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The Utterly Civilized Wilder

A writer of his time—and ours

By Jonathan Leaf | HUMANITIES, January/February 2009 | Volume 30, Number 1

When playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder was young, he looked old. At age twenty-four, he was balding, pear-shaped, and bespectacled. His dress was that of a middle-aged banker. Nor did he come to be less of a fuddy-duddy as he aged.

Yet, as an international conference on his work at the College of New Jersey this past October revealed, his work is constantly gaining new adherents. Admirers at the conference included playwrights Edward Albee, Donald Margulies, and Tina Howe, the legendary actress Marian Seldes, venerated British theater critic and biographer Chris Bigsby, and academics from all over the United States and from foreign countries such as Italy, France, Japan, China, and Croatia.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Wilder, who was born in 1897 and died in 1975, is a writer of today. This is reflected not only in renewed critical interest but in the sales of his books and the productions of his plays. No less an authority than Somerset Maugham believed this was the ultimate test of a writer’s posthumous legacy, and it’s worth noting that as the works of once-trumpeted contemporaries of Wilder, such as Lillian Hellman and Bertolt Brecht, literally exit the stage—and the backlist—his popularity has, if anything, gained over the last generation. According to Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, Tappan Wilder, what is more than likely his uncle’s finest novel, The Ides of March, has not only sold more than 450,000 copies, but since 1990 it has been released in new editions in Greek, Bulgarian, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish, and German—among the twenty-three languages it has been translated into. And this is hardly his most popular work. Wilder’s early Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is available in thirty languages, and Wilder’s most beloved play, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, has proved a consistent success in most countries of the globe. As the only author ever to have won Pulitzers in both drama and the novel, he is an author of wide appeal, and it is this which prompted the Library of America to release a collected edition of his plays and theater writings last year and to plan an edition of his novels for next year.

One of the most striking things about this durability is that Wilder’s work is so varied. While Our Town, with its depiction of the vicissitudes of small-town New England life, is understandably regarded as an essential example of Americana, another of his novels, the perhaps underrated Heaven’s My Destination, is a very specific evocation of the Bible Belt during the Great Depression. His novels and plays also depict life in Rome (ancient and modern), Peru, Newport, and during the last Ice Age. Moreover, he wrote the libretto to an opera by Paul Hindemith and the fine screenplay to the memorable Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt.

What is almost invariable in this work is felicity of style, off-beat humor, and affection for the characters. Wilder’s best-known biographer, Gilbert Harrison, entitled his examination of Wilder The Enthusiast, reflecting not only the qualities of its subject but his output. Even when his theme is man’s struggle to find a place for himself in a seemingly godless cosmos, Wilder writes with lively sympathy and hopefulness.

At the Wilder conference this humanistic fervor was intermittently observable among the academics and theater professionals offering their views. The organizer of the conference, College of New Jersey professor Lincoln Konkle, is an unabashed aficionado. Recent Pulitzer winners Albee and Margulies cited Wilder as an inspiration, while Howe said that until her invitation to the conference she had not read his work but, after having done so, wondered how she had missed out on an author whom all would have assumed must have been her mentor. Before brilliantly performing scenes from Wilder’s work with actress Seldes, Albee also spoke of meeting Wilder at the MacDowell Colony in the early 1950s. Then an unknown self-styled poet, Albee foisted his work upon the elderly author. Wilder read the “poems” and kindly invited Albee out for drinks, whence he gently informed the young man that his proper outlet might not be poetry.

While this interest in Wilder is understandable given both the excellence of his prose and the popular response to his writing, it also projects a sort of sine wave of critical reaction: rising, falling, and rising again.

