Wilder is a novelist of morals

“Wilder is a novelist of morals. . . . They are answers found by individuals to the old problems of faith, hope, charity or love, art, duty, submission to one’s fate . . . and hence they are relatively universal; they can be illustrated from the lives of any individuals, in any place, at any time since the beginning of time. . . . The characters in Wilder’s novels and plays are looking for such answers.”
—Malcolm Cowley

From the Library of American interview with J. D. McClatchy on the publication of Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926-1948:

The Bridge of San Luis Rey has become the prototype for the modern “dis- aster story” in which the lives of the characters involved in a catastrophic event are examined through flashbacks. Do you think our familiarity with the form diminishes our appreciation for what he achieves here?

About a year after The Bridge came out Wilder wrote to a friend: “It seems to me that my books are about: what is the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose it. In other words: when a human being is made to bear more than human beings can bear—what then? . . . The Bridge asked the question whether the intention that lies behind love was sufficient to justify the desperation of living.” That kind of inquiry transcends genre or period. What makes The Bridge the enduring novel it is has everything to do with the questions it poses about our purpose on Earth. It starts out as a book about the truth, and ends up as a book about love. Both of those can be “disasters,” yet we have nothing else to live by.

* * *

The Woman of Andros is set in pre-Christian Greece yet seems to argue that so-called pagan culture had realized, in the person of the Andrian woman, a courtesan, many of the values of Christianity. This theme of universal human values—outside religion—runs through many of Wilder’s works, novels and plays. Was this his great theme?

One of them, to be sure. “I am not interested,” he told an interviewer, “in the ephemeral—such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions.” He meant, of course, the mysteries and marvels of the heart. Wilder once described Tolstoy as “a great eye, above the roof, above the town, above the planet, from which nothing is hid.” Wilder might as well have been describing his own talents as a novelist. He looked on life steadily, never blinking at its pain and incongruities. Whether it’s the broad picaresque comedy of Heaven’s My Destination or the philosophical poise of The Ides of March, he kept his writing, in the words of a journal entry of his, “lyrical, diaphanous and tender.”

From the Library of American interview with J. D. McClatchy on the publication of Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings:

Except for Our Town and maybe The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder’s work is not well known today. Why should readers care about his work? Why the Library of America edition, and why now?

Wilder has too often been thought of as less a serious writer than a popular one. Our Town and The Bridge were instantly successful, and remain widely read—two faults held against them by the professoriate, who have all along condescended to Wilder as a sentimental, old-fashioned back number. (They should check with Edward Albee, for example, who considers Our Town not only the greatest American play but also the darkest and eeriest.) It may be that in the Modernist triumph, Wilder was not thought of as a radical experimentalist—a crucial label for critical darlings like Joyce and Eliot. (Hemingway and Fitzgerald could hardly be considered experimental either, but they exuded a certain glamour that the more philosophically inclined Wilder never depended on.) Neither the Modernist canon nor most college syllabi include Wilder, and his reputation—despite the acclaim in his lifetime—moves now under the radar. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that, all along, he has been hiding in plain sight. It’s my hope that these comprehensive Library of America editions will help to reveal a writer whose narrative skill and layered perspectives are both challenging and enthralling. He was such a lively stylist—in a novel like The Ides of March, say—that earlier readers may have overlooked his mesmerizing revisionist method of story-telling, constantly upending our sense of the motives and emotions of characters.

The Eighth Day is a particular favorite of yours. Why?

I suspect it was also Wilder’s favorite. He had been working with mixed success on two series of one-act plays, and seemed to have reached an impasse in his career. So he stopped, drove to the desert, and started to re-make himself as a writer. He wanted to return to the novel, and he was after something big, something as grand and expansive as one of the classic nineteenth-century novels he loved. (Even his descriptions of it as a work-in-progress hinted at his ambition. While writing the early chapters about the Ashley family boarding house, he joked to a friend that he was aiming for a cross between Louisa May Alcott and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.) He took his time writing it (it appeared a month before he turned seventy), realizing it would be unlike anything he had attempted before. He took the slimmest thread—a murder mystery—and wove it into a tapestry that spans continents and generations. It is his epic, a summing up of himself, his family, our national experience (as he saw it—a humane version of American exceptionalism), all of it posed in large and often global terms, suggested in part by the then novel ideas of Teilhard de Chardin. Coaltown is another Our Town, nowhere and everywhere.

By the way, The Eighth Day was also a favorite of John Updike’s. He once wrote of it: “Untidily, self-delightingly, it brims with wonder and wisdom, and aspires to prophecy. We marvel at a novel of such spiritual ambition and benign flamboyance.”

Wilder’s work seems so various. Are there connections between the subjects and themes and literary approaches of these later books and earlier works like Bridge of San Luis Rey and Heaven’s My Destination? With the plays?

I think there are two strong impulses that animate Wilder’s work. In a 1930 letter to a friend who asked about his first three novels, Wilder wrote: “It seems to me that my books are about: What is the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose to it?” So, the isolated human in extremis. And there is a contrary impulse as well: the picaresque. From Heaven’s My Destination to Theophilus North, Wilder loved an adventuring hero—let’s call him a minor American version of Don Quixote. To a Freudian, both these impulses might be rooted in Wilder’s difficult childhood, spent constantly on the move and often apart from his family. What both themes have in common is something they share with the author: a profound sense of loneliness.


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