‘Do I look strange?’ Authors’ (best) last words

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Born and raised in Scotland, Robert Louis Stevenson, who would grow up to write “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” was never very healthy. Driven by a restlessness and desire to find a more hospitable environment -- not to mention the American woman he’d fallen for -- Stevenson traveled widely. Eventually he (and his American bride) settled in Samoa in 1890. Four years later, at age 44, he was talking about how his improved health meant he might travel again to America. “What’s that?” he said, “Do I look strange?” and fell to the floor. He died not long after, of what is believed to have been a cerebral hemorrhage.

Stevenson’s death is chronicled in Terry Breverton’s “Immortal Last Words,” available now in the U.K. The Guardian has put together a slideshow of 10 of the authors included in the book, perhaps providing that those who make their business with words are good with final ones.

There are, of course, some sad farewells, including the farewell note Virginia Woolf left her husband before committing suicide. James Joyce, whose work would change the shape of modern literature, died after uttering the plaintive question, “Does nobody understand?”

Leo Tolstoy, dying of pneumonia in 1910 at age 82, found profundity at the end. “We all reveal ... our manifestations ...” he cried out. “This manifestation is over ... That’s all.”


And occasionally final moments bring something else. Anton Chekov was handed a full glass. “It’s a long time since I drank Champagne,” he said. He drank it then died.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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