Authors: Thornton Wilder
Tags: #Historical, #Classics
For Robert Maynard Hutchins
I've spent the last few days reading up on the life of Thornton Wilder and now I'm thoroughly depressed. He was the only American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in both Fiction and Drama, and as playwright of
The Skin of Our Teeth
he received two in the latter category. He graduated from Yale, earned a master's degree in French literature from Princeton. He taught at Lawrenceville, the University of Chicago, and Harvard, and lectured all over the place. (I won't bother listing his honorary degrees.) He won the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was all but fluent in French, German, Italian, and Spanish and translated. His adaptation of Ibsen's
was playing just down the street from the Broadway theater where
had opened. He occasionally acted in his plays. He wrote opera librettos and the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's
Shadow of a Doubt
. He knew a vast amount about music and played a pretty mean piano. He served in World Wars I and II. He knew everyone and was close to Gertrude Stein and Sigmund Freud. Even his failures turned to gold. His 1938 play,
, closed after thirty-nine performances but was a smash later on in 1954 as
and even more so in 1964 as
He was beloved. The eulogies at his memorial service in 1976 make you wish you'd been his friend. But what makes me hate Thornton Wilder most is that at age seventy-six, when he could have slept late, gone on a cruise, or passed the time in front of the mirror rearranging the laurels, he wrote this extraordinary novel. And here's the punch line: he appears to have written it in at least some small part to amuse his ailing and very good friend Robert Maynard Hutchins, founder of the Great Books series and president of the University of Chicago. So, what have you accomplished today?
My yellowed paperback edition from 1974, the year after
appeared in hardcover, is about to crumble, so it's a good thingâas Martha Stewart would sayâthat HarperCollins is reissuing the book, along with eight others from the Wilder canon. The timing, as it turns out, is also propitious, and would surely amuse Wilder.
Like another great American novel,
is set in the 1920s, and, like
The Great Gatsby
, it is set in a place where, as Fitzgerald wrote, “people played polo and were rich together,” in this case, Newport, Rhode Island. Thornton Wilder was stationed there during World War I, and after graduating from Yale in 1920, he went back there and spent the summer writing his first novel,
, while supporting himself tutoring Latin and whatnot to the children of the rich. From his little room at the YMCA that summer of 1922, he banged out letters on his Underwood typewriter. One of them, to his mother, is worth noting: “almost every day I go bathing at Newport Beach, a place a little commoner than Idora Park. (The
has long since restricted its own beach at the other end of the coast, where every cubicle in the bath-house bears its owner's name traced in platinum wire.)”
Another letter, written a few weeks later to a Yale classmate, goes on at some length in a P. G. Wodehousean vein: “You should know that Mr. and Mrs. Max Oser have taken the Millais Cottage and have
already appeared several times at Bailey's beach. All the world is dying to know if it is a
mÃ©nage qui marche
. Large bets were laid at Mrs. Raynam's garden fÃªte, both for and against. Mrs. Ogden Kindred was so eager to hear that she sent her gardener, borrowing over the hedge, Ohio-fashion, to find out the opinion of the servants' table. .Â .Â . The Princess Antoine Bibesco has been staying with Mrs. Fogg at Shingles.” The letter concludes with an elaborate riff on a supposed tragedy that has recently befallen a young student in town named “Wilden,” who was pulverized while walking down Thames Street “when six Rolls Royces from the north met five Daniels from the south.”
These are the seeds from which
grew a half century later. I'd happily have read the 1922 Wodehouse version, but that half century of germination made the novel more orchidaceous than dandelion.
The novel is the story of a young man who was born in 1897, then stationed in Newport during World War I, who went on to teach at a posh secondary school, then to spend a summer in Rhode Island making money by teaching tennis and tutoring. Autobiography, anyone? So far the only difference between Theophilus and Thornton is that Thornton returned in 1922 and Theophilus in 1926.
Young Theophilus is a man of ambitionânine ambitions, to be precise. He sets out to fulfill them within what he calls, in the manner of Schliemann's Troy, the nine cities of Newport. There's the first city of the earliest settlers, the second of the eighteenth-century town and Revolutionary port, the third of the prosperous New England seaport, and so forth, down to the ninth: “the American middle-class town, buying and selling, raising its children and burying its dead, with little attention to spare for the eight cities so close to it.” I have spent some time on Aquidneck Island myself, and recognize all nine of Wilder's Newport cities. In the 1960s, it was still very much a Navy town (fourth city) and as such, off-limits to us prep school boys, but we were allowed to check out the great mansions, or “cottages” along Bellevue Avenue (sixth city) built during
the Gilded Age. Since Wilder's death, a tenth city has been added, according to local historian George Herrick. It consists of hordes of porcine tourists on Thames Street dripping ice cream onto their
I'M WITH STUPID
T-shirts. Perhaps it's just as well that Wilder is no longer with us to see this. But what a shame he missed the Claus von Bulow trials there.
