The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961

by Thornton Wilder
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The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2029

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...

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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 Greene, William Faulkner, Jean Anouilh, and Jean Gent, to name only a few. Wilder’s ill-fated Norton lectureship at Harvard University during the early 1950’s, described in detail by Harrison, resulted in a forced, at times disagreeable, contact with such “American Renaissance” authors as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville; it is clear from Wilder’s severity with regard to those writers, as from his earlier criticisms of his exact contemporary Faulkner, that he saw the developing American tradition as one which should include the European heritage instead of developing separately, as in a vacuum. Wilder himself, with his broad reading knowledge of Romance and Germanic languages, supplemented by extensive acquaintance with the British tradition, had long applied such standards to his own work; it is hardly surprising, therefore, that he should have viewed the work of his less cosmopolitan compatriots with a somewhat jaundiced eye. It is worth noting, however, that Wilder in the Journals never adopts the tone of the intellectual snob, nor does he claim to be other than a fully American writer: To his way of thinking, it is simply incumbent upon the American writer to be fully versed in the Western tradition and, perhaps, the Eastern as well; there are frequent echoes of Wilder’s boyhood exposure to China, and among the more intriguing entries of the mid-1950’s are those exploring Zen Buddhism for possible insights into the reading and writing of Western literature.

Wilder’s close familiarity with European literature does not imply either fawning admiration or slavish imitation; throughout the Journals, Wilder remains objective in his readings, perhaps even too quick to develop his own ethnic or national stereotypes: After reading James Joyce he observes, “As an Irishmen [sic] can only find his truth through contradiction to someone else’s truth, so he can only find his force through infringement of the current norms of feeling.” A decade later, upon reading and viewing the plays of Jean Anouilh in Paris, he records with astonishment “the low opinion of woman expressed in so much modern French literature,” going on to observe, “A Frenchman is furious that he is not the sole and exclusive man, for life, in a woman’s life. And here we are back at the Oedipus complex.” Later in the same entry, he wonders if France is not headed toward a return to patriarchy, much as he sees his own country as destined toward imminent matriarchy. To be sure, Wilder’s personal reserve, bordering upon prudishness, figures prominently in his summary evaluations of Anouilh and Joyce, as also with Faulkner; notwithstanding, his points partake of common sense well grounded in the Western literary tradition and are not easily dismissed.

Elsewhere in the Journals, Wilder explores in considerable detail the patterns of communication between writer and reader, anticipating by some twenty years a number of recent developments in “poststructuralist” literary theory. Similarly ahead of their time are Wilder’s observations regarding voice and viewpoint in narration and his meditations upon writing for the ear as opposed to writing for the eye. Anticipating Jacques Derrida and his followers, Wilder even discusses the presence or absence of “gaps” in narrative prose; with regard to Stendhal he observes, “Not only are there no ambiguities, no ambivalences, but there is no interstice whereby one can go beyond the author and insert them.” Wilder, however, was no theorist at heart, and for the most part his intriguing observations are left hanging as he passes on to yet another subject that has caught or demanded his attention.

As a reader and interpreter of European and American literature, Wilder is unfailingly perceptive and frequently provocative. Of Gide’s Journals he observes, “The result is the saddest of all expressions: the sincere desire to be sincere of one who cannot be so.” Recalling Jean-Paul Sartre on François Mauriac, he remarks that “the Mauriacs ensconce themselves in a set of received ideas: the Seven Deadly Sins. There they are authoritative—dogmatic ethics are their throne,—from there they project their cadres of human behavior.” Discussing Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857) in preparation for the Norton lectures, Wilder bemoans the author’s ignorance of his true subject, his unwillingness to concede—or even to notice—that The Confidence Man is in fact a parable of faith. Here as elsewhere, Wilder’s common sense penetrates layers of sedimentary scholarship to offer readings that are invariably both fresh and well-informed.

If Wilder’s terse, often aphoristic, critical readings might tend to attract new readers who have previously ignored or shunned his work, those with a prior interest in Wilder’s life and career will surely be drawn to those passages of the Journals that describe his various works in progress, most of which, at least between 1939 and 1961, were never completed to the author’s satisfaction. By 1939, when Wilder began the extant entries, both the success of Our Town and the failure of The Merchant of Yonkers (1939) were behind him, not to be revisited; The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), initially entitled The Ends of the Worlds, is beginning to take shape in his mind, as is The Ides of March, a novel which, however, would not be published until 1948, after a strong infusion of Sartrean existentialism. The Alcestiad, a play published only after Wilder’s death in 1977, was also taking shape in 1940 but would be preempted in Wilder’s mind by The Skin of Our Teeth. Other projects discussed in the Journals would be considerably less successful: Two cycles of short plays, The Seven Ages of Man and The Seven Deadly Sins, would remain unfinished, represented only by a few individual plays or sketches; perhaps the most ambitious, and surely the most intriguing, of Wilder’s recurrent projects was the play eventually known as The Emporium, of which two finished scenes are printed as an appendix to the present Journals. Reminiscent of Our Town in dialogue and staging, The Emporium represents Wilder’s effort to combine the Horatio Alger success myth with that of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, here represented as a huge department store. His hero, eventually known as John, also owes much to Tom Everedge, an Everyman American character originally developed in connection with the Norton lectures to symbolize the American mentality.

During the last decade of his life, Wilder would return to publication with two novels, The Eighth Day (1967) and Theophilus North (1973). The Journals, however, end abruptly during 1961, by which time neither novel appears to have entered Wilder’s mind. What remains, then, is the record of Wilder’s apparently “least productive” years, between Our Town and The Eighth Day. Gallup’s publication of the Journals, however, makes it abundantly clear that Wilder during those years was far from idle; his mind may indeed have then been at its most active and agile. Had Wilder only seen fit to publish the results of his considerable reading and research, he might well have emerged as one of his country’s more universal and perceptive critics during those years when the creative muse appeared to elude him. On balance, however, it is likely that Wilder simply lacked the temperament, if not the energy or the intelligence, to develop his observations into a fully fledged critical enterprise. In any case, the accuracy and value of his observations are such that the Journals, in the present edition, should be required reading for any and all serious students of Western literature.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, June 15, 1985, p. 582.

Library Journal. CX, August, 1985, p. 91.

The New Republic. CXCIII, November 11, 1985, p. 33.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, November 21, 1985, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, October 13, 1985, p. 25.

The New Yorker. LXI, November 18, 1985, p. 176.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, July 12, 1985, p. 43.

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