Thomas Wolfe died on this day in 1938, several weeks before his thirty-eighth birthday — his novel You Can’t Go Home Again was published on September 18, 1940. The posthumous editing of Wolfe’s manuscripts has been much debated — some objecting, for example, that the tragic foretelling in the quotation following is editorial contrivance, the passage having been taken from a short story Wolfe published months before his death:
…But before I go, I have just one more thing to tell you:
Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth—
“—Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, towards which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”
But Wolfe did have worries and premonitions of his early death, these voiced in several letters and comments over his last years. During his final weeks, already down fifty pounds, his legendary restlessness now reduced to a series of wheelchairs, stretchers and a last desperate operation to alleviate his brain tuberculosis, Wolfe wrote a farewell letter to his friend and editor Max Perkins which seems to echo the novel:
I’m sneaking this against orders, but “I’ve got a hunch” — and I wanted to write these words to you.
I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close; and I don’t think I was too much afraid of him, but so much of mortality still clings to me — I wanted most desperately to live and still do, and I thought about you all a thousand times, and wanted to see you all again, and there was the impossible anguish and regret of all the work I had not done, of all the work I had to do — and I know now I’m just a grain of dust, and I feel as if a great window has been opened on life I did not know about before….
To read the full last letter, and much other information, go to http://www.nchistoricsites.org/wolfe/bio.htm
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at http://www.todayinliterature.com.