Thornton Wilder Essay - Critical Essays

Thornton Wilder American Literature Analysis

Wilder achieved a successful career as a writer of both fiction and drama. His success is especially remarkable given his small literary output over the five decades that he wrote. In theater, for example, he is considered one of America’s best playwrights, yet his fame rests squarely on three full-length plays and a handful of shorter ones. He wrote seven novels and received numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Wilder achieved national success and celebrity status with his second novel, at age thirty, The Bridge of San Luis Rey; he remained in the public eye during the rest of his literary career, although he wrote only five more novels during the last forty years of his life.

Wilder was heavily influenced at the beginning of his career by the nonrealistic movement of the 1920’s that was quite popular abroad. Unlike the American writers Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene O’Neill, who were championed by such influential critics as H. L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson, Wilder found himself alone in his search for a new humanism that affirmed the dignity of humankind.

In his first novel, The Cabala, published in 1926, Wilder introduced a theme that recurred in his later work: the possibility that an American could travel abroad, partake of the cultural experiences that Europe had to offer, and return enriched but not overwhelmed. Wilder believed that America could benefit from the Old World but was still the land of golden opportunity. This concept ran counter to the thinking of the so-called lost generation of writers, who could not reconcile themselves to their homeland. Wilder was able to fuse the humanistic spirit of the past with the temper of the present.

In his work, Wilder explored moral and religious themes and tried to capture the complex chemistry of human life. He believed in the absolute mystery of life, the workings of which defy rational explanations. Wilder also believed in a higher power of love that did not simply spring from sexual desire. For Wilder, love was an indispensable part of life and a moral responsibility. One of the characters in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, who could be commenting on Wilder’s work, observes:But soon we shall die . . . and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge of love, the only survival, the only meaning.

The eternal optimist, Wilder firmly believed that the human race, despite its ignorance, cruelty, self-destructive nature, and subjection to natural disasters, will always manage to survive.

Wilder’s deep philosophical beliefs, along with the quiet encouragement of his friend Gertrude Stein, propelled him on a quest for the universal and the eternal. Perhaps that is why he often turned to the theater. In his preface to a collection of plays published in 1957, he wrote: “The novel is pre-eminently the vehicle of the unique occasion, the theater of the generalized one.” His convictions found their deepest expression in the theater, where he could stretch the boundaries of convention. He made it clear that the small, ordinary events of daily life can take on a great significance. This concept runs through most of his early plays, but Our Town elevates it to the highest level. Wilder stresses that humans fail to understand and appreciate the priceless value of everyday events, wasting their lives by not valuing every moment of them.

What is remarkable about Wilder’s work is the innovative spirit that animates it. From the first, Wilder tried to explore unique ways of presenting his ideas. In his early collection, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays, and in his 1931 The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays in One Act, for example, Wilder was already experimenting with the conventions of theatricality, experimentation that found its artistic fulfillment in the Pulitzer Prize-winners Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Both acclaimed and condemned for his nonrealistic approach, Wilder remained absolutely unapologetic. He stated, “I became dissatisfied with the theater because I was unable to lend credence to such childish attempts to be ’real.’”

Wilder’s literary life was fairly serene. He cultivated a large and adoring public but on two occasions came under vicious attack. He was accused in 1942 of plagiarizing The Skin of Our Teeth from Irish writer James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939); it became an unpleasant affair that lasted for months.

The first and perhaps most damaging incident, however, temporarily dimming his national reputation, occurred in 1930 when Michael Gold, a Communist journalist and writer, excoriated the rising young writer. In an article in The New Republic titled “Wilder: Prophet of the Genteel Christ,” he attacked Wilder for his “new humanism” principles (emphasizing classical restraint associated with the ancient Greek tradition) at a time when the United States had plunged into the Depression.

Examining Wilder’s work to date, Gold criticized The Bridge of San Luis Rey as a “daydream of homosexual figures in graceful gowns moving archaically among the lilies.” (Wilder was a confirmed homosexual, although he never had a long-term sexual relationship in his life.) Gold then switched his attack to Wilder himself, derisively calling him “this Emily Post of culture . . . always in perfect taste.” Gold taunted Wilder about writing a book to “reveal all his fundamental silliness and superficiality.” Angered and hurt by the criticism, Wilder rose to the challenge, and his reputation and credibility returned slowly.

Wilder’s work remains eminently readable today. He enjoyed writing novels and plays and always cherished a deep love of humanity. Perhaps Chrysis, one of the characters in his novel The Woman of Andros, said it best: “Remember some day, remember me as one who loved all things and accepted from the gods all things, the bright and the dark. And do you likewise. Farewell.”

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

First published: 1927

Type of work: Novel

Five strangers plunge to their deaths on a rope bridge near Lima, Peru, and their lives are reexamined by a Catholic priest who witnessed the tragedy.

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 to piece together the story of the victims—why they were at the bridge at the same time and whether it was an accident or God’s will. The victims include a young boy, an adolescent, a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old noblewoman.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is divided into five sections, with the shorter opening and closing chapters serving as a framing device. The first major story involves the old, ugly Marquesa de Montemayor, her grief-ridden relationship with her unloving daughter, and the devoted servant Pepita. The middle tale concerns two inseparable twins, named Manuel and Esteban, who share a telepathic closeness. They suffer an estrangement when Manuel falls in love with the actress Camila; he later dies from blood poisoning. The final story is the love-hate relationship of Uncle Pio and Camila, his protégé, whom he has tutored to be Peru’s finest actress. Wilder shows that all five sufferers were victimized in life not only by the falling bridge but also by loving someone who could not or would not love them in return. All five...

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