Thornton Wilder
Thornton Wilder; drawing by David Levine

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 to music and reach the screen with Hello, Dolly!

Today we are more conscious of, and less self-conscious about, what has come to be known as intertextuality. Wilder was hardly less preoccupied than Joyce had been with the da capo recurrence of things, thematic as well as textual. Both of them, after harking back to prehistoric monsters and tribal bards, looked ahead through war years toward survival. Both embodied their universals in a family pattern, varying as the Earwickers of Dublin did from the Antrobuses of suburban New Jersey. But drama, much more readily than prose fiction, can generalize about the human race. By striking the box set and opening the stage, Wilder rejected naturalism and revived the morality play: Everyman, Mankind. As for womankind, he argued, on stage all could be represented by one, “a timeless individualized Symbol.” Sabina could be maid-of-all-work, beauty queen, reincarnation of Lilith, the eternal Other Woman, and also Tallulah Bankhead creating the part while rebelling against it in lines supplied by the playwright.

“The supranational subject is mine—“ he noted in self-appraisal, “the individual in the all-time.” And yet, in order to be individualized, the subject had to be localized. In Our Town (1938) we were told about a letter addressed to “Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” Here Wilder may again have been borrowing from Joyce, for Stephen Dedalus similarly orientates himself in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But Stephen was echoing a traditional schoolboy formula, after all, and the variance means more to us than the parallel between his Dublin and Jane’s Grover’s Corners. Wilder’s allegory of life cycles is fleshed out in the local colors of Main Street. Generalities are vernacularized through his Middle American dialogue. Indeed this fastidious stylist, not unlike Flaubert, had an especially sensitive ear for the cliché juste.


But Wilder remained, with Goethe, ever curious about the telescopic view, about man’s place in nature and in history Hence it is not surprising if we remember him—warmly—in paradoxical images: as the homespun classicist, the backslapping aesthete, the familial bachelor, the gregarious recluse, the folksy citizen of the world. Equally at ease in the classroom and backstage, he acted out the American dilemma of society and solitude: in his case, of innumerable friendships ranging from Gene Tunney to Gertrude Stein and periodic withdrawals to undisclosed retreats, where much of his creative work was accomplished in the utmost privacy. He was a personality in the sense that Henry James was and that William Faulkner, apart from his writing, was not. In the sense that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were strained and egocentric personalities, his was a mellow and generous temperament. The fact that he was haunted by the ghost of a stillborn twin brother might have had something to do with his psychic duality.

That personal identification with otherness inclined him to be something of an actor, and consequently he was more in his element as a dramatist than as a novelist. He was also somewhat inclined by descent and conscience to play the preacher, while doctrinally more attuned to Kierkegaard than to Calvin. Moreover, he had started out in, and often reverted to, the role of a teacher. It was therefore not surprising when his own persona, charged with so many interests and ideas, tended to outshine his dramatis personae. Much of this went into his prolific and many-sided correspondence, which unquestionably deserves to be collected and published. It is fortunate that voluminous journals, kept by him off and on for more than fifty years, have been preserved among his papers and manuscripts in the Beinecke Library at Yale. A central selection from them has now appeared under the authoritative editorship of Donald Gallup, who is both Wilder’s literary executor and the leading bibliographer of modern American literature.

Mr. Gallup has given us “rather more than one-third” of the material spanning a twenty-two-year period in Wilder’s later life. The unifying principle among these thoughtful jottings, dated mostly from hotel rooms in both hemispheres, seems manifest in an entry from 1940: “Now that I am thinking of becoming a critic….” Not that the critical diarist has abandoned his imaginative undertakings, though the record is missing between 1941 and 1948—an interval that witnessed the emergence of The Skin of Our Teeth and The Ides of March, and included Wilder’s three-year wartime service in the United States Military Intelligence. The diaries teem with embryonic projects, few of which were carried through gestation. The main completed exception was The Alcestiad, a Wilderesque reworking of the resurrection myth still best remembered through Euripides’ Alcestis. After years of interrupted tinkering, it became the least successful of Wilder’s works, both as a play and afterward as an opera libretto.

