vacation,” the time when most children would go out to the farms and help pick cotton.

Let me preface the rest of this by saying 1. I am Caucasian.  [Everyone needs to lose the fantasy that only African Americans picked cotton.] 2. I survivied. [In the above photo, I am the blonde in the middle. In the following photo, I am the first female on the top row].

Cotton-picking days were long and hard.  While it was still dark, the sharecroppers honked their horns, and kids darted outside, cotton sacks in tow, to ride to the fields in the backs of pickup trucks. By the time that the sun was rising, we would get out to the cotton patch and begin work.

I know that this sounds a bit like the Dickensenain stories of child chimney sweeps before the child labor laws were passed, but I honestly don’t believe that the 1950s Bootheel got the memo that child labor was against the law. In retrospect, I suspect that the same posse that surrounded the Bootheel’s perimeter, preventing black people from settling there, also blocked the notice that kids were no longer supposed to work like adults. Regardless of the fact that kids picked cotton in Southeast Missouri, however, I promise that doing so was not a child-friendly experience. Picking cotton was not summer camp. It was dreadful.

When the plants are short, bending over to pick is back-breaking. There is an expression about life in tall cotton or high cotton. It alludes to the fact that when the cotton grew at a height that was easier to pick, life was much nicer. Yet, regardless of the cotton’s height, picking cotton was no vacation. The cotton plants themselves became much of the problem.

cottonboll

As cotton bolls mature, they begin to open.

After the boll is completely open, it dries and the tips of the segments become a bit of needle-sharp woodiness.

A day of picking cotton meant at least 10 cotton boll pricks and their subsequent splinters, which were followed by hot, painful swelling. To make matters worse, cotton plants are covered with vicious caterpillars that sting.

All-in-all, picking cotton was no picnic, and the pay was deplorable.  On a good day, I would earn $3.00, but payday was still fun, and several paydays after cotton vacation began, one of my favorite times of the year came around.   It was the time that the Sears and Roebuck Catalog arrived, and kids could begin drooling over all the ways that they would spend the money that they were earning picking cotton. [there is more of this essay, but I simply want to paint the picture that even my childhood picking cotton is gone.

Indeed, in a physical way, the Gideon, Missouri, of my childhood is gone. Again, however, I want to reiterate that there is about my childhood in Gideon that is as permanent and as indelible as —–

“The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows…. the glitter of sunlight on roughened water, the glory of the stars, the innocence of morning, the smell of the sea in harbors…” Thomas Wolfe

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I am more than very, very proud that my harbor is Gideon, Missouri, a little town in the Southeast Missouri Bootheel.

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