Reassessing Thornton Wilder

May 9, 2010

Geoffrey O'Brien.jpgby Geoffrey O'Brien

Geoffrey O'Brien, the editor-in-chief of Library of America, is a widely published poet, critic, and cultural historian. A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, he lives in New York City.

Thornton Wilder was as acclaimed in his lifetime as a writer can hope to be--the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes among many honors, national and international, the author of bestselling novels, including most famously The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and of tremendously successful plays. Our Town continues to be the most widely performed of American plays; a successful revival is playing in New York right now. Yet I would suggest that the real significance of his work is only beginning to come into focus. This may be in part because he excelled in more than one literary form, and in part because many of his works seem so open and accessible as to require no commentary. In reality he seems a writer of hidden depths who is almost always operating on multiple levels, a radically experimental writer flying under the radar, a hermeticist hiding in plain sight. In literary terms he was very much a party of one, although he freely acknowledged the inspiration of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce among other contemporaries. His singularity was recognized early on by Edmund Wilson, who wrote in 1928 that "he has an edge that is peculiar to himself, an edge that is never incompatible with the attainment of a consummate felicity." But even Wilson I think was often content to describe Wilder's works as more transparent than they actually are.

Wilder is a writer who by laying everything out very openly makes it more mysterious. His one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner--one of the masterpieces of modern drama, though not always recognized as such--provides on a barely furnished stage a map of the cycles of birth and death so stark that it could only be bearable as a kind of comedy. His 1948 novel The Ides of March presents itself as a fantasia on historical figures we think we know--Julius Caesar, Cicero, Catullus, Cleopatra--only to lure us into ever more perplexing recesses, implying how little we know not only about their world but about our own inner reality. A new appreciation of Wilder might well begin with a reconsideration of this wonderful and still strangely neglected book.

Back when he was publishing his early novels Wilder was accused by some left-wing critics of turning his back on America's social realities in order to explore realms of fantasy and escapism. But the alternate worlds he explores in his fiction and plays reflect the realities of his life, which early on had forced him to make sense of the disparities between very different cultures. He had spent a significant amount of time--about two years altogether--in China between the ages of nine and fifteen, and then eight crucial months in his early twenties in Rome, where, he later wrote, "for a while... I lived among archeologists, and ever since I find myself occasionally looking at the things about me as an archeologist will look at them a thousand years hence." Eventually of course Wilder would devote quite a bit of his writing to describing, with apparent realism, aspects of the American scene: but his America is finally just as exotic, and just as real, as his Peru and his ancient Rome.

Wilder is a profoundly literary writer, and his sense of literature goes far beyond American shores. He makes no distinction among the products of different societies and different eras; the plays of ancient China and seventeenth-century Spain are as relevant and contemporary to him as anything else. Form for him is what spans the gaps between those various times and places, and his works can only be properly appreciated by the steady contemplation of their underlying structure. His works belong to a range of different genres, but they are bound together beneath their variegated surfaces by their intricate and intimate sense of architecture. This unerring formal sense made him, when he made a rare foray into screenwriting, an ideal collaborator for Alfred Hitchcock, for whom he wrote the masterly Shadow of a Doubt. It enabled him to achieve the farcical perfection of The Matchmaker, a play that distills the essence of his vast knowledge of theatrical history. It enabled him as well to build a whole novel around the implications of the single image of a broken bridge. His own tensile constructions show no sign of breaking apart. They seem more durable than ever, rooted as they are not in passing literary fashions but in a deep sense both of what persists in human life and of what is never definitively answered or resolved.

© Geoffrey O'Brien, Editor-in-Chief, The Library of America

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