The perpetual work-in-progress to which these notes return most frequently, and from which two finished scenes are appended to Gallup’s book, is The Emporium. The notion of Americanizing Kafka by dramatizing his alluring and off-putting Castle as a metropolitan department store, and by turning his bewildered protagonist into a Horatio Alger hero—this was one of Wilder’s more engaging premises. But inspiration was always much easier for him than realization. Mocking the conventions and planning the surprises made it all the harder. He was worried by his happy endings and held up by his last acts. The pageantlike conclusion to The Skin of Our Teeth was contrived and anticlimactic; The Bridge of San Luis Rey had the peculiar advantage of beginning with the catastrophe and then looking backward to explore the meaning of its five victims’ lives. Wilder’s journals, like James’s prefaces, take us into the writer’s confidence, confront us with his technical problems, and suggest angles for their solution.

There are some lively comments on fellow dramatists—O’Neill, Claudel, Anouilh, Büchner, the Greeks—along with occasional discussions of the other arts, notably music and film; but the volume’s most sustained and valuable contribution lies in its series of observations on major novelists. These knowledgeable insights can be sharply aphoristic. Thus Thomas Mann, though respectfully cited, is termed “that ponderously signpost-planting author.” André Gide’s outlook is skeptically described as “the sincere desire to be sincere of one who cannot be so.” Discriminating admiration for James is qualified by this stricture: “Never was there a greater fuss-budget of a novelist, continually intruding his view of the case precisely under the pretense of withholding it.” And, though Wilder gradually learned to appreciate Faulkner, he maintained a temperamental and cultural distance: “It is as though we were hearing the fall of the House of Atreus told by a voice that was feverish and shrill, scandal-mongering-nosey, and a little prurient.”


The pungency of such remarks, set down by a fellow craftsman and not primarily for publication, is warranted by their professionalism. Further animadversions throw unaccustomed light upon novels by Cervantes, Stendhal, Dickens, Gogol, Tolstoy, Camus, and Genet. But Wilder’s criticism was increasingly focused upon the classics of the American Renaissance, which he had undertaken to reconsider as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard in 1950–1951. Many of the pages in his journals are taken up with preliminary sketches for the six public lectures or with afterthoughts and outlines for the book that was to be organized around them.1 The assignment, which he characteristically viewed as an opportunity to deliver “lay sermons,” stimulated his flair for comparing national characteristics and his quest for psychological archetypes. On the premise that “the central figure of the superior works of our literature is Everyman,” he typified the difference between our culture and all others in a personification named Tom Everage—that everyday average man, so unlike Thornton Wilder.

He was at his best in treating authors as individuals, who faced their common task—and his—of “American Symbol-Making.” Under his trenchant analysis Poe and Whitman stand out; Emerson subsides into “odd doubletalk,” Thoreau into “idiosyncratic exaggeration”; and Melville gets shipwrecked before and after his unique triumph in Moby-Dick. Hawthorne is most severely judged, perhaps because he comes closest to Wilder as a fabulist and moralist.

For Hawthorne, the basic sin which he claims to hold before our eyes is: resorting to the head rather than to the heart. Yet an obsession on his part is that sex is sin. But sex is nearer the heart than the head, and N.H. is at once entangled in a series of contradictions which make havoc throughout his book [The Scarlet Letter].

Hester Prynne is unfavorably contrasted with Anna Karenina and Goethe’s Gretchen:

Gretchen [in Faust] and Anna Karenina are broken by society and by their lovers but not by their poets; Hester is disavowed by her creator, who reserves for her only the cold justification that—had she been less “impure”—she might have launched a crusade for bettering the world’s understanding of women.

As an auditor of Wilder’s Norton Lectures, I can attest that they were polished performances, all but ready for publication as first presented. But, having fallen dangerously “in love with the Norton book,” he went on elaborating drafts, prolonging revisions, and accumulating reservations until it turned into an albatross. He would produce no “writing of the category imaginative narration” for sixteen years. Nor could it be claimed that his two septuagenarian novels, The Eighth Day (1967) and Theophilus North (1973) lived up to his earlier achievement.

“That didactic-expository year at Harvard,” he would explain to himself, “…brought into focus those modes of thinking that are disturbingly incompatible with what I gropingly call symbolization.” Yet, when he responded to that call from Cambridge, he had already been deeply immersed in two abstruse hobbies involving scholarly research. One was his “compulsive infatuation” with the exegesis of Finnegans Wake, a “narcotic” inducing the illusion of an ersatz creativity, which he would subsequently renounce. As if this were not demanding enough, the other hobby was not simply the baroque Spanish drama of Lope de Vega; it was, more specifically, the problem of dating his 450 extant plays, and thereby charting his chronological development. “Fun, fun, fun,” Wilder chortles, at the prospect of putting together a learned article; but the 1198 journal pages of notes on Lope remain unpublished. At all events, they show—as do the Joycean marginalia—how easily the artist in Wilder could be sidetracked, even before the roadblock of “the Nortons.”

