Interview with Christopher Wheatley, author of Thornton Wilder and Amos Wilder: Writing Religion in Twentieth-Century America

November 4, 2011

Forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press in November 2011, Christopher J. Wheatley's new book Thornton Wilder and Amos Wilder: Writing Religion in Twentieth-Century America is the first to explore the relationship between Thornton's work and his brother Amos's biblical and literary scholarship. Ordinary Professor of English at the Catholic University of America, Wheatley is currently on a year-long sabbatical editing an old-spelling anthology of drama in English from the medieval period to the early twentieth century. Edyta Oczkowicz, Thornton Wilder Society Newsletter Editor, caught up with Wheatley at the recent ALA conference in Boston where he presented a paper on "Wilder's Post-WWII One-Act Plays and the Idea of the Divine in the World and Word."

EO: One of the reviewers said that your "book is impressive for its reading of the Wilders in the context of both pre-modern and modern literature." How do you see Thornton Wilder in relationship to modernism and especially to American modernist writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, or Stein?

CW: There is more than one kind of modernism in my view. Sinclair Lewis was very much a man of the twentieth century in his ideas, but he writes his novels in an essentially nineteenth-century form: realism. T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate use avant-garde poetic forms to embody fairly traditional religious ideas. Gertrude Stein writes ringing defenses of conventional morality in a novel about lesbians in the early twentieth century. I have a problem with literary categories like Modernism: they tend to short-circuit thought.

EO: Do you see any significant interplay of religion and modernism in Thornton Wilder's work?

CW: Insofar as I see a relationship between modernism and religion in Wilder's work, I think people should read the late Tom Singer's article about Wittgenstein, Joyce and Modernism. "Significant" language, according to Wittgenstein, cannot really talk about religion, aesthetics, ethics, and yet those are the things that most matter. Form points to what positivism cannot handle, hence the radical form of Joyce whom Thornton Wilder admired deeply.

EO: Both brothers were accomplished writers, Thornton in drama and fiction, and Amos in poetry. How were they alike in their thinking and writing? How did they differ?

CW: What both writers share is a keen interest in and attempt to understand God and Man in history. A recurring theme in Amos's work is that the Incarnation must be taken seriously, which means that while you cannot reduce Jesus to his historical period, Jesus's understanding of his own position is partially a function of what we call the Old Testament, of the prophetic impulse in Judaism, and partially a function of the Roman Occupation. Contrary to what some critics have argued, I think Thornton's works are usually very much concerned with values in history, and how people respond and adapt to their historical periods. I should stress that while I talk about Amos's poetry some, what I mostly examine is his scholarship on the New Testament and his critical analyses of twentieth-century literature.

EO: When speaking of adapting to one's historical period and the impact different experiences had on the brothers, how were they influenced by their different engagement in WWI, for example? Do you see any connection between their war experience and each brother's views on life and religion?

CW: Amos in particular was influenced by WWI. He volunteered as an ambulance driver and, when the U.S. entered the war, became an officer in the artillery. After the war he suffered from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. From this emerged his recurring argument that twentieth-century religious literature could not be composed out of nineteenth-century artistic genres and forms. Similar to, for instance, Virginia Woolf, he did not reject the religious literature of earlier periods, but he recognized it as not speaking to his experiences. Hence Amos's admiration of writers like Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren whose doubt he saw as more religious than expression of conventional piety. Thornton was more influenced by his service in WWII: his post-WWII works reveal a greater degree of skepticism about conventional religious ideas.

EO: So how would you describe Thornton Wilder's attitudes toward religion? How much did they change in the course of his life, throughout his works?

CW: The answer to that question is the whole book. I can't really give a thumbnail sketch, other than to say that Thornton never settled for moralism, and that America lacks a mythology that can explain itself to itself. He was interested in Catholicism, existentialism, and evolution at various times. The first three novels [The Cabala, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Woman of Andros] examine exhausted systems of belief in conflict with radical changes in thought. The works of the 1930s [e.g., his novel Heaven's My Destination] both criticize America and assert the need for piety (loyalty to those things to which one should be loyal) in the face of Great Depression and the looming world war. The post-war works [e.g., his novel The Eight Day] both examine the ways that conventional beliefs (among them religion) trap people and keep them from seeing their essential freedom, and explore a kind of purposive evolution that is fundamentally religious.

EO: If you were to name Thornton Wilder's most important innovation in his treatment of the religious theme in twentieth-century America, what would it be?

CW: The interest in ideas as shaped by history.

EO: Amazingly all Wilder children were published writers. Have you read any of the other Wilder siblings' writings and what possibilities do you see for further comparative study?

CW: In my book I talk about a couple of Isabel's novels and one volume of Charlotte's poetry. The latter in particular is interesting and I'm sure there's lots of room for further study.

EO: We look forward to reading your book.

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