In the fall of 1930, a brief literary controversy erupted over the work of Thornton Wilder. At the time, Wilder had not yet written Our Town or The Skin of Our Teeth, the summer-stock favorites for which he is mostly remembered. He wasn’t known as a dramatist at all, in fact, but as the author of three short novels. The first of these, The Cabala, follows a young American living in Rome in the years after World War I. The second, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the great commercial and critical hits of the 1920s, concerns the collapse of its eponymous bridge in eighteenth-century Peru and the effort to connect the disparate lives lost there. When Wilder followed up this success with The Woman of Andros, a novel set in ancient Greece, it seemed to some that he was moving with each book further from his native ground. Writing in the New Republic, the Marxist critic Michael Gold took a particularly harsh view of Wilder’s “masterly retreat into time and space.”
“The garden cultivated by Mr. Thornton Wilder… is a museum, it is not a world,” Gold insisted, mixing metaphors as only an economic interpreter of literature can. He described Wilder’s style as “diluted Henry James.” (Today this would be merely a lukewarm compliment, but James’s reputation was at its nadir then.) “Prick it,” Gold wrote, “and it will bleed violet ink and apéritif.” But what most bothered him was Wilder’s refusal to engage with his own country and era. It wasn’t the historical setting of these novels as such to which Gold objected, but their apparent remoteness from contemporary concerns:
Here one will not find the heroic archaeology of a Walter Scott or a Eugene Sue. Those men had social passions, and used the past as a weapon to affect the present and the future.…That is how the past should be used; as a rich manure, as a springboard, as a battle cry, as a deepening, clarifying sublimation of the struggles in the too-immediate present.
“Let Mr. Wilder write a book about modern America,” Gold concluded. “We predict it will reveal all his fundamental silliness and superficiality, now hidden under a Greek chlamys.”
Edmund Wilson, who had been on leave as literary editor of the New Republic when the magazine ran Gold’s review, returned to contribute an unsigned editorial in response. “Perhaps no other literary article published in the New Republic has ever aroused so much controversy,” Wilson wrote. “We have received, and are still receiving, dozens of letters about it, and most of these letters are earnest protests.”
Wilson questioned the foundations of the Marxist critique of literature, which at the time was a novel practice: “In dealing with a work of literature, we must consider it not only from the point of view of its significance in the social system, but also from the point of view of craft. A Communist critic who, in reviewing a book, ignores the author’s status as a craftsman is really, for purposes of propaganda, denying the dignity of human work.” But he also conceded that “in Wilder the pathos and the beauty derived from exotic lands of the imagination may be, as Michael Gold suggests, a sedative for sick Americans.”
This last note, about sedatives for sick Americans, suggests the direction this debate would soon follow. Before long an argument about the particulars of Wilder’s work had shifted to the broader question of Literature After the Crash.
The 1929 stock-market crash struck America at the height of its confidence, making it feel suddenly vulnerable. The consequences of a single day’s events were so far-reaching that some questioned the entire American project. At the very least, the preceding decade’s exuberance and consumption now seemed shortsighted and self-indulgent. Something unprecedented had happened, and the expectation grew that the culture should respond with something equally unprecedented. If all this sounds familiar, it should: the conversation about literature’s response to the crash played very much like recent ones about the end of irony and the 9/11 novel.
Finally, this long-standing argument about artistic “relevance” or “engagement” often comes down to Wilson’s distinction between the artist as craftsman, reveling in his workmanship for its own sake, and the artist as social agent, saying something meaningful about the world. And yet Wilder, though certainly a careful, sometimes beautiful stylist and an able craftsman, was no simple aesthete; he was deeply interested in human themes.
“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 that one has to oppose it,” he wrote not long before the crash, in a letter included in the new and generous Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder. “In other words: when a human being is made to bear more than [a] human can bear—what then?”
One might think that a novelist with such concerns would seem not less but more relevant as the insouciance of the ’20s gave way to the suffering of the ’30s. But Gold and others understood their predicament and their challenges to be unique. To answer them called not for a general study of humans in extremis, but for a study of American particulars. “Is Mr. Wilder a Swede or a Greek,” Gold asked, “or is he an American?”