He had reached the point where personality flourished at the expense of artistic practice. Given his generosity as well as his curiosity, he could offer little resistance to the social distractions coming his way: testimonial dinners, honorary degrees, polyglot speeches, UNESCO conferences, trips to Hollywood, unremitting other travels in the US and abroad, lunch with Bundeskanzler Adenauer and dinner with mystagogic Gurdjieff—not to mention the unstinted and unrecorded attention he gave to friends everywhere. In setting his career into perspective, these journals can be usefully supplemented by the sympathetic biography of Gilbert A. Harrison. The fullest study yet to appear, this has the merit of drawing richly on firsthand impressions and associations, though the documentation could be more precise and various minor errors could be corrected. he range of Wilder’s knowledge and acquaintance would strain the awareness of almost any biographer. Yet for all his friendly gestures and outgoing traits, Wilder’s protean activities helped him to retain the elusiveness of an essentially private man.

If he felt at home anywhere, it would have been in academic communities (his successive home towns were Madison, Berkeley, Oberlin, and New Haven). Mr. Harrison informs us that Wilder’s “happiest years”—years productive of Heaven’s My Destination—were those of his professorship at the University of Chicago during the 1930s, when he was in his thirties. He was in his fifties during the year that led to what Mr. Harrison calls “his Harvard breakdown.” He did, in fact, collapse and spend a month in the hospital, having been victimized—partly by his own good nature—into accepting too many invitations. However, it was not unusual for the Norton Professor to teach one regular college course—and this is what prompted the journal’s brilliant entries upon the rereading of certain novels.2 His colleague in the course, John H. Finley, aptly delineated the figure he cut: Wilder “knew everybody, did everything, had marvelous social gifts, was very American, almost folksy,…cheerful and talkative as a village—and as isolated.”

Mr. Harrison had access to Wilder’s journals, and has included tantalizing excerpts from them that have not been reproduced in the Gallup edition.3 These omissions seem to result from an editorial policy which excludes “most passages of introspection and self-analysis.” Yet such passages would constitute the core of the most interesting writers’ journals, and Wilder as a reader would probably have been most interested in them. Consider, for example, five pages printed by Harrison under Wilder’s heading, “A Look-Around My Situation,” written at Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the spring of his climacteric year, 1950. Gallup’s one-page extract covers merely his itinerary and agenda. But this was arrived at, in context, through painful self-searching, a recoil from the sociable whirl, and a statement about the author’s “removedness from the writings.” Surely the final paragraph ought to be quoted:

One last word: The disarray in my psychic life which was perhaps caused by the uprooting which was the war and which has been so advanced by the even deeper immersion in the “false positions” I have recounted, have [sic] one still more harmful result. All these activities have been flights from seriousness. I am deep in dilettantism. Even my apparent preoccupation with deeply serious matters, e.g., the reading of Kierkegaard, is superficial and doubly superficial because it pretends to be searching. Gradually, gradually I must resume my, my own meditation on the only things that can reawaken any writing I have to do. I must gaze directly at the boundless misery of the human situation, collective and individual.

It should be clear that there is nothing at all discreditable in this momentary confession. Nor should it be held against Wilder that he never actually succeeded in carrying out this uneasy resolve. On the contrary, and regardless of any out-come, his self-doubts do great credit to the virtues that he possessed in abundance: modesty, conscientiousness, and high standards. His dissatisfaction with dilettantism (dilettantism in depth?) bespeaks the professional. If he worried so over his departures from seriousness, he must have been a truly serious man. Cheerfulness kept breaking in, and his ebullient manner made it all too easy for his contemporaries to set him down as an incorrigible optimist—or, in Mr. Harrison’s ambiguous epithet, an enthusiast. But, though he commented knowingly on Don Quixote, he was not quixotic himself. Ultimately he never allowed his bookish idealism or his comic ingenuity to derange his oceanic awe before the tragic realities that bound our daily existence.

This Issue

November 21, 1985