Chasing After Providence

Thornton Wilder
Thornton Wilder; drawing by David Levine

The Eighth Day was published in late March of 1967, three weeks before Thornton Wilder’s seventieth birthday. Reviews were mixed, from Edmund Wilson’s calling it “the best thing he ever wrote” to Edith Oliver’s judgment, in The New Yorker, that “none of the characters, major or minor, is essentially credible to the reader” and Stanley Kaufmann’s, in The New Republic, that “we have—from a man who has always meant well—a book that means nothing.” Nevertheless, Wilder’s first novel in nearly twenty years had Book-of-the-Month-Club endorsement, spent twenty-five weeks on the best-seller list, and won the 1968 National Book Award. I was one of the judges, much the youngest; the other two were Granville Hicks and Josephine Herbst. Hicks and I wanted the award to go to Wilder; Herbst gracefully acceded, and my two senior colleagues asked me to write the citation. On the spot I scratched it off:

Through the lens of a turn-of-the-century murder mystery, Mr. Wilder surveys a world that is both vanished and coming to birth; in a clean gay prose sharp with aphoristic wit and the sense and scent of Midwestern America and Andean Chile, he takes us on a chase of Providence and delivers us, exhilarated and edified, into the care of an ambiguous conclusion.

Having just reread, thirty-five years later, The Eighth Day, I am only slightly disposed to quarrel with this rash summary. The “coming to birth” and “chase of Providence” seemed muted the second time around, with a louder emphasis on the misery and muddle of the human condition. “Clean gay” are not the words with which I would now characterize the prose, though there is considerable gaiety in the narration’s swift onward flow, its sudden pools of rumination and opinionizing, its pleasure in its own inventions, the impish leaps in time that telegraph crucial plot developments so quickly we can scarcely believe our eyes, and the globe-spanning nimbleness and cosmic lift-off of it all.

Wilder was the product of a pious (though progressive and cultured) Protestant household and Christian educational institutions; he kept religion’s bias—its basic gaiety—while leaving the dogmas behind. His comedies skate on the skin of the void. If not a theist like Teilhard de Chardin and Kierkegaard, both of whom he admired and drew upon, he declined to write off the universe as a bad job. His Caesar in The Ides of March (1948) writes a friend that he is not certain “that in no corner of my being there lingers the recognition that there is a possibility of a mind in and behind the universe which influences our minds and shapes our actions”; in a later letter Caesar confesses, “Yet even in my last bitterness I cannot disavow the memory of bliss. Life, life has this mystery that we dare not say the last word about it, that it is good or bad, that it is senseless,…

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