Discovering the Region: Commentary

15. Thomas Wolfe, A Western Journal: A Daily Log of the Great Parks Trip

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was a prominent American novelist of the 1920s and 1930s. He grew up in North Carolina and as an adult lived in New York when he was not traveling in Europe. His most famous books were Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). In 1938 Wolfe went to the Pacific Northwest for a vacation (he had just delivered a manuscript of 1,200,000 words to his editor). He joined two newspaper men who were beginning an automobile trip through all the western National Parks. He left Portland on June 20, heading south for Crater Lake, and by the time he reached Seattle on July 2 he had visited nine National Parks plus numerous other sites, including Grand Coulee Dam. Less than a week later Wolfe contracted pneumonia, from which he never recovered. He died on September 15 in Baltimore.

Wolfe’s scribblings about his western travels thus became his last manuscript. The text consisted not of complete sentences and paragraphs but rather of notes dashed off in a ledger book as Wolfe sped around the region in a white Ford. In a way, his writing clearly mirrored the pace and method of travel. It stands in marked contrast to the kinds of discovery engaged in by others. We might think of the journey as exhausting, but Wolfe actually felt refreshed by it. “I am feeling much better already,” he wrote to a friend on July 4, “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” (cited in Edward C. Aswell, “Note on ‘A Western Journey,’” in Wolfe 1967:v).

See: Thomas Wolfe, A Western Journal: A Daily Log of the Great Parks Trip

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