The distinctive American columns of Old Playmakers Theatre in Chapel Hill, NC, one of the early university buildings, and site of many a theatrical shenanigan for me and D. It was originally a library, but in the university's early days it doubled as a ballroom for dances - its shelves were on casters, and could be pushed to the wall. Or so I've heard. The rare American columns (featuring corn instead of the traditional acanthus leaves of Corinthian columns) were invented by the man who designed the Capitol, and you can see another example of them the next time you are hanging around the Supreme Court. He then went on to invent two more varieties of American column- the tobacco leaf and the magnolia.
Here we are in North Carolina, land of college idylls and basketball glories (Let us never mention last year. I don't even know who won last year's tourney. No - I DON'T EVEN KNOW.), and home of my noble in-laws.*
Perhaps it is that we are mid-reunion with D's extended family. Or perhaps it is that we returned to our college town (site of our meeting and now home to a vast variety of crappy chain stores we have never encountered before - and that seem, in fact, to have sprung up since we were last here six months ago) for the wistfully memorial purpose of attending a college friend's wedding, but I am left feeling ... considerably more than nostalgic. Mournful, really. Wizened, a bit. Desiccated? Mmmm... too far.
And what is there to do when contemplating the ephemeral slipperiness of past pleasures in North Carolina, but quote Thomas Wolfe:
You can't go back to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake, back home to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of "the artist" and the ideal...
He saw now that you can't go home again--not ever. There was no road back.
So says he in his monumental, as-of-yet-unread-by-me** novel of North Carolina, Look Homeward, Angel. The hero goes off to school at Pulpit Hill, just as the author had gone in his time to Chapel Hill (where he was prodigiously accomplished - editor of the Daily Tar Heel, actor and playwright on the stage of Old Playmakers, debater in the societies that ran the campus at the time). This is how he describes this town that is so saturated with memory and longing for us:
But the university was a charming, an unforgettable place. It was situated in the little village of Pulpit Hill, in the central midland of the big State. Students came and departed by motor from the dreary tobacco town of Exeter***, twelve miles away: the countryside was raw, powerful and ugly, a rolling land of field, wood, and hollow; but the university itself was buried in a pastoral wilderness [...]Its great poverty, its century-long struggle in the forest had given the university a sweetness and beauty it was later to forfeit. It had the fine authority of provincialism - the provincialism of an older South. Nothing mattered but the State: the State was a mighty empire, a rich kingdom - there was, beyond, a remote and semi-barbaric world.[...]In this pastoral setting a young man was enabled to loaf comfortably and delightfully through four luxurious and indolent years. There was, God knows, seclusion enough for monastic scholarship, but the rare romantic quality of the atmosphere, the prodigal opulence of Springtime, thick with flowers and drenched in a fragrant warmth of green shimmering light, quenched pretty thoroughly any incipient rash of bookishness. Instead they loafed and invited their souls or, with great energy and enthusiasm, promoted the affairs of glee-clubs****, athletic teams, class politics, fraternities, debating societies, and dramatic clubs. And they talked - always they talked, under the trees, against the ivied walls, assembled in their rooms, they talked - in limp sprawls - incessant, charming, empty Southern talk; they talked with a large, easy fluency about God, the Devil, and philosophy, the girls, politics, atheletics, fraternities and the girls - My God! how they talked!
It is so vivid and ambivalent and loving an evocation of what college life was like in Chapel Hill (is it like this for everyone?) that I feel a sudden, urgent need to pick up the novel and read it cover to cover.
In its absence, I will have to seek solace in Tony Earley's novel of Carolinian childhood, Jim the Boy. I have known it was excellent (fragile in its excellence) since this moment, a dozen pages in, when Jim marks his tenth birthday by finally joining his uncles in the fields at dawn:
The state highway led directly into the rising sun; when the sun pulled itself loose from the road, it suddenly seemed very far away. The sky, in a moment Jim didn't notice until the moment had passed, turned blue, as if it had never tried the color before and wasn't sure anyone would like it. Jim giggled out loud for no reason he could think of.
The book is filled with these moments of odd, internal poetry - the sort of freewheeling, associative pondering that I link to the inactive moments of only-childhood, before my thinking was battened down in the stringent patterns of adult logic. The reasoning of childhood follows the same logic as poetic image, I think.
But why (or how to) mourn this loss of creative indolence? Thomas Wolfe has an answer:
"My dear, dear girl" he said gently as she tried to speak, "we can't turn back the days that have gone. We can't turn life back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire--a brain, a heart, a spirit. And we are three-cents-worth of lime and iron--which we cannot get back."
Until tomorrow, then, from the land of my love, the countryside of cool, 80-degree midnights....
*Or whatever the term is for those who are a part of your family through long partnership, but not by marriage. Seriously - we need a word.
** But not by D, who, when asked just now what he thought of Look Homeward, Angel, said, "I'd hate to see what the unedited version looked like."
*** Durham, that is, site of absolutely nothing of athletic interest. Well, maybe the Durham Bulls.
****Proving some things haven't changed between Wolfe's time and Will Schuester's.