Thornton Wilder was indeed an American, but his life to that point had not been especially conducive to the laying down of roots in American soil. His father, Amos Parker Wilder, was a journalist and newspaper editor, first in Philadelphia, then in New Haven, New York, and finally in Madison, Wisconsin. He had a habit of being fired for politically unpopular editorials, a problem he solved by buying a stake in the Wisconsin State Journal. Wilder’s mother, Isabella Niven, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and the granddaughter of a prominent abolitionist. Thornton, the second of their five surviving children, was born in Madison in 1897. A twin brother died at birth—he would have been named Theodore, or possibly Theophilus—and the absence followed Wilder throughout his life.
In 1906, Amos accepted an appointment as the U.S. consul general to Hong Kong. From then on, Thornton would be educated variously in Hong Kong, mainland China, California, Ohio (Oberlin College), and Connecticut (Amos’s alma mater, Yale). Rarely would the entire family be on the same continent for any extended period. Given Wilder’s early literary interest and his far-flung family, it should be no surprise that he proved a prodigious letter-writer. He wrote most frequently to his father, about his studies, and to his mother, about life away from home. But there are also copious letters to his various siblings, whose idiosyncratic upbringing produced an unusually abundant fruit. (Wilder’s older brother, Amos, became a prominent theologian; his sister Charlotte was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets and had a promising literary career before a tragic series of breakdowns led to a lobotomy and a life spent in and out of institutions. Another sister, Isabel, wrote several well-regarded novels.)
At boarding school in California, Thornton was cast as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, but Amos forbade him from playing female roles. (“The worst part of all comes in the explaining to other boys all about how my puritanical pater disapproves.”) At Oberlin, his one-act plays were performed, and he self-mockingly described them in much the same terms he would more earnestly use for his mature work. (“A magnificent treatment of all the problems that ever ruined the worrying-powers of man… I have adhered to your demand that I remain in masculine clothes. When you have changed your mind as to it please notify.”) At Yale, to which he transferred after his sophomore year, he submitted with some trepidation to a contest seeking the best “American play” by an undergraduate. (“I don’t really see why I ought to expect myself to be able to picture ‘American life’ with any big eye.”)
Wilder considered applying to a postgraduate playwriting course, but decided he’d like instead to “just travel and write, and live in ordinary, city boarding-houses and in the second class and steerage of boats, and in European attics and among the people of China.” In the event, he spent a year studying archaeology at the American Academy in Rome.
Wilder’s time in Rome was decisive to the historical—really archaeological—sensibility that would mark his works, which are filled with the intimations of a past that still exists just below the present, visible to any who care to dig. “Outside in wonderful Rome, it is drizzling,” he wrote his family in his first letter upon arriving.
Carriages and trams pass. Not far away the Pope and forty cardinals are sleeping, the coliseum and the forum are lying dampish, and silent and locked up but with one burning light at least, the Sistine chapel is glimmering, and somewhere further off, in the struggling starlight, your graves, John Keats and Percy Shelley, lie, succeeding to establish, if anyone can, that it is better to be in a moist hell with glory, than live in an elegant hotel with stupidity.
Decades later he wrote about Our Town in a letter to the playwright Esther Bates:
Deep at the genesis of the play was the fact that I, as a young student in Rome, went on archaeological expeditions; saw an axe bring to light a once-busy street corner. There is a Pompeii aspect of Grovers Corners. (Ever since New York and Chicago are potential Pompeiis; and under my window much-bombed Stuttgart is an industrious ant-hill Pompeii…) The theme-words of Our Town are: hundred, thousand, million. I have no other subject; but now it is the one soul in the billion souls.
But the most immediate fruit of this year was Wilder’s first novel, The Cabala, which he dedicated, “To my friends at the American Academy in Rome, 1920–1921.” Though it is set in roughly that period, the novel regards Rome with the long view that would become the signature characteristic of Wilder’s writing. “It was Virgil’s country,” remarks the narrator, a nameless young American, “and there was a wind that seemed to rise from the fields and descend upon us in a long Virgilian sigh, for the land that has inspired sentiment from the poet ultimately receives its sentiment from him.”