During the 1930s, Wilder was not only a hugely successful author but a widely appreciated public intellectual and polymath, known for his cultivated public addresses on literary icons such as Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Given in town halls across the country, these speeches brought him a substantial income, and prompted the poet and Harvard literature professor Archibald MacLeish to call him “the most felicitous speaker on cultural subjects in America.” This status was further enhanced by the academic appointments he received, most notably from the University of Chicago, run in the 1930s by his college friend Robert Maynard Hutchins. Positioned as both an embodiment of novel-writing skill and as an in-demand commentator, Wilder was on the cover of Time in 1933. This was four years before the premiere of Our Town. Moreover, Wilder would also gain acclaim as a thespian, ably taking over the role of the stage manager/narrator in the Broadway production of this play and then touring with it. Wilder’s performance prompted George S. Kaufman to wryly comment, “That’s the best educated actor I’ve ever met.”

The son of a journalist and sometime diplomat who had worked in Northern California, Wisconsin, and China, Wilder was well acquainted with Catullus, Dante, Hugo, and Goethe in their original languages. He knew a soupcon of Mandarin, and was sufficiently friendly with the modernist avatar Gertrude Stein that she seriously considered naming him her literary executor. He also attained a fine knowledge of Sartre as both a thinker and a man, and became a foremost expert on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Equally unaffected was Wilder’s patriotism, making him an especially just choice for selection in the Library of America series. He served in the First World War in the Coast Guard, and volunteered for the Second. As a member of the American Army Air Corps that arrived in Italy he provided detailed and informative reports on such subjects as “Allied Air Activity in the Event of Romania’s Obtaining A Separate Peace,” “Appreciation of the Town and Marshaling Yards of Zagreb as Bombardment Targets,” “Organizing Increased Aid to the Partisans in Yugoslavia,” “Potential Use of Corfu as an Advanced Airbase,” and “Allied Air Capabilities in the Event of an Allied Advance to the Pisa-Rimini Line.” Stoutly, Wilder refused offers of higher postings to London, which would have taken him away from the Italian war zone, a region he knew quite well from having lived and traveled about the country before the war. He even went to Belgrade in March 1945 to assist in staging a Serbo-Croatian production of Our Town put on by the aesthetes among Marshal Tito’s partisans.

So how and why did his reputation for a period falter?

The negative reaction to Wilder was partly the inevitable response to his popularity and partly a result of a series of calumnies and misunderstandings. It may be that any author who is very successful with the general public will face a certain measure of critical doubt. The taste of the masses is always viewed warily by the cognoscenti.

And Our Town is a universal favorite. As scholar Hachiya Mizutani of Waseda University noted, Our Town has been beloved in its Japanese adaptation. At the “triumphant” 1939 Rome production, the critic for Corrierre della Sera hurt his hand by clapping too much, and the play’s fame in Italy became so great that one of the country’s most acclaimed playwrights, Eduardo de Filippo (author of Filumena Matureno), even wrote a knowing parody of it that took for granted his audience’s intimacy with the play. In the U.S., of course, it remains a staple, and there were over eight hundred amateur productions of it in the first twenty months after its premiere.

The giant popularity of the play has led critics like Bigsby to suggest that it is sentimental and that the emotion engendered by the death of the female protagonist, Emily, in childbirth during the second act takes advantage of “unearned” emotion. But perhaps this is a misunderstanding. Wilder meant the play not as a tearjerker but as an affirmation of the small-town life he had been exposed to growing up in Madison. When he himself played the role of the stage manager, who guides the story, there was warmth but no bathos. Critics may also be misunderstanding the tears that they so often see in those around them at productions of the play. The tears are not prompted by a death that lacks the tragic underpinnings of failures of character. They are moved by the depiction and the loss of something that is rarely accomplished faithfully on stage and rarely found in life—a tender love. It is the sense that Emily’s attachment to her husband, George, is simple and abiding that makes the story plangent. In calling for the play to be presented without sets, Wilder aimed, as he put it, to “raise the individual action to the universal.” But this would have made no difference had he not also presented his ordinary people with such humanity and the issues of their lives with such immediacy.

