May 29, 2017 by AK
Early on in Theophilus North, the last novel by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), the narrator sells his old car to a mechanic for $20. (The novel, published in 1973, is set in 1926, when $20 was roughly the average weekly wage of an unskilled worker.) The car has quite a history and a name, Hannah, taken from the 1924 song Hard Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah. Expecting the mechanic to dismantle the jalopy for spare parts, the narrator strokes Hannah’s hood and says goodbye to the car.
Then I whispered into her nearest headlight: “Old age and death come to all. Even the weariest river winds its way to sea. As Goethe said, ‘Balde ruhest du auch.’ “
The aging mechanic is perplexed at the young man’s feelings for the old car, so the protagonist explains himself and translates Goethe’s line, from Wanderers Nachtlied II (“Warte nur, balde // Ruhest du auch.” It’s also well known in Russia thanks to Lermontov’s inspired translation.) He adds apocryphal details… At the end of the novel, it turns out that Hannah was not taken apart but brought back to life:
In addition I had bought from him a jalopy at a price somewhat higher than I had paid for “Hard-hearted Hannah” – who in the meantime had been restored to further usefulness and was watching this transaction.
The novel is something of an idyllic memoir. The sale happens in Newport, Rhode Island: Theophilus North reached it from Providence, having arrived there on a train from New York City. That is the place where he would rather stay but cannot yet at the moment:
I felt then that New York was the most wonderful city in the world and now, about fifty years later, I am of the same opinion.
Having seen and come to know – I should add, slightly paraphrasing North – Rome, Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, Berlin, and Vienna.
Ninety years later, the old cars on this barge on East River were less fortunate than Hannah. The pictures were taken from the East River Promenade. The brick building on the right is the Con Edison power station near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Vinegar Hill. New York City is still the most wonderful city in the world, all things considered – except for…