Considerably different in tone and content from Wilder’s previous novels, Theophilus North may to some extent be seen as an attempted novel of manners, describing customs and manners in the homes of the very rich, both above stairs and below. The fictional moment, located between World War I and the Great Depression, is indeed well chosen for the purpose, showing a society in transition yet not quite fully transformed. As narrator, North frequently mentions the names of Henry James and Edith Wharton, both of whom had spent some time at Newport while composing their well-known novels of manners; also noted in passing is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published during the year 1925. Coming from an author as self-conscious and deliberate as Wilder, such references are not to be ignored.
In preparing the sketches that comprise Theophilus North, Wilder remained well aware of his most evident models, particularly in the delineation of character. If North himself appears by turns irritating and implausible as a character unless and until he is viewed as an extension of Wilder the literary artist, the various inhabitants of Newport are presented from a distinctly Jamesian or Whartonian perspective; any number of the episodes, moreover, might well have been expanded into full-fledged novels of manners, had the author chosen to do so. James Bosworth, a self-absorbed New England eccentric worthy of James or John P. Marquand, surrounded by a houseful of grasping parasites...
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