The Library of America interviews J. D. McClatchy about Thornton Wilder

May 5, 2010

Copyright © 2009 The Library of America

In connection with the publication in September 2009 of Thornton Wilder:
The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926-1948, edited by J. D.
McClatchy, Rich Kelley conducted this exclusive interview for The Library of
America e-Newsletter.

You have now edited two Library of America volumes of Thornton Wilder's
works: Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels
1926-1948 and Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater.
The new volume collects five of his seven novels, six stories, and four
essays. You once wrote that you prefer Wilder's novels to his plays. Why?

I realize that, for someone who has worked both sides of the street,
declaring a preference for one side isn't fair. In part, I prefer the novels because
they are undervalued. Wilder's celebrity has always derived mainly from his
plays, yet his novels have more amplitude and variety, more cunning and power,
and certainly more style than his other work. But I also prefer them for this
reason: I am moved by them--I mean entranced, puzzled, laughing, or close to
tears--after reading them again and again. I am moved when I see Our Town, but
more on the stage than on the page. Wilder brings all his gifts as a playwright to
the writing of novels. I think it's correct to say he had a dramatic imagination. His
novels are obviously written by a theatrically canny author. The way their
scenes are composed, the way the characters interact--there is a remarkable
intimacy and vividness. But the novels also give Wilder the chance to engage his
moral imagination more fully. These novels are exceptionally wise excursions
into the motives and desires of a breathtaking array of men and women.

Wilder enjoyed success from his first published effort. The New York Times
hailed his first novel, The Cabala, written when he was 29, as "a magnificent
literary event" and "the debut of a new stylist." Does that acclaim
stand the test of time?

It does, though--in the wake of High Modernism and the wackier
excesses of Post-modernism--"style" is no longer the measure by which a novel
is judged. (Alas.) But when The Cabala appeared in 1926, the literary scene was
dominated by heavy social realism or by fluff. (That year's best-selling novel
was Sorrell and Son byWarwick Deeping.) And though todayWilder's stylization
may seem retro, in its day it was both enameled and spiky. Its polish was bright,
its irony pointed. Waugh's Decline and Fall, say, was still two years in the future.
Wilder's style in The Cabala is much closer to Hemingway's than to anything
older, stuffier. (The Sun Also Rises was published this same year.) Its modernism
may not be apparent today, but when you consider its collage-like construction,
its precise and lean phrasing, his interest in historical pastiche (even, dare I say,
deconstructivist pastiche), his dramatization of repressed feelings, and much
else that literary scholars will be exploring, it's a safe call to place The Cabala
among the best novels of its time. And it reads marvelously today. It was the
book of Wilder's that first made me sit up straight in my reading chair. It was--
and remains--whole, surprising, elegant . . . delicious. From the start, Wilder
was a natural stylist, with an instinct for both epigram and architecture, a writer
for whom the heart is a baroque court and the mind a classical academy.

Wilder published his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, just a year
later and it won the Pulitzer Prize while he was still teaching French at
Lawrenceville. That must have been quite a heady event for such a young
writer. How did the Pulitzer change his life?

Prizes change a writer's public life, not his private tasks. The notoriety
results in increased sales, requests to give lectures, a better publishing deal the
next time around . . . and gives newspaper obituary writers a headline for the
column-on-file. Wilder's reaction? He went on a hike in the Alps. I think that, in
general, Wilder knew his worth and didn't much care for the tin medals.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey has become the prototype for the modern "disaster
story" in which the lives of the characters involved in a catastrophic
event are examined through flashbacks. Do you think our familiarity withthe form diminishes our appreciation for what he achieves here?

About a year after The Bridge came outWilder wrote to a friend: "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 one has to oppose it. In other words: when
a human being is made to bear more than human beings can bear--what then?
. . . The Bridge asked the question whether the intention that lies behind love
was sufficient to justify the desperation of living." That kind of inquiry transcends genre or period. What makes The Bridge the enduring novel it is has
everything to do with the questions it poses about our purpose on Earth. It
starts out as a book about the truth, and ends up as a book about love. Both of
those can be "disasters," yet we have nothing else to live by.

Five of the six stories collected here date from before Wilder's first novel.
What criteria did you use in selecting which stories to include?

