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.
Early in the book, the reader is told by Theophilus North that he had many ambitions in life. He proceeds to enumerate them in the following order: saint, anthropologist, archaeologist, detective, actor, magician, lover, and a free man. The narrator is quick to point out that he never wanted to be in business or politics. A few pages later, North describes Newport, Rhode Island, as if he were the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann commenting on the fabled Troy’s nine cities piled on top of one another. Each of North’s “cities,” beginning with the first seventeenth century village, becomes increasingly complex until he reaches the eighth level, full “of camp-followers and parasites—prying journalists, detectives, fortune-hunters . . . wonderful material for my Journal.”
The narrator’s series of adventures varies according to his involvements. He comes to Newport in 1926 to teach tennis to children, give language instruction, and read classical literature to older people. North is quickly drawn into the social life of the very rich because he is a Yale University man and a Christian. In short order, he thwarts an elopement between an heiress and a divorced athletic instructor, removes the taint of ghosts from a beautiful haunted mansion, brings back to health a retired diplomat being manipulated by his children, shrewdly exposes a gang of counterfeiters, and fathers a child for a married woman whose husband is sterile. Both praised and despised, North becomes a manipulator for good in people’s lives.
Wilder makes it clear that Theophilus North is a liberating influence who can mend broken marriages and inspire men and women to achieve their most secret desires. North never changes despite his myriad experiences, the numerous people he has helped, and the beautiful woman with whom he is intimate. He is a superior creature with no apparent flaws. He remains to the end an idealized boy scout who proves that good can overcome evil.
Theophilus North would be Wilder’s last happy affirmation of life. He created a character who enjoyed life to the fullest and, in some ways, honestly reflected the author’s views of life. To the end of his literary career, Wilder was still concerned about injustice, the achievement of the human spirit, and the positive values of humanistic belief in individual responsibility.
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...
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