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A Prince of the Palefaces

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Wilder Family/Yale Collection of American Literature
Thornton Wilder at the age of nine or ten, Berkeley, California, circa 1906–1907

Thornton Niven Wilder, author of seven novels and nine plays, was born in 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin, the grandson of a Presbyterian clergyman, and the son of a government diplomat who later became a newspaper editor. Best known for Our Town, a homespun story of domestic life in a small New England village, he has always been considered a quintessential middle-American writer.

But as Penelope Niven’s painstaking new biography, Thornton Wilder: A Life, helps make clear, Wilder, though fiercely loyal to his country, his family, and his wide circle of American friends, was a man with powerful literary ambitions who felt more affinity with European classics and the contemporary avant-garde than with anything in the native canon. Among his primary literary and philosophical influences were not Emerson, Longfellow, and Frost, as one might expect of such an intrinsically New England figure, but Kierkegaard, Nietszche, Kafka, Proust, and Joyce; and he was also deeply indebted to the drama of the Greeks and the Spanish Golden Age (Wilder once devoted years of precious writing time, ten hours a day, to dating the five hundred plays of Lope de Vega).

He was a small-town boy who traveled widely in the world after spending his early years in China. In his trips abroad he became friendly with some of the leading international figures of the period, including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Freud, Mann, Picasso, Ezra Pound, Edmund Wilson, and Gertrude Stein. At the same time, he was cultivating friendships with a host of American luminaries from Alexander Woollcott to Henry Luce, from Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago (where he taught), to the heavyweight champion of the world, Gene Tunney. (He also became friendly with the eighteen-year-old Orson Welles, who always claimed that Wilder had discovered him.)

These relationships and influences are reflected in the relatively radical forms of his books and plays. He experimented for a while with Dada and fell under the spell of existentialism. The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) is so heavily indebted to Finnegans Wake that the Joyce scholars Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, authors of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, once charged him, in a two-part article in The Saturday Review of Literature, with plagiarism. Our Town (1938), with its bare stage and direct address, its expository Stage Manager, and its experimentation with theatrical space and time, owes a significant debt to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. The Merchant of Yonkers (1938; an adaptation that mutated first into The Matchmaker (1955)and later into the spectacularly successful musical Hello, Dolly!) is based on a nineteenth-century Austrian farce by Johann Nestroy with additional scenes from Molière. Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) was inspired by the nineteenth-century French playwright and short-story writer Prosper Merimée. His novel The Woman of Andros (1930) and his trilogy The Alcestiad (1955) both owe their existence to Greek and Roman models, namely Euripides, Menander, and Terence.

Wilder was also attracted to experimental European directors like Max Reinhardt and Richard Boleslavsky, each of whom took a turn at botching one of his plays, when the obvious directors for such fundamentally native material were locals like Jed Harris, who staged Our Town, and Elia Kazan, who directed The Skin of Our Teeth (the latter with a stunning cast, headed by Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, and the husky-voiced Tallulah Bankhead as Sabina the maid).

The most puzzling thing about Thornton Wilder has always been the disparity between his radical European and classical forms and his rather bland domestic themes. Penelope Niven, who writes like an admiring family member (and may very well be one—Niven is Wilder’s middle name as well as the maiden name of his mother), has composed a biography that greatly increases my respect for the humanity and decency of this good man, if not for all of his work. Like two of his four siblings, he never married, but he was an obedient son and solicitous brother, a devoted friend, and generous to all who approached him. He contributed large amounts of money toward the hospitalizations of his father, right up until his death, and to his sister, Charlotte, after she suffered an extended mental breakdown. He was always ready with advice and even financial help for students and strangers. And despite an accumulation of accolades and prizes, his modesty was legendary.

Cosmopolitan in his influences, he was nevertheless a native child in his optimistic belief that humanity was basically decent and redeemable, and that fictional characters should embody these qualities. Wilder’s decorum toward his creations led the militant Communist watchdog Michael Gold to attack him in The New Republic as the “Emily Post of culture,” dismissing the figures in his first novel, The Cabala (1926), as “some eccentric old aristocrats in Rome, seen through the eyes of a typical American art ‘pansy.’” Wilder was deeply hurt by Gold’s comments but, as was his habit, refused to retaliate.

