In July of 1938, American novelist Thomas Wolfe was struck down with pneumonia and taken to hospital. He was soon diagnosed as having tuberculosis of the brain, from which he would never recover. Wolfe died on 15th September, aged just 37. A month before his death, as he lay in hospital, Wolfe wrote to his old editor Maxwell Perkins, a once dear friend with whom he had fallen out in 1936 but still loved dearly. Days after Wolfe’s death, Perkins received a letter from another of his authors, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who was acutely aware of the sorrow he now felt, and whom Perkins had shown Wolfe’s final missive.
August 12, 1938
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—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 a 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 Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the café 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 of the city was below.
September 21, 1938
I have grieved for you ever since I heard of Tom’s death. I grieve, too, for the certain loss of the work he would unquestionably have done, for his very touching letter to you shows a chastening and mellowing of that great half-mad diffusive ego, that would have been a guarantee of the literary self-discipline we all so wanted for him. It seems that each of us can go only so far in wisdom and in insight, and then for one reason or another we are done. And no one can take up where another leaves off. No one can profit by all that Tom had come to learn, with so much torture to himself and to others. Just as civilizations never learn from other civilizations, but must build up agonizingly, making the same mistakes over and over, with never any cumulative progress.
I know how glad you must be that you never withdrew your personal goodness from Tom, even when others were bitter for you.
It is strange that so vibrant and sentient a personality as Tom knew or guessed that he had come to the great wall. He must have felt far beyond most of us that withdrawing of the cosmic force from his individual unit of life. I felt the thing this summer for myself, knowing—and I still know—that if I had done the thing I planned I should not have come through. I felt the reprieve, too, and I am still puzzled. It is like the hurricane scheduled for the Florida coast the other day, that suddenly swerved from its path and swept on elsewhere. It is all accidental and incidental, and yet why is it so often one knows in advance?
I have thought of you a great deal since hearing, and I hope it is something you can accept without too much pain.