Thornton Wilder American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3813

Wilder achieved a successful career as a writer of both fiction and drama. His success is especially remarkable given his small literary output over the five decades that he wrote. In theater, for example, he is considered one of America’s best playwrights, yet his fame rests squarely on three full-length plays and a handful of shorter ones. He wrote seven novels and received numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Wilder achieved national success and celebrity status with his second novel, at age thirty, The Bridge of San Luis Rey; he remained in the public eye during the rest of his literary career, although he wrote only five more novels during the last forty years of his life.

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Wilder was heavily influenced at the beginning of his career by the nonrealistic movement of the 1920’s that was quite popular abroad. Unlike the American writers Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene O’Neill, who were championed by such influential critics as H. L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson, Wilder found himself alone in his search for a new humanism that affirmed the dignity of humankind.

In his first novel, The Cabala, published in 1926, Wilder introduced a theme that recurred in his later work: the possibility that an American could travel abroad, partake of the cultural experiences that Europe had to offer, and return enriched but not overwhelmed. Wilder believed that America could benefit from the Old World but was still the land of golden opportunity. This concept ran counter to the thinking of the so-called lost generation of writers, who could not reconcile themselves to their homeland. Wilder was able to fuse the humanistic spirit of the past with the temper of the present.

In his work, Wilder explored moral and religious themes and tried to capture the complex chemistry of human life. He believed in the absolute mystery of life, the workings of which defy rational explanations. Wilder also believed in a higher power of love that did not simply spring from sexual desire. For Wilder, love was an indispensable part of life and a moral responsibility. One of the characters in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, who could be commenting on Wilder’s work, observes:But soon we shall die . . . and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge of love, the only survival, the only meaning.

The eternal optimist, Wilder firmly believed that the human race, despite its ignorance, cruelty, self-destructive nature, and subjection to natural disasters, will always manage to survive.

Wilder’s deep philosophical beliefs, along with the quiet encouragement of his friend Gertrude Stein, propelled him on a quest for the universal and the eternal. Perhaps that is why he often turned to the theater. In his preface to a collection of plays published in 1957, he wrote: “The novel is pre-eminently the vehicle of the unique occasion, the theater of the generalized one.” His convictions found their deepest expression in the theater, where he could stretch the boundaries of convention. He made it clear that the small, ordinary events of daily life can take on a great significance. This concept runs through most of his early plays, but Our Town elevates it to the highest level. Wilder stresses that humans fail to understand and appreciate the priceless value of everyday events, wasting their lives by not valuing every moment of them.

What is remarkable about Wilder’s work is the innovative spirit that animates it. From the first, Wilder tried to explore unique ways of presenting his ideas. In his early collection, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays, and in his 1931 The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays in One Act, for example, Wilder was already experimenting with the conventions of theatricality, experimentation that found its artistic fulfillment in the Pulitzer Prize-winners Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Both acclaimed and condemned for his nonrealistic approach, Wilder remained absolutely unapologetic. He stated, “I became dissatisfied with the theater because I was unable to lend credence to such childish attempts to be ’real.’”

Wilder’s literary life was fairly serene. He cultivated a large and adoring public but on two occasions came under vicious attack. He was accused in 1942 of plagiarizing The Skin of Our Teeth from Irish writer James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939); it became an unpleasant affair that lasted for months.

The first and perhaps most damaging incident, however, temporarily dimming his national reputation, occurred in 1930 when Michael Gold, a Communist journalist and writer, excoriated the rising young writer. In an article in The New Republic titled “Wilder: Prophet of the Genteel Christ,” he attacked Wilder for his “new humanism” principles (emphasizing classical restraint associated with the ancient Greek tradition) at a time when the United States had plunged into the Depression.

Examining Wilder’s work to date, Gold criticized The Bridge of San Luis Rey as a “daydream of homosexual figures in graceful gowns moving archaically among the lilies.” (Wilder was a confirmed homosexual, although he never had a long-term sexual relationship in his life.) Gold then switched his attack to Wilder himself, derisively calling him “this Emily Post of culture . . . always in perfect taste.” Gold taunted Wilder about writing a book to “reveal all his fundamental silliness and superficiality.” Angered and hurt by the criticism, Wilder rose to the challenge, and his reputation and credibility returned slowly.