He served in two world wars, and yet the sounds that usually reverberated in this veteran’s ears were not cries of suffering but anthems of affirmation, not unlike Anne Frank’s stubborn belief, “in spite of everything…that people are really good at heart.” He was not above occasional reflections on the more carnal side of human nature (he once affirmed that the hidden metaphor of Finnegans Wake was buggery). But only toward the end of his life did he begin to yield up some of his conviction that the world was grounded in love. His penultimate novel, The Eighth Day (1967), which some believe to be his masterpiece, hopefully prophesies a fundamental change in human character: “We are at the beginning of the second week. We are the children of the eighth day.” That new day was meant to signal an evolutionary transformation into Nietszche’s Übermenschen. But even Wilder seemed astonished at the disparity between his ambition and his achievement. As he wrote to Isabel about the novel in 1963, “It’s as though Little Women were being mulled over by Dostoievsky.”

The critic Philip Rahv once drew a useful distinction between literary figures he called “palefaces” and those he identified as “redskins.” His purpose was to distinguish work like “the drawing-room fictions of Henry James” from “the open air poems of Walt Whitman,” between writers with a cultivated literary style and those driven by a fiery radical temperament. Surely, Wilder’s work is of the former, more genial kind. It is not a barbaric yawp that resounds in his pages so much as a homespun drawl. Even if you compare Our Town, for example, with works from a similar American genre, like Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street or Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, Wilder displays none of the edge of these writers, who are usually too jaundiced about small-town life ever to become fixtures in the high school reading list. (Our Town, by contrast, has now had more student productions than almost any other play in history, and is revived on Broadway about once every five years.) Wilder often used cosmological ideas to describe domestic behavior, “the life of a village against the life of the stars.” But there is a real question whether this writer, in works like Our Town, actually succeeded in his ambition “to raise ordinary daily conversation between ordinary people to the level of the universal human experience,” or whether he simply invented another homiletic genre.

The unkindest comment on this discrepancy continues to be Kenneth Tynan’s wicked treatment of the play as if it were written in the style of William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: “Well, folks,” drawls Tynan’s parody of Wilder’s Stage Manager,

reckon that’s about it. End of another day in the city of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Nothin’ much happened. Couple of people got raped, couple more got their teeth kicked in, but way up there those faraway old stars are still doing their old cosmic crisscross, and there ain’t a thing we can do about it…. Down behind the morgue a few of the young people are roastin’ a nigger over an open fire, but I guess every town has its night-owls, and afore long they’ll be tucked up asleep like anybody else. Nothin’ stirring down at the big old plantation house—you can’t even hear the hummin’ of the electrified barbed-wire fence, ’cause last night some drunk ran slap into it and fused the whole works.

The satiric contrast, of course, is between the vanilla-soda virtues of George and Emily in Grover’s Corners and the virulent, racist fever of the Snopes family in Jefferson, Mississippi. Wilder’s New England village seems utopian precisely because it is immune from any of the evils afflicting America at that time. “Oh, earth,” says Emily at the end of the play, sounding like a small-town Candide, “you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” In this best of all possible villages, there is no persecution, no lynching, no religious prejudice, no union-busting, no gross income inequality, no sign of the Know-Nothings or other precursors of the Tea Party—just wholesome meals of roast turkey, homogenized milk, and Wonder Bread being served by kindly beaming folk out of Norman Rockwell portraits. (Wilder actually collected his one-act plays under a title that might have been appropriate for a Rockwell painting—The Long Christmas Dinner.)

Tynan’s parody is especially cruel when you consider how often Wilder himself played the Stage Manager in productions of his play. (The cover of his biography features a photo of the author in the part, sitting on a stool, looking like a kindly general practitioner about to palpate your chest.) But Tynan’s implication that the author of Our Town was indifferent to human suffering is simply not true. Wilder was a man of compassion, and there was not a prejudiced bone in his body. He seems to have had only one serious quarrel in his entire life—with a director over the liberties he took with his text—and even that was resolved amicably. But his decision to write about an American town so homogenous in its population, so lacking in serious urban problems, has made the play a prime target for satire, though the scene in which Emily returns from the grave to savor a day on earth is unquestionably very moving. Persistently liberal in his voting habits, Thornton seems to have been insulated from social outrage.

Tolstoy famously observed (in Anna Karenina) that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It was Wilder’s limitation as an artist that he preferred to write mostly about happy families. Imagine Eugene O’Neill or Edward Albee calling a play “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden.” Indeed, imagine Kafka or Joyce writing a line like this from Wilder’s novel Heaven’s My Destination: “You know what I think is the greatest thing in the world? It’s when a man, I mean an American, sits down to Sunday dinner with his wife and six children around him.” Years ago, Steven Marcus, in his critical study Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey, summed up the dominant theme of Charles Dickens in one telling phrase: “Family life—a nightmare.” But in the works of Wilder, family life is almost always a postprandial daydream. “I have decided,” he once wrote half ironically to Mabel Dodge Luhan, “that the human race as a whole can be given the benefit of the doubt.”

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