The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961
A decade after his death, Thornton Wilder remains among the more enigmatic American writers of his generation, even the best of his efforts somehow resisting assimilation into the rapidly growing canon of twentieth century American literature. Dismissed by some critics as a “popular” novelist (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927) and playwright (Our Town, 1938), attacked by others for his apparent indifference to political concerns, Wilder did not attract serious critical attention until the sixth decade of his life, initially in Germany and only later in the United States. Since his death, there have been few critical essays and only one full-scale biography: Gilbert Harrison’s The Enthusiast (1983) fills in the details of Wilder’s life without ever truly confronting either the nature or the extent of his literary accomplishment; yet, certain of Wilder’s works continue to survive, attracting later generations of readers and spectators by reason of the author’s lively intelligence and insatiable curiosity with regard to human nature and behavior.
Selected by Donald Gallup, recently retired from a curatorial position at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, this edition of Wilder’s Journals reveals an intelligence even livelier and more wide-ranging than might hitherto have been suspected by the author’s staunchest admirers: The Wilder here revealed is a voracious, retentive, and highly perceptive reader, endeavoring to assimilate examples both positive and negative into the developing corpus of his own published work. Unfortunately, as Harrison makes clear in his biography, the vast majority of works “in progress,” planned and even announced for publication during the period covered by these Journals, remained unfinished at the time of Wilder’s death. If Harrison’s readers are left to draw the conclusion that Wilder suffered from a massive and chronic case of writer’s block during his fifties and sixties, the reality turns out to have been quite the opposite: From the evidence presented in the Journals, Wilder in high middle age remained as prodigiously active and articulate as ever, perhaps even more so; his voluminous comments and notations, although intended solely for his own use, are couched in the same flawlessly clear, polished prose style as the best of his creative efforts. The irony is that Wilder, during years of apparent creative “aridity,” continued to grow and develop both as reader and as critic; he might have been well advised, indeed, to go public with a number of the theories and observations confided to his Journals, the better to enhance his deserved reputation as an eminent man of letters. Had he done so, he might well have rivaled Edmund Wilson in reputation as an eclectic, “extramural” critic; the fact remains that he did not, and it is only with the publication of the Journals that admirers and detractors alike are afforded the occasion to assess both the depth and the breadth of Wilder’s talents as a critic.
An inveterate diarist and note keeper since boyhood, Wilder had written and discarded many journals before beginning, early in 1939, the first of the two series of entries included in the present volume. Only two entries are included from that year; the consecutively numbered entries do not begin until a year later, February 1, 1940, with the number 1 replacing the deleted numeral 312; as editor Gallup observes in a footnote, the prior entries numbered through 311 have long since disappeared; so also have a great number of entries in the sequence to follow. The opening sequence ends abruptly with Wilder’s forty-fourth entry, written shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and does not resume until June of 1948, some three years after Wilder’s return from wartime military service, with entry number 406. Thereafter, the entries grow considerably longer and more detailed than those composed before Pearl Harbor, at times taking on the tone and proportion of a major critical work. In making his selections, Gallup has seen fit to exclude items of a personal nature as well as material already published elsewhere; as printed, the entries emerge as a working journal, the detailed record of an active writer’s reading and reflection. The great irony is that Wilder saw his critical activity as the means to a creative end rather than as an end in itself; had he seen fit to share with his attentive readers the fruits of his supposed “leisure,” he might well have exerted considerably greater influence upon the literature of his own generation as well as of those to follow.
Ranging across genres as well as across the centuries, from the classic to the contemporary, the omnivorous reading of Wilder’s middle years yielded up a host of thoughtful, often penetrating observations on the works of such diverse authors as Charles Dickens, Søren Kierkegaard, Stendhal, André Gide, Graham...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)