Wilder’s work remains eminently readable today. He enjoyed writing novels and plays and always cherished a deep love of humanity. Perhaps Chrysis, one of the characters in his novel The Woman of Andros, said it best: “Remember some day, remember me as one who loved all things and accepted from the gods all things, the bright and the dark. And do you likewise. Farewell.”

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

First published: 1927

Type of work: Novel

Five strangers plunge to their deaths on a rope bridge near Lima, Peru, and their lives are reexamined by a Catholic priest who witnessed the tragedy.

Wilder’s second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, published in November, 1927, rocketed the modest author to celebrity status. Its extraordinary public reception and favorable reviews caught Wilder by surprise. Critics hailed it as a “work of genius,” a “little masterpiece” with a “deceptive clarity of style that marks pellucid depths.” The novel was viewed as a breath of fresh air as opposed to the downbeat realistic works of Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser. Wilder was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on May 7, 1928. In 1929, and again in 1944, the novel was adapted on film, but both were disappointing ventures.

Wilder’s writing was influenced by two important factors. First was the historical figure of Camila Perichole. A famous actress in late eighteenth century Lima, Peru, she had played the central character in Prosper Merimee’s play La Carosse du Saint-Sacrament (1829), dazzling audiences with her performances. She became the mistress of the viceroy and donated his gifts to the Church to help the poor and dying. In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Camila is a pivotal character who appears in all three main stories, coming in contact with every important character. The second influence concerned a real rope bridge that had been built in Peru in 1350, which collapsed centuries later, plunging people to their death.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is set in early eighteenth century Peru. The novel opens simply: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.” The tragic accident is witnessed by Brother Juniper, a rational theologian, who attempts to piece together the story of the victims—why they were at the bridge at the same time and whether it was an accident or God’s will. The victims include a young boy, an adolescent, a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old noblewoman.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is divided into five sections, with the shorter opening and closing chapters serving as a framing device. The first major story involves the old, ugly Marquesa de Montemayor, her grief-ridden relationship with her unloving daughter, and the devoted servant Pepita. The middle tale concerns two inseparable twins, named Manuel and Esteban, who share a telepathic closeness. They suffer an estrangement when Manuel falls in love with the actress Camila; he later dies from blood poisoning. The final story is the love-hate relationship of Uncle Pio and Camila, his protégé, whom he has tutored to be Peru’s finest actress. Wilder shows that all five sufferers were victimized in life not only by the falling bridge but also by loving someone who could not or would not love them in return. All five realize their folly at the end and set out to start their lives in new directions.

After telling his tale of the five doomed travelers, Wilder focuses on the survivors, those whose unrequited loves are not destroyed by falling bridges. He makes the final point that they have lost individuals very precious to them and yet have gained something in return, the bridge of love drawing together the living and the dead.

Wilder raises many questions about why these people were killed, including whether it was simply an accident, whether they were responsible for their own lives, or whether they were part of some divine plan and were doomed to die together. He does not answer any one question but suggests that it may have been a combination of all four, reaffirming his central belief that life’s mysteries cannot be divined. Wilder ends the book with Brother Juniper, after years of research, attempting to publish his findings; the work, however, is declared heretical, and he and his research are burned by the Inquisition.

Wilder’s Christian humanism is clearly evident in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The concepts of wastefulness, sinfulness, and the failure to appreciate one’s life—recurring themes in later works, particularly Our Town—are presented here forcefully and without sentimentality. The author’s straightforward prose style, combined with an intriguing plot structure and compelling central characters, makes it Wilder’s most successful fiction and his most widely read novel.

Our Town

First produced: 1938 (first published, 1938)

Type of work: Play

Life, love, and death are seen through the lives of residents of a small New Hampshire town in early twentieth century America.

In the drama Our Town, Wilder would find the fullest expression of his humanistic convictions, pouring all of his genius into it. The play, which opened on Broadway on February 4, 1938, reaffirmed his deep-seated belief that eternal human truths can be observed in American life. Today, the play is regarded as an American classic. It was a different matter, however, in the beginning.

The play had a rocky out-of-town reception by the critics before opening in New York City, but thanks to the strong support of doyen Brooks Atkinson, it caught on with the public and ran for 336 performances. It was made into a film in 1940, which, despite a serious change in plot structure, was almost as popular as the stage presentation. Even though denied the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the play did garner a second Pulitzer