Theophilus North, which was published in October, 1973, turned out to be Wilder’s last novel published while he was still alive. Wilder’s publishers, knowing their market, took out a full-page ad promoting the novel in The New York Times, an honor most authors never realize. The publicity did its job, and the novel received very favorable comments from the critics. Theophilus North was a huge success with Wilder’s adoring public. The book remained on the best-seller list for twenty-one weeks. It is a nostalgic piece with many autobiographical elements.
Wilder’s brother, Amos, in his critical study Thornton Wilder and His Public (1980), believed that the author was haunted throughout his life by his missing twin, his alter ego. Amos suggested that “North” represented an anagram for Thornton, and “in this way he was able to tease both himself and the reader as to the borderlands between autobiography and fable.” Theophilus North is labeled a novel but is really a collection of short stories held together by a narrator who willingly participates in all the events he describes. Wilder labeled the book fictionalized memoirs, an autobiography, and a novel. The central character did indeed have similar experiences to those of Wilder, but the author reshaped the material so much that the work should be viewed as a series of tales in the tradition of works by Lucius Apuleius, Geoffrey Chaucer, or Giovanni Boccaccio.
Ostensibly a memoir written from the perspective of nearly fifty years later, Theophilus North is the last of Wilder’s works to have been published during his lifetime. It is also, despite a deceptive simplicity, one of the more puzzling items in Wilder’s varied literary canon.
Writing in the first person for the first time since his first published novel, The Cabala (1926), Wilder in Theophilus North creates a narrative persona so close to his own that at times the two voices merge: North, indeed, shares with his creator the accidents of birth (Madison, Wisconsin, 1897), early residence (China, California), education (Yale, class of 1920), military service in the Coast Guard during World War I, graduate study in Rome, and a teaching stint at a New Jersey preparatory school; not much more than the name has been changed. The older brother and younger sisters to whom North refers are clearly Wilder’s own, as are certain real-life acquaintances. It would be erroneous, however, to read the novel as if it were an autobiography, or even a fragment of one: Wilder, among the most private of persons despite the celebrity thrust upon him from his early thirties onward, was far too canny a writer thus to expose himself after years of remaining concealed behind his plays, essays, and often experimental novels. Still, the autobiographical content is too strong and too pervasive to be dismissed out-of-hand. On balance, it seems most likely that Wilder intended Theophilus North as a memoir of the mind, the fictionally transposed record of his life in art.
“Memory and imagination combined,” writes Wilder in the novel’s closing sentence, “can stage a servant’s ball or even write a book, if that’s what they want to do.” With that statement as guide, it is possible to view Theophilus North as a skillful, if flawed, blend of recollection and invention, and its often irksome narrator-protagonist as a retrospective projection of Wilder the successful literary artist. Like the Stage Manager in Our Town (1938), Wilder’s best-known play, the twenty-nine-year-old Theophilus is ubiquitous and meddlesome, assuming a variety of postures and disguises in his effort to repair the botched or impaired lives of those around him. Taken together, Theophilus’s adventures and accomplishments might well be seen as a summary of Wilder’s career in letters as he himself perceived it, the Nunc Dimittis of an aging writer who, in fact, survived the novel’s publication by barely two years.
Theophilus North recalls the narrator’s experiences as academic tutor, tennis coach, and general-purpose meddler in Newport, Rhode Island, during the summer of 1926. Unmarried, having just resigned his schoolmaster’s post, North feels somehow on loan from his own life, hence free to straighten out the lives of others. Getting about on a secondhand bicycle, declining social invitations, North moves with equal ease among servants and employers; soon he is notorious...
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.