The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939–1961
The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder
In 1949 the bicentennial of Goethe’s birth was celebrated by an international symposium at Aspen, Colorado. What other American man of letters at the time, if not Thornton Wilder, could have met so well that cosmopolitan occasion? His topic was the Goethean ideal of world literature, which he proceeded to demonstrate by translating the German and Spanish addresses of Albert Schweitzer and José Ortega y Gasset. Wilder had attended a German school in China, when his father was serving as consul there. Later on, after graduating from Yale, he had spent a year of classical studies at the American Academy in Rome. Nicolà Chiaromonte characterized him as “the only contemporary American writer who is literate in the European sense,…the humanistic sense.” Some of his compatriots regarded Wilder as being all too literary, too widely traveled and highly cultivated, for his own good as a writer. On that score he was stridently attacked, despite his popularity and geniality, from two very different points of view.
The first attack came as a polemical review of The Woman of Andros (1930) by a communist hatchet man, Michael Gold. From the immediate standpoint of relevance to the class struggle, this novel seemed to him unduly slight, unconscionably precious, and inhibited by the genteel tradition. Like its predecessors, the quasi-Proustian Cabala (1926) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), it dealt with exotic settings, religious subtleties, and feelings—symbolized by the broken bridge—of unrequited love. Wilder’s good-humored response to the attack took the form of a picaresque sally into the Depression, Heaven’s My Destination (1935), caricaturing his own high-mindedness through the divagations of an evangelical traveling salesman, not excluding the proverbial misadventure with a farmer’s daughter. Turning toward the theater, Wilder became more and more involved with domestic and quotidian themes. Except in his historical pastiche, The Ides of March (1948), with its simulated letters from Caesar, Cicero, and Catullus, he managed to live down the smell of the lamp.
The second attack on Wilder purported to be an exposure. He was accused by two Joycean devotees, Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, of having plagiarized from Finnegans Wake in his cosmic comedy, The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). Wilder, a far more perceptive reader of Joyce than his accusers, had made no secret of his devotion. Perhaps his Roman training had instilled in him a palimpsestic approach to literature. The most vivid character in The Bridge of San Luis Rey is modeled on Madame de Sévigné, while his English title, The Woman of Andros, acknowledges its Latin source in the Andria of Terence. If The Matchmaker (revised by Wilder from his Merchant of Yonkers) was originally derived from J.N. Nestroy’s Einen Jux will er sich machen, that Viennese extravaganza had in turn been based upon the Victorian farce of John Oxenford, A Day Well Spent—in a cumulative process of transposition that would later adapt…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.