Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Although he began his career as a novelist, earning worldwide acclaim at thirty with his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Wilder is perhaps better remembered as a playwright, who, in addition to his famous Our Town, wrote The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) and The Matchmaker (1955; later adapted for the musical stage as Hello, Dolly!). His novels, however, remain worthy of attention and may, in fact, constitute the greater part of his accomplishment. Unfortunately, they are considerably less easily understood than his plays, and often lend themselves to misinterpretation.

As a novelist, Wilder tends toward the restrained, the understated, even the oblique, with a preference for timeless themes over topical ones. The Woman of Andros, set in ancient Greece and published during 1930 at the depth of the Depression, provoked a spate of hostile criticism from the political Left. Heaven’s My Destination (1934), although set in the 1930’s in America, is so heavily ironic in tone that few contemporary readers appear to have understood it. In 1948, after service in Europe during World War II, Wilder paid homage to Sartrean existentialism in The Ides of March, an epistolary novel covering the last days of Julius Caesar; predictably, the topicality of his thought was generally obscured by the novel’s historical setting, and nearly twenty years elapsed before Wilder returned to long fiction. The Eighth Day, published in 1967, was a generally well-received philosophical and historical meditation cast more or less within the mystery genre.

In voice, tone, and style, Theophilus North harks back to Wilder’s very first novel, The Cabala, inspired by the author’s recent residence and study in Rome. The narrator of The Cabala, an American known only as Samuele, is an insatiably curious young man quite similar to North, with a similar penchant for archaeological classifications. In both cases, the autobiographical resonances are strong and not to be overlooked, offering useful clues to Wilder’s own perceptions of the interrelation between his life and his art.