The principal false charge against Wilder—which he faced repeatedly during his career—was of plagiarism. An influential essay cowritten by the Jung scholar Joseph Campbell on the delightful comedy The Skin of Our Teeth succeeded in convincing many that the play was a rip-off of Joyce’s high-falutin, lengthy, and mostly inscrutable final work, Finnegan’s Wake. Among those who affirmed this idea was critic Edmund Wilson, and the notion can be encountered still in essays on the modern theater. Yet, as Wilder himself said, there is almost nothing to it. Wilder freely acknowledged that from Joyce he “received the idea of presenting ancient man as an ever-present double to modern man.” But the episodes and characters in the play are not taken from Joyce. Would it make sense to accuse Tom Stoppard of plagiarism in writing Arcadia, the outline of whose plot was, by his admission, suggested by an A. S. Byatt novel? Or to indict Dreiser for using an actual criminal case as the basis for An American Tragedy?

It is likewise supposed by many that Wilder’s The Matchmaker, popular as a play in itself and in abbreviated form as the book to the musical Hello, Dolly!, is little more than a translation of a play by the nineteenth-century Viennese farceur and actor Johann Nestroy. In fact, Nestroy’s play does not even have a Dolly Levi character, Wilder’s protagonist. The charge is doubly ironic in that Nestroy himself worked from earlier French plays.

A better criticism of Wilder may be with respect to the importance of the greater number of his novels. Despite his great commercial success as a novelist, he was not a natural. Individual scenes in all his novels are rich with comic energy and shaped in the efficient way one expects of a born playwright. But, while Wilder could write beautifully, he often failed to provide the commonplace detail necessary to make the scenes of his novels undeniable, and perhaps only in The Ides of March did he find characters who awakened in him some sense of grandeur. Its epistolary form also permitted him to evade his weaknesses as a novelist and harness his strengths. His characters here are monumental and vivid, his imagination free, and his style superb.

Critical opinion of the book has generally followed from a famous review by New York Times critic Orville Prescott who, while acknowledging it as “an absolutely brilliant technical tour de force,” said that it was “cold, precise, artful and quite lacking in the divine fire that glows about a major work of art.” If Prescott was right that it lacks the power and significance of Anna Karenina or The Great Gatsby, this is hardly damning with faint praise.

Even so, as the recent conference about him pointed out, there has been little study of Wilder. In fact, although his sexual attractions were clearly to men, chaste as he was, he has not even received the benefit of interest from gay scholars. His nephew Tappan gives one example of the poverty of understanding: it has been generally accepted that Wilder’s father was an overbearing tyrant. This is shown by the father’s behavior when he found Wilder his first job as a teacher and then telegrammed him, “Have Job at Lawrenceville School teaching French. Learn French.” In fact, as his father knew, Wilder already spoke the language quite well, telegrams were priced by the word, and he was going to work for a college classmate and friend. Wilder had played some role in creating this particular myth by facetiously informing acquaintances that his father “thought King Lear was mostly about how to raise children.” Although Wilder wrote one very fine novel and several enduring plays he remains something of an enigma, and more and better scholarship is due.

How many writers can both bring forth tears from the man on the street in describing ordinary rural life and bring a measure of awe and rapture into an account of the lives of Caesar and Cleopatra? How many male writers can create heartfelt women, both young and old, but also fumbling young boys and imposing but flawed older men facing their age? How many see life’s brevity frankly without forgoing their wit? For all his erudition, Wilder was a modest, self-deprecating man. He said that the pompous, self-righteous modern Don Quixote who is the hero of his Heaven’s My Destination, was a portrait of his own misguided youthful self. It’s easy and all too common to adopt a writer’s own estimate of himself and his work. This has served undeservedly to inflate more than a few reputations—think, for instance, of Norman Mailer. In Wilder’s case, it might have worked to diminish the sound of overdue applause.

About the Author

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright who lives in New York City. He writes frequently about the arts and culture.

Funding Information

“Wilder in the Twenty-First Century,” the first international Thornton Wilder conference, was held at the College of New Jersey from October 2 through 4, 2008. It was supported by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.