The Cabala of the title is a secretive clique of Romans—“a group of people losing sleep over a host of notions that the rest of the world has outgrown several centuries ago”—whose ranks the narrator manages to break. It is the narrator’s—and evidentially the author’s—fascination with these aristocratic relics that so bothered Gold, but it is this same trait that reminded Wilson and other critics of Proust. Indeed, The Cabala is a Proustian novel in everything but length, funny and sad and elegant and learned and sophisticated and only occasionally too precious; the book is a shock to readers accustomed to thinking of Wilder as homespun or folksy, a kind of living embodiment of Our Town’s Stage Manager.
While Wilder used his experience in Rome to create the backdrop of The Cabala, the characters themselves are pulled from history and literature. The dying Keats, referenced in that first letter home, makes an appearance, and there is the suggestion that the members of the Cabala are in fact incarnations from Roman mythology. The point is not to fetishize the past, but to suggest what Wilder at one point called “the disturbing discovery of the human multitude,” the understanding that forgotten millions came before us, living lives much like our own, lives they too believed to be important and even unique.
Like The Cabala, Wilder’s second novel involves a loosely connected group of characters as viewed by an outside observer. In this case, that observer is Brother Juniper, an eighteenth-century Franciscan missionary who studies the lives of five victims of the collapse of “the finest bridge in all Peru” in order to discern some meaning behind the tragedy. (The collapse, and the bridge itself, is Wilder’s invention.)
Published in 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey made its author so commercially successful that, as Edmund Wilson noted, “the literary snobs have been driven… into talking as if they took it for granted that there must be something meretricious about him.” After this point in Wilder’s life, letters to siblings and parents are joined by letters to Hemingway, to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, most important perhaps to Gertrude Stein, and eventually to politicians and movie stars (one of the last in The Selected Letters is addressed to Mia Farrow).
The stigma of popularity has remained around Wilder more or less ever since; Dwight Macdonald considered him the prime example of the evils of “Midcult.” But The Bridge is in fact a work of stern precision. It has an aphoristic perfection that is probably only available to a certain kind of short novel—one thinks of The Great Gatsby or Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart.” Like the tales of Hawthorne or Isak Dinesen, it achieves a seeming narrative naïveté that is in fact an expertly controlled aesthetic effect.
Perhaps the most moving of the lifelines traced by the novel are those of the orphaned twins, Esteban and Manuel. When Manuel dies, Esteban becomes suicidal, but he eventually finds the will to carry on. He is on his way to sea when he finds himself on the collapsing bridge. One thinks of course of Wilder’s own stillborn brother. But the figure of the lost twin also serves as a powerful metaphor for the shadow of eternity, for the lives identical to our own, being lived throughout history, each one carried out as if all existence depended on it. The past, in Wilder’s work, is not a precursor to the present but its twin.
The Woman of Andros, the follow-up to The Bridge that sparked Gold’s attack, is set on the island of Brynos in ancient Greece. It is unquestionably a lesser work than either of its predecessors, but it contains moments of great moral insight, rendered with Wilder’s typical elegance. Once again, he proves himself a particularly memorable aphorist: “Of all forms of genius, goodness has the longest awkward age”; “The caress of the hands in first love… seems to be a sharing of courage, an alliance of two courages against a confusing world.” Of course, the great skill of the aphorist demands an eye for the universal revealed in the particular. The Woman of Andros is not an escape from contemporary man into history; for Wilder, no such escape is possible, precisely because he believed that “people have been much the same in all times and ages.” It may finally be this, the disturbing discovery of the multitude, that made Gold and others so uncomfortable, and that made them portray Wilder as indifferent to human suffering when in fact the opposite was true.
When Wilder set his next novel, Heaven’s My Destination, in 1930s America, some saw it as a response to Gold’s challenge. Wilder himself explained that he had been “collecting the practice, the experience and courage, to present [his] own times.” Neither explanation quite convinces—the latter because Wilder would wait another thirty years before writing another so squarely contemporary work; the former because Heaven’s My Destination is not a work of social realism but a picaresque comedy whose themes are the same timeless ones to which Wilder always returned. It might be simpler to say that since a Thornton Wilder story can grow up in any age or place, it was only a matter of time before one showed up in the Depression-era Midwest.
