Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613
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...
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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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242
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 throughout Newport for his skill at mending flawed marriages, liberating housebound wives or henpecked husbands, adjusting maladjusted adolescents, and dispelling the frequent ill effects of gossip and bad company. At one point, he reluctantly finds himself advertised by word of mouth as a kind of faith healer. Enlisting, or at least assuming, the reader’s tacit complicity, the elderly narrator remains as sure of himself as he was at twenty-nine, offering no apology for having poked his intrusive nose into other people’s business, or for his often outrageous behavior in pursuit of his generally beneficent short-term goals. At certain moments, North the character can be profoundly irritating to the reader, seeming as he does a cross between Mary Poppins and a superannuated Eagle Scout. Notwithstanding, he continues to represent throughout his narrative the disinterested voice of common sense, tempered by gentle wisdom and sensitive tenderness.
As an outsider, North is perhaps uniquely able to perceive the root causes of abuses that have been going on for years, taken for granted by the sufferers and often resulting in apparent physical illness. The octogenarian scholar and statesman James Bosworth, for example, honestly and falsely believes himself to be terminally ill, having in fact accepted the wishful thinking of the younger relatives who hold him a virtual prisoner within the spacious grounds of his estate; similarly afflicted is young Elspeth Skeel, whose debilitating headaches derive uniquely from her Danish father’s iron-fisted discipline. A related case is that of Myra Granberry, whose husband George is so intimidated by her love that he has turned Myra into a near invalid, thus freeing himself to enjoy without guilt the less demanding favors of a French mistress. In each case, young Ted North plunges straight to the root of the problem, restoring each “victim” to a position of control over his or her own life, often at great risk to North himself; one of Bosworth’s sons-in-law, for example, feels sufficiently threatened by the old man’s sudden “recovery” that he plans and nearly implements an attempt on North’s life.
Like Dolly Levi, the title character of Wilder’s play The Matchmaker (1955), North frequently intervenes in other people’s amatory lives as well. Early in his stay, he prevents the potentially disastrous elopement of the bored heiress Diana Bell with the public-school athletic coach Hill Jones; although hired by Diana’s father, North soon finds that he is really acting on behalf of Hill Jones, whose marriage can still be repaired and who in fact has more to lose than the Bells from the possible scandal of elopement. Thereafter, North will happily arrange to marry off two young widows, both of whom have been “under a cloud” owing to the circumstances of their husbands’ deaths: One of them is Bosworth’s granddaughter Persis Tennyson, secretly in love with North’s friend and frequent accomplice Baron Bodo von Stams. Bodo, hopelessly drawn to Persis, does not believe his love to be reciprocated until North informs him otherwise, proceeding thereafter to dispel the vicious rumors occasioned by Archer Tennyson’s violent death.
One of North’s more frequent tactics is to fight bad publicity with good, whether in the case of Persis Tennyson or in that of the supposedly haunted Wyckoff house. To that end, he enlists the assistance of such allies as the popular Bodo, the local police, and the gossip columnist known by her pen name, “Flora Deland.” Born to one of Newport’s finer families, “Flora” has long since become an outcast because of her riotous living and multiple marriages; as a journalist, she uses the unique perspective and connections of her background to “expose” the society that has rejected her. Cultivated, even “used” by the enterprising North, “Flora” becomes his unwitting accomplice in righting the wrongs wrought by other, less prominent gossips.
Although frequently serious in tone, as befits the nature of North’s undertakings, Theophilus North is just as often highly entertaining, even broadly humorous, owing mainly to North’s inveterate, often outrageous gift for playing roles and striking poses. North does not suffer fools gladly, and he is especially skilled at defusing pompous bureaucrats and butlers. Among the novel’s most humorous scenes is the one in which North pseudonymously confronts the pompous, parsimonious wife of Nicholas “Rip” Vanwinkle, a Yale acquaintance of North who later became a world-famous military aviator but has since lapsed into uxorious servitude. At times North becomes so absorbed in his assumed roles as to disappear almost completely behind them, even before the reader’s forewarned eyes.