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Notes on “A Western Journey”

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

When Thomas Wolfe went to the Pacific Northwest in the early summer of 1938, he was impelled by a combination of strong motives. He had just delivered to his publishers a manuscript of twelve hundred thousand words. He was tired and wanted a rest. The Pacific Northwest was the only part of the United States he had never visited. Finally, he had never lost his small boy’s sense of wonder and he wanted to ride on a streamlined train.

When he arrived in Portland, Oregon, he met two newspaper men who were planning a trip by automobile through all the National Parks of the Far West. They invited Wolfe, who could not drive a car himself, to go with them. He was always avid to learn all he could about his America, and he could get as drunk on new geography as on strong liquor. So, his great weariness momentarily forgotten, he accompanied his two new friends.

On July 4, 1938, the trip was over and Wolfe was in Seattle. On that day he wrote me a letter in which, for the first and only time, he spoke of “A Western Journey”:

I am feeling much better already, although I have traveled ten thousand miles, five thousand in the last two weeks, and seen hundreds of new places and people. My fingers are itching to write again. I have already made fifty thousand words of notes on this journey. I propose to stay here a couple of weeks longer and get these notes revised, rounded out, and typed in a more complete form. The whole record I am calling simply “A Western Journey.” It is really a kind of tremendous kaleidoscope that I hope may succeed in recording a whole hemisphere of life and of America.

This was part of the last letter I was ever to receive from Wolfe. Two days later he had pneumonia, from the complications of which he was to die in Johns Hopkins Hospital within nine weeks.

There in Baltimore, on that sad September fifteenth, a few hours after Wolfe had died, I sat in the hospital talking with the members of his family. The question of his unpublished manuscripts came up. I asked if they knew anything about “A Western Journey.” His mother undertook to look through his bags. And there it was—a bound ledger of the kind used in simple bookkeeping; it was in just such ledgers as this that Wolfe had written his first longhand drafts of everything. The ledger was full to the last page of his almost illegible penciled scrawl, with the title, “A Western Journey,” at the beginning. There were not fifty thousand words, nothing like it. Wolfe always used round numbers loosely. When he said, “I have written a million words,” he meant: “I have written a lot.” When he said, “I have written fifty thousand words,” he meant: “I have written only a little; in fact, I have just started.” It was the last manuscript which that large hand of the artist would ever write.


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