I tried to pick the strongest examples of his apprentice work. I left out a
couple of stories that were weaker or repetitious. Most writers, of course,
would pay to have their earliest work destroyed, but readers are fascinated by
an author's early efforts. In Wilder's case, it's fascinating to watch him experiment
with ironic situations and sophisticated dialogue. Just like the plays he
was writing as a Yale undergraduate, these early stories show him becoming

Wilder seems to have been conflicted about writing novels. Your chronology
notes that in 1935, after he had published three novels, he vowed to
abandon fiction because he believed the omniscient narrator was "out of
gear with twentieth century life." Harry Levin once wrote that "he was
more in his element as a dramatist than as a novelist." Yet he went on to
write four more novels. Did he work his way out of his dilemma?

Well, that was a remark made to reporters when he disembarked from a
transatlantic crossing. One has to say something! But also, it was in the months
before that remark that he had started work on what would a few years later
become Our Town. The idea had taken powerful hold of his imagination, and it's
no wonder he was temporarily distracted from the novel. He knew he didn't
have to choose between being one sort of writer or another. Each required a different
cast of mind, but drew on the same imagination.

The Cabala is set in Rome. Wilder based his third novel, The Woman of
Andros, on the Roman playwright Terence's Andria. His fifth novel, The
Ides of March, tells the story of Caesar's assassination through the letters
of Catullus, Cicero, Cleopatra, and Caesar. Whence this obsession with
Roman culture?

All his life, of course, Wilder had a scholar's curiosity. He was a voracious
reader, and even in his seventies he was boning up on advances in microbiology,
studying Greek vase painting and the theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss. But
that initial trip to Rome in 1920 and his stay at the American Academy there had
a profound impact. He later wrote: "For a while in Rome I lived among archeologists, and ever since I find myself occasionally looking at the things around me
as an archeologist will look at them a thousand years hence." He was drawn to
the historical novel in part, I think, because of its exotic appeal (how different
everything was!) and eerie relevance (how much the same everything has
always been!). I think, too, the Roman character appealed to his own: its stoicism,
its discipline.

The Woman of Andros is set in pre-Christian Greece yet seems to argue that
so-called pagan culture had realized, in the person of the Andrian woman,
a courtesan, many of the values of Christianity. This theme of universal
human values--outside religion--runs through many of Wilder's works,
novels and plays. Was this his great theme?

One of them, to be sure. "I am not interested," he told an interviewer, "in
the ephemeral--such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in
those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions." He
meant, of course, the mysteries and marvels of the heart. Wilder once
described Tolstoy as "a great eye, above the roof, above the town, above the
planet, from which nothing is hid." Wilder might as well have been describing
his own talents as a novelist. He looked on life steadily, never blinking at its pain
and incongruities. Whether it's the broad picaresque comedy of Heaven's My
Destination or the philosophical poise of The Ides of March, he kept his writing,
in the words of a journal entry of his, "lyrical, diaphanous and tender." I have
always thought of Wilder as one of a special category of artists--Jane Austen,
Ivan Turgenev, Jean Renoir, and Elizabeth Bishop are among them too--whose
work refreshes our intelligence and deepens our understanding.

Wilder won three Pulitzers, one for The Bridge, one for the play Our Town
ten years later, and one for The Skin of Our Teeth in 1943. Throughout his
writing career he was actively teaching either high school or university
students. How did Wilder view himself? As a novelist, a playwright, or a

As I think I've been hinting all along, he was that rare writer--playwright,
novelist, and teacher in one. The characters in his plays have the quirkiness
and depth of characters in novels; you feel you've known them forever and are
implicated in their fates. His novels have the immediacy and intensity of plays;
the lives of characters unfold slowly and unexpectedly before your eyes. And
everywhere, he balances lives, ambitions, desires, and sorrows in a moral scale.
The best kind of teacher is the one who asks the right kind of questions. Is there
a better example of that anywhere than The Bridge of San Luis Rey?

Two of the four essays in the book concern James Joyce. Wilder had a lifelong
fascination with Joyce and with Finnegans Wake in particular yet
none of his novels seems very Joycean. Edmund Wilson wrote in 1928 that
Wilder was "the first American novelist who has been influenced deeply
by Proust." Which writers did influence Wilder's writing?

