Tuesday History: Thomas Wolfe’s last letter

NEARING THE END: Thomas Wolfe overlooks Dry Falls, in Washington State. The photo was taken on July 1, 1938 by Edward Miller. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

On Sept. 12, 1938, Thomas Wolfe had exploratory surgery performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital at Baltimore. The surgery revealed tubercular meningitis of the brain. Wolfe died three days later, on Sept. 15. He was 37 years old.

Prior to falling ill, Wolfe had headed west for a road trip that took him through eight states and 11 national parks. He traveled over 4,000 miles in 13 days. His final letter was written from his room at Providence Hospital in Seattle, Wash., where Wolfe had sought initial treatment.  The letter is addressed to Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s former editor. While the two men rarely saw each other after Wolfe ended their professional relationship in 1937, his letter makes it clear that he considered Perkins more than just an editor. Many scholars compare the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe to that of father (Perkins) and son (Wolfe).

This Thursday, Sept. 15, marks the anniversary of Wolfe’s death. The Asheville writer’s grave site is located in Riverside Cemetery, 53 Birch St.

Thanks to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial for its help.

On Aug. 12, 1938, Thomas Wolfe wrote:

Dear Max: 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 1000 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 — and if I come through this I hope to God I am a better man, and in some strange way I can’t explain I know I am a deeper and wiser one — If I get on my feet and out of here, it will be months before I head back, but if I get on my feet, I’ll come back.

— Whatever happens — I had this “hunch” and wanted to write you and tell you, no matter what happens or has happened, I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that 4th of July 3 yrs. ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and the city were below — Yours Always,

Tom

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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2 thoughts on “Tuesday History: Thomas Wolfe’s last letter

  1. In the movie, “Genius”, Wolfe’s letter to Perkins is edited and shortened. It reads as, “…that November day…” . Why was this an element of his that was altered?

    • Thomas Calder

      Hey Mandy,

      The movie took some liberties. If I remember correctly, it has Wolfe composing the letter at John Hopkins, which is inaccurate. Wolfe died in September, and as noted above, his final letter is dated August 12. I’m not sure what the “November day” is in reference to in the film. As for the shortening of the letter, that was probably just for purposes of time, but I can’t speak to that with any true authority.

      Thanks for the questions!

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