Wilder’s second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, published in November, 1927, rocketed the modest author to celebrity status. Its extraordinary public reception and favorable reviews caught Wilder by surprise. Critics hailed it as a “work of genius,” a “little masterpiece” with a “deceptive clarity of style that marks pellucid depths.” The novel was viewed as a breath of fresh air as opposed to the downbeat realistic works of Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser. Wilder was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on May 7, 1928. In 1929, and again in 1944, the novel was adapted on film, but both were disappointing ventures.
Wilder’s writing was influenced by two important factors. First was the historical figure of Camila Perichole. A famous actress in late eighteenth century Lima, Peru, she had played the central character in Prosper Merimee’s play La Carosse du Saint-Sacrament (1829), dazzling audiences with her performances. She became the mistress of the viceroy and donated his gifts to the Church to help the poor and dying. In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Camila is a pivotal character who appears in all three main stories, coming in contact with every important character. The second influence concerned a real rope bridge that had been built in Peru in 1350, which collapsed centuries later, plunging people to their death.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is set in early eighteenth century Peru. The novel opens simply: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.” The tragic accident is witnessed by Brother Juniper, a rational theologian, who attempts...
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