Interview with SELECTED LETTERS editiors, Robin G. Wilder and Jackson R. Bryer

December 6, 2010
RobinandJackson.jpg.pngJackson Bryer & Robin Wilder, Photo by Mark Stamas
Last fall (2009) Harper Collins released The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder in paperback. As a long-awaited addition to the Wilder library, these letters have been carefully selected and thoroughly annotated by Robin G. Wilder, a scholar and archival historian who knew Wilder as his niece by marriage, and Jackson R. Bryer, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and the President of the Thornton Wilder Society. In anticipation of the paperback edition, Robin Wilder and Jackson Bryer talked with Edyta Oczkowicz, Editor of the Thornton Wilder Society Newsletter, about the challenges and rewards of selecting the final 336 letters out of six thousand original documents.

EO: The Selected Letters is the first to present examples of Wilder's correspondence spanning his entire life. What has been your most significant discovery about Wilder and his letter-writing?

JB: The most interesting is the range of his acquaintances, his knowledge, his erudition, his ability to have an interchange with an incredible variety of people about an incredible variety of subjects. There is also his incredible generosity to people. When in this country, he answered virtually any letter he received. Robin knew her uncle well so she probably was not so surprised by this.

RW: That's true. I would add to that the longevity of his friendships - how he kept up over the years from his boyhood to the end of his life with several people. Not many of us do that.

JB: He also loved the medium of writing letters and took it very seriously. Almost everything that we found out in the course of editing his letters he had already anticipated when he gave advice to others about how to put together books of letters.

EO: How closely did you follow his advice as editors?

JB: Quite closely. In one of his essays on letter-writing he points out that one of the challenges when editing letters has to do with the specialty of the letter-writer. In Wilder's case some of the best letters were unpublishable because they were so specific to the work he was discussing. There are some very interesting letters to Elia Kazan when Kazan was directing The Skin of Our Teeth and Wilder was in the Army. Wilder wrote him in extensive detail about how to direct the play but unless one knows the production and the play very well they would be very hard to follow. Then, because Wilder knew in depth so many different literatures, there are a lot of fascinating but technically specific letters to other experts like Adaline Glasheen with whom he corresponded about Finnegans Wake.

RW: Another good example are his letters to Garson Kanin, a playwright and director. Kanin would ask Wilder to read one of his plays. Wilder would send him his comments but they were so specific and full of very technical information that they might be meaningful only to a playwright or a producer, or somebody with a special interest in Kanin's plays. And sometimes those plays were never produced.

EO: Could you talk about one or two surprises you had when editing Wilder's letters?

RW: A couple of surprises were the correspondences that we knew about but could not find. One of them was to Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont, a theater manager who produced a number of Wilder's plays in London. When we finally traced it, we learned the letters had been burned.

JB: There were also certain correspondents to whom Wilder wrote more interesting letters than to others. Some of his most interesting letters are to Sibyl Colefax, a very sophisticated, knowledgeable woman who, like Wilder, knew a lot of people.

EO: In the Introduction you say there are over ten thousand letters that Wilder wrote?

RW: Yes, that is our estimate. Sometimes he wrote over twenty letters a day; and we can tell the day because when something happened to him or struck him in his reading or on a walk he would repeat it in a different way in different letters.

JB: He also says in one of his essays on letter-writing that the great letter-writers always know how to adjust their letters to the addressee. Wilder's letters to Alexander Woollcott are in a completely different voice than to anyone else because of their jocular, always trying to one-up-another, relationship.

EO: How did you collaborate in the process of selecting the final 336 letters?

RW: That actually worked out very easily. We had our own photocopies of every letter, and independently of each other, we read them and selected the ones we wanted to include. When we compared our selections, about 75-80% of the time we had chosen the same letters and the other 20% we discussed.

JB: Even though there were so many letters and some difficult choices, by the time we finished we had selected what we consider the best letters. The hardest decision we had to make was to decide if one juicy paragraph about, for example, Our Town or his philosophy of life makes the whole letter worthy of including. There are some letters like that in the book where the significance of a section justifies the selection, but there are others that we excluded because, despite a very good section, the full letter did not warrant inclusion.

EO: In the Editors' Note, you talk about "preserving" the paradox of TW's "illiteracy" and "vast store of knowledge" (xiii) implied in statements made respectively by his mother and Garson Kanin. Why did you decide to focus on this paradox?

RW: The humor - it was amusing. It also explains our retention of Wilder's erratic spelling. It shows how misspellings were not particularly important to him. Rather it was what he was saying, the ideas and the substance, that mattered.

JB: Just because he did not get the title of Pirandello's play right does not mean he did not know what was important about the play. Or just because he did not spell Günter Grass's name right did not mean he did not know who he was. As Robin said, we could have silently corrected all of that but we decided it was an interesting paradox. Wilder frequently alluded to it himself, and his mother's comment was a paradoxical statement because he was anything but illiterate.

EO: Do you anticipate any content changes in the paperback edition?

RW: There will be no content changes except for corrections of any mistakes we or the publisher found in the hardback edition.

EO: Are there any other puzzling or challenging aspects of Wilder that you would like to highlight?

JB: We were criticized in one review for not confronting the issue of Wilder's sexuality. It is important to say that if we had found any indications of the nature of his sexuality in the letters we would have included them. As someone who did not know Wilder in person, dealing with his family I felt that if we had found any evidence to indicate that Thornton Wilder had bisexual or homosexual tendencies there would have been absolutely no opposition on the part of the family to include that.

RW: As a historian, I am particularly conscious of letters as primary sources. When editing we tried to do just the editorial job and let people read the letters and draw their own conclusions about Thornton Wilder. In the introductory sections, we tried to write without comment, a straightforward narrative of events to provide a context for the letters in each period. First and foremost, we believed, the letters must always speak for themselves.

JB: Another puzzling aspect of Wilder is a seeming paradox of the private and public person. One could look at his attitude towards his own celebrity. I think there was a part of him that enjoyed the attention but then there was a part that did not like it. He loved it when he went to the White House for Roosevelt's inauguration or when he received honors. But both Robin and I do not think, for example, there is ever any mention in any letter we read that he had won a Pulitzer Prize.

RW: Even when he wrote to Goldstone, one of his biographers, he said he was very fortunate with his early novels and plays but he never put it in terms of winning prizes.

EO: Do you anticipate a second volume of The Selected Letters in the future?

RW: There are a lot of little stories but not enough to publish another book.

If you enjoyed this piece, consider joining the Thornton Wilder Society to receive the annual Newsletter which publishes articles, interviews, and photos on all things Wilder. Membership info can be found at

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