Not-So-Famous Last Words

The books authors waited their whole lives to write

A writer’s career spans many significant milestones—first breakthrough publication, first book—each with its own allure and reward. The final pages written by great authors, although sometimes overlooked, lost in the sea of their works, can be significant in a way that other groundbreaking and career-defining works are not. With a name made and a life of work behind him or her, an author is able to write those final pages from a deeper, perhaps more honest perspective than that of an author starting out. An established reputation confers privilege, and privilege brings freedom to push conventions, challenge norms, and even contradict oneself. For example, in her last work, Susan Sontag was able to refute many of the very ideas that made her famous without tarnishing her own image.

Some of the nonfiction works described below are not absolutely final works, but the author’s final book in a specific genre. Often, however, nonfiction informs and complements an author’s other writing, bringing new light to the issues explored in his or her fiction. For example, George Orwell’s last nonfiction book, Homage to Catalonia, was far from his last or his best-known work, but the book chronicled experiences that made an indelible impact on his life. Whether capping a career of creative nonfiction writing or falling late in a genre-spanning body of work, these works represent an evolution, a passion to speak truth, and a culmination of experience. These are books that took time and waiting, living and learning, before they could be written.

Virginia Woolf: Three Guineas (1938)

Virginia Woolf, one of the most celebrated writers of the English language, left behind a remarkable body of work spanning fiction and nonfiction. Few literary figures stand as tall as Woolf, whose name is interwoven with popular culture, from music to film to modern day feminism. She challenged convention, wrote eloquently on the needs of women, and struggled with mental illness. Three Guineas is one half of a two-book project published as a furthering of the ideas she introduced in the famed A Room of One’s Own; it originally contained fiction chapters that were eventually included in Woolf’s celebrated novel The Years, which was her most popular work during her lifetime.

Her final book-length essay, Three Guineas is written in the form of a response to an educated man who has asked Woolf how to prevent the war, and it explores the complexity of female voices in the lead-up to World War II. Woolf skewers patriarchy and domesticity while illuminating the seemingly diametrically opposed worlds she feels obligated to straddle as an individual woman and an influential public figure: “Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with its nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.” Although focusing primarily on the coming war, Woolf also addresses education, professionalism, and the place of women in society. Scathing in its critique of societal norms and laced throughout with a tongue-in-cheek wit, it exemplifies the style that continues to make Woolf a literary icon.

George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia (1938)

Although beloved for his politically focused dystopian novels, Orwell is also known for his essay collections and long-form works of nonfiction, including the iconic Down and Out in Paris and London, his 1933 exploration of poverty in the two great cities. In 1938, Orwell published his final full-length nonfiction book, Homage to Catalonia, recounting his experience in the Spanish Civil War. Between December 1936 and June 1937, Orwell served in the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, or POUM. After being shot through the throat in May 1937, he was eventually transferred to Barcelona, from which he and his wife were forced to flee when purges of Communists began in June. Late in 1938, Orwell was tried in Spain, in absentia, for his work with POUM; by then, he had written the book, a personal report of his time at the front in Aragon, the conditions in Spain, and the politics of the factions at war. The book is a deeply personal account of the nuances of war and politics, exploring Orwell’s own feelings and considerations during his time in the conflict. Along with his prior nonfiction, Homage to Catalonia recounts experiences that shaped his later fiction writing, including the criticism of communism seen in Animal Farm and of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell’s longtime publisher, Victor Gollancz, refused to publish the book due to its anti-Communist themes. Published in Britain by Fredric Warburg’s company, Secker & Warburg, in 1938, it was overshadowed by World War II and sold very few copies. The book did not appear in the United States until 1952, two years after Orwell’s death, making it his final full-length work published in the United States.

James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (1985)

After leaving the United States for France in his early twenties, Baldwin gave voice to both the African-American community and the expatriate community in a variety of forms. While living overseas, Baldwin continued to publish work inspired by not only his personal experience as a man of color but also the political landscapes he saw in the United States and Europe. His 1955 collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, is considered one of the seminal works of the civil rights era.

The Price of the Ticket was Baldwin’s final collection of essays, published in 1985, two years before his death. In it, he collected works spanning forty years—from Notes of a Native Son, No Name in the Street, and The Devil Finds Work. The result is a sprawling portrait of race in the twentieth century that blends autobiography with social and political commentary in Baldwin’s signature style. In “White Man’s Guilt,” Baldwin writes that “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” This is an idea that Baldwin illustrated perfectly by taking time at the end of his career to reflect on the works that together made one large narrative. At 704 pages, The Price of the Ticket is a comprehensive exploration of the evolution of both the United States and the author’s voice and perspective on issues of race.

Barbara W. Tuchman: The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution (1988)

With her keen eye for historical nuance, Barbara W. Tuchman made her name as one of the most remarkable storytellers of her generation by weaving complex narratives around people and events that defined the world. Throughout her career, she faced criticism that her own biases colored her retelling of events, yet her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August, an account of the early days of World War I and the warring powers behind the conflict, is now widely regarded as one of the great books of military history.

In The First Salute, Tuchman explores the American Revolution and the escalation that resulted from leadership decisions on both sides of the conflict. By placing the war for independence in a global context, rather than offering a romanticized vision of uprising and revolution, Tuchman illuminates the intersecting interests and rivalries that drove not only the colonies and British forces but those of the Dutch and French as well. Her final work highlights what made Tuchman a master of her chosen form: her ability to reimagine and explore the pivotal moments in history from a new angle and to bring to the fore elements that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others (2003)

Susan Sontag’s work examined the intersections of art, journalism, and exploitation. Her collection of essays On Photography (1977) remains one of the most iconic works exploring the relationship between photography and those who view images, with lessons to be drawn for artists and writers alike.

Regarding the Pain of Others was Sontag’s final work of nonfiction, published less than two years before her death. The book draws from Woolf’s Three Guineas by exploring the question of how war can be prevented. Specifically, Sontag debates the role of war photography in communicating the horror of conflict and debunks the argument that such imagery has the power to express the reality of war to those who have never witnessed it. Ultimately, Sontag repudiates many of the points she made in On Photography, but she acknowledges the duality of war photography—both powerful and lacking any power to inspire true change.

About the Author

Bridey Heing

Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.

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