Theophilus's nine ambitions are to be: saint, anthropologist, archaeologist, detective, actor, magician, lover, rascal, and free man. “Notice,” he tells us in an aside nicely appropriate to the Age of Enron and Arthur Andersen, “all the projects that I did not entertain: I did not want to be a banker, a merchant, a lawyer, nor to join any of those life-careers that are closely bound up with directorates and boards of governors. .Â .Â .” It will neither surprise you nor ruin your enjoyment to reveal that Theophilus fulfills all nine ambitions, and then some. But then this is a remarkable young man, with remarkable qualities. Indeed, almost angelic. Michael Kernan has noted that Wilder's “basic approach to writing, in contrast to other great writers of his time, is that of a wizard, a magus, a waver of wands who summons up shapes from chaos, and conjures worlds out of clouds, all in an instant .Â .Â . Prospero figureâa controller of destiniesâappears in nearly all Wilder's works.”
In an interview published in 1974 after the novel came out, Wilder called the book “a joking autobiography.” It was at the time number five on the
New York Times
bestseller list, where it would remain for twenty-six weeks. It had been enthusiastically reviewed in those pages. Anatole Broyard: “Once in a while we come across a book that challenges us to strip off our sophistication and paddle around in the old swimming hole of sentimentality. .Â .Â . Perhaps adults need fairy tales, too.” Granville Hicks called it “extraordinarily entertaining.”
To be sure, there were dissenters.
discerned a certain “pallid playfulness” and
The Village Voice Literary Supplement
huffed that it was “thoroughly amusing but as deeply unsatisfying as tickling an arthritic with a feather to take his mind off the pain.” By the
time the Avon paperback edition appeared, the
had weighed back in to address that particular objection: “Some would call this old-fashioned, but it's all done so engagingly that you'd have to be a misanthrope to escape its spell.”
is, let us be frank, a very rich nine-course meal. The postmodern sushi-fed literary sensibility may at first find itself feeling a tad hypoglycemic. But two things will stave off early-onset diabetes. First, there is the sheer zest and energy of the writing. Second, this is a profoundly
flies in the face of those who call Wilder an old-fashioned literary bourgeois. He was as bourgois as one of his models, MoliÃ¨re.
One can hardly blame him for telling the
San Juan Star
that the novel was a joking autobiography. Why screw around with Deeper Meanings when your book is number five? But in fact,
is rather more than that. It is, in a mighty subtle way, the autobiography of Thornton Wilder's identical twin brother.
In a letter to a Yale classmate after the book came out, Wilder wrote, “I was born an identical twin; he lived an hour; if he had survived he'd have been named Theophilusâsecond sons have been so named for generations in the Wilder lineâso I wrote his memoirs. How right you are what a lot of lovely girls in it.”
This is rather spooky, but it is the key to the book. According to Wilder's nephew and indefatigable literary executor, Tappan Wilder, Thornton was “haunted all his life by his brother's death and felt a kind of survivor's guilt.” He points out that twins occur in a number of his uncle's works: one of the five travelers killed in the fall of
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
was an identical twin; the doctor in
has just delivered twins; and now here, in Wilder's final, summing-up work, the protagonist is the twin who did not survive.
Amid more than 200 linear feet of the Wilder archive at Yale are some handwritten notes on a legal pad with the heading, “Chapter Three: First Sketches Toward a Characterization of Theophilus.” Beneath, in his aging handwriting, it says, “two sons were born to the Wilders of Madison Wisconsin toward midnight on April 17,
1897. In those days, twins were not predictable, but an array of family names were waiting for the newcomer .Â .Â . but one of the twins died at birth. .Â .Â . Either little Theophilus or little Thornton died, leaving an identical replica of himself behind. The survivor was christened Thornton.”
The notes go on at length about the metaphysics of twins. “Each twin,” he continues, “carries his âopposite number' latest within himself. We are not onlyâas Pascal says every human being is âhalf angel, half beast;' we are, in one person, halves of two different kinds of angel and halves of two different kinds of beast.” So Theophilus is Thornton's literal doppelgÃ¤nger, or ghostly double. While it's hard to imagine that Thorton left anything undone in his life, he seems to have felt the need for one last fantastical go-around.