(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In a prologue, Thornton Wilder sets forth the external facts of the conviction of John Ashley in 1902 for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, his subsequent rescue by five masked men shortly before his scheduled execution, and his escape to parts unknown. Then, in six long chapters, the novel moves backward and forward in time to explore the background of the Ashley and Lansing families, their relationships to the community, and their reactions to these bizarre events.

The Ashleys and Lansings live at opposite ends of the main street of a depressed southern Illinois coal-mining town. By hiring Ashley, a creative tinkerer, Lansing props up the faltering mine, which he has been incompetently managing, and leaves himself free for the social life which interests him more. At a weekend get-together of the two families, while the men are practicing with rifles, a bullet kills Lansing. Unjust town gossip linking Ashley and Eustacia Lansing in an affair and the absence of any other plausible suspect creates an atmosphere prejudicial to Ashley. Following his conviction and mysterious rescue, the novel details Ashley’s flight down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and eventually to South America. Knowing that copper-mining engineers are needed in Chile, he acquires a new identity as James Tolland, a Canadian engineer. In South America, he establishes a reputation as a hard worker and active humanitarian. When, three years after his escape from the law, a bounty hunter succeeds in identifying him, Ashley flees, and shortly before the middle of the book the fugitive drowns...

(The entire section is 645 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Ungar, 1986. Two chapters on Wilder’s early and later novels. A useful introductory study, including chronology, notes, and bibliography.

Goldstein, Malcolm. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. An early and still useful introduction to Wilder’s novels and plays. A short biographical sketch is followed by an in-depth look at his work through the one-act play Childhood (1962). Includes bibliographical notes and an index.

Goldstone, Richard H. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1975. An intimate portrait of Wilder by a close friend who had written previous studies on the subject, had access to personal documents, and interviewed family and friends. Includes notes, a selected bibliography, and an index.

Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983. A chatty biographical study of Wilder by a biographer who was provided access to Wilder’s notes, letters, and photographs. Harrison successfully re-creates Wilder’s life and the influences, both good and bad, that shaped him.

Simon, Linda. Thornton Wilder: His World. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. A solid biographical study of Wilder that includes examinations of his published works and photographs, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Wilder, Amos Niven. Thornton Wilder and His Public. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980. A short critical study of Wilder by his older brother, who offers an inside family look at the writer. A supplement includes Wilder’s “Culture in a Democracy” address and a selected German bibliography.