As a schoolboy he read Shakespeare, Dickens, Henry James, and Walter
Scott. As a novice writer, he read Proust, Flaubert, Saint-Simon, and Madame de
Sévigné. He was always drawn to the German classics, and to the theater of
many cultures. It's clear he had studied Noh drama, Spanish tragedy, as well as
Austrian farce. He had an astounding capacity to absorb the lessons of the masters,
and it's said he was a mesmerizing teacher at the University of Chicago,
where one day he would be lecturing on Don Quixote and the next day on
Molière. He was obsessed with Joyce and fascinated by Stein, but neither, as
you say, had a direct influence on his own writing. Myself, I thinkWilder was fortunate
in that regard.

Heaven's My Destination--a comic romp following a traveling salesman
through Depression-era America--was quite a departure from Wilder's
other novels. Henry Seidel Canby said it was what Voltaire would have
written "if he had been sent to Hollywood and going by bus through
Illinois and Kansas had tried his hand at Candide rewritten in terms of the
farm belt, the Bible, a closed mind and a well-intentioned heart." Was this
Wilder's response to Michael Gold's slashing attack on The Woman of
Andros in The New Republic as "a daydream of homosexual figures in
graceful gowns moving archaically among the lilies"?

Michael Gold's attack on Wilder as an effete writer out of touch with his
own country was particularly mean-spirited, and meant to cause hurt. In private
Wilder's feelings were bruised--whose would not be?--but he refused to
respond in kind. Clearly, though, Heaven's My Destination was written in reaction
to Gold's diatribe. It is his first distinctly "American" novel. It sets itself down in
the Mississippi Valley and points west during the Depression, offers an array of
social types, analyzes their living conditions and legal system, and probes both
the country's beliefs and its true religion, business. It was enough to warm any
Marxist's heart. In a letter to John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson wrote: "Thornton
Wilder has taken up the challenge flung down by Mike Gold and written the best
book of his life." It would be inaccurate to claim that Wilder had deliberately remade
himself as a novelist--had gone native. (Though Our Town arrives just
three years later.) The settings and characters of Heaven's My Destination bear
subtle affinities with Wilder's other fiction, both earlier and later. And its hero, George Brush, shares the ardent loneliness of all of Wilder's protagonists. But it
is fair to say that Wilder did turn from the exquisite cadences and lambent, layered
textures of his first three novels. His style here is drier, flatter, jumpier. It's
the effort to create an "American speech" for his book, to give its narrative the
clipped, moral tone of its cast and culture. It's what might be called a Grant
Wood style. Of course Wilder was not writing a satire, though he's content to
skewer pretensions and injustices. Instead, he'd set out to write a comedy, and
he needed a light touch to capture the incongruities of American life, at once
innocent and egotistical. It is a comedy in the highest sense, and moves easily
from Corn Belt farce to superstitious magic (Father Pasziewski's spoon) to moral
argument (the concluding courtroom scene is the book's masterstroke).

Unrequited love recurs as a theme in The Cabala, Bridge, and The Woman of Andros. While Wilder never made his sexual preference explicit during
his lifetime, do you think that lines like "And at once he sacrificed everything
to it, if it can be said we ever sacrifice anything save what we know
we can never attain, or what some secret wisdom tells us it would be
uncomfortable or saddening to possess" from The Bridge give us a clue?

I think Wilder's sexual desires were largely a mystery to him--and they
certainly are to us. He seems to have been baffled by his own homosexual
desires and ashamed of his furtive attempts to act on them. As you suggest, that
may very well have given him a sharper sense of exclusion, disappointment,
and secrecy than other novelists have had. Sex and Sensibility . . . an endlessly
intriguing and elusive connection.

How did you first become involved with the work of Thornton Wilder? Did
you discover new things about his work in putting the new volume

I started reading Wilder's novels in high school--The Bridge and The Ides
of March. The others came later, as did my appreciation of those two familiar
novels. This parallels the fate of Our Town: you first encounter it when you are
old enough to be touched by it but still too young to understand its depths. And
later you realize it is not the sentimental chestnut you'd remembered, but a
dark, wrenching, overpowering work about human memory and loss. So too
with these first five novels of his. Encountering them again, having oneself
acquired the scars on the heart Wilder had set out to reveal, you feel you are at
last reading them for the first time, in all their true freshness and wonder and
gravity. I sit stunned, time and again, by their shimmer and tensile strength,
their miraculous access to the soul's secrets.

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