At any rate, the question of Wilder’s literary interest in American life would soon be rendered moot. After Heaven’s My Destination, his fourth novel in a decade, Wilder concentrated his efforts on the theater, which he considered “the greatest of all arts,” and his first full-length play became a classic of Americana. The response to Our Town surprised its author greatly: “Our reviews say that it is a nostalgic, unpretentious play with charm…. But what I wrote was damned pretentious.” If anything, Wilder became too quintessentially American for critical respectability, a kind of Norman Rockwell with words.
In truth, however, the shift to drama represented a widening of Wilder’s historical view, not a homecoming but an extension of his temporal restlessness. In an essay about his turn to playwriting, Wilder notes the shift as a means of better balancing the tension between the universal and particular that had marked all of his work:
Every action which has ever taken place—every thought, every emotion—has taken place only once, at one moment in time and place. “I love you,” “I rejoice,” “I suffer,” have been said and felt billions of times, and never twice the same…. Yet the more one is aware of this individuality in experience (innumerable! innumerable!) the more one becomes attentive to what these disparate moments have in common, to repetitive patterns. As an artist (or listener or beholder), which “truth” do you prefer—that of the isolated occasion, or that which includes the innumerable?
“The theater,” Wilder argued, “is admirably fitted to tell both truths. It has one foot planted firmly in the particular, since each actor before us (even when he wears a mask!) is indubitably a living breathing ‘one’; yet it tends and strains to exhibit a general truth since its relations to a specific ‘realistic’ truth is confused and undermined by the fact that it is an accumulation of untruths, pretenses, and fiction.”
Wilder would write three more novels over the last four decades of his life, including one, The Eighth Day, that contains some of his finest writing. (Unfortunately, it also contains some of his worst.) But he would be forever known now as a dramatist, as the author of Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, plays read by, and performed by, legions of high-school sophomores every year. Samuel Johnson once remarked that a writer is judged by his worst work while alive and his best work once dead. Wilder seems to be one of the few dead writers whose lesser work—his plays—obscure his finest work—that is, the four novels that preceded his turn to the theater.
Ultimately, Michael Gold may have been right to believe that Wilder had nothing in particular to tell his own age. And if we, like Gold, want to believe our troubles are unprecedented, that no one has suffered as we do now, then Wilder may not have much to tell us, either. But perhaps it is precisely his universality that we should attend to now. Granted, there is something aggravating, even shortsighted, about the man who insists always on the long view, especially in times of tragedy. For while it is strictly speaking so that this too shall pass, we may all well be gone before it does. In the meantime, one wants a foothold amid the stream of passing moments. But it would be a mistake to see Wilder as a mere partisan of eternity. That each individual, by a certain accounting, is inconsequential is only half of Wilder’s message. The other half is that we are called upon to live in our moment as if it meant everything, as if it were a world and not just a grain of sand. “The circumstances we confront while we live them are different than any others that ever befell,” he wrote to his nephew late in his life. “The resemblances to previous occasions are there for the non-engaged to see and be impressed by… but they are not [the] heart of the matter.”
Nor was this lesson taught to him by critical scolding, for it is present in his work from the very beginning. Perhaps he learned it as a young man playing an archaeologist in Rome, where he was impressed not only by the layers of the city but by the evidence that suggested that in each layer the people lived as if the others didn’t exist. At the end of The Cabala, the nameless narrator is visited by Virgil’s ghost as he sails from Europe to New York. The scene contains full-grown the themes that would occupy Wilder for the rest of his life.
“I spent my whole lifetime under a great delusion,” Virgil tells him, “that Rome and the house of Augustus were eternal. Nothing is eternal save Heaven. Romes existed before Rome and when Rome will be a waste there will be Romes after her. Seek out some city that is young. The secret is to make a city, not to rest in it.”
Then the ghost of Virgil disappears, and the young American is left alone with the sound of the ship’s engines carrying him “eagerly toward the new world and the last and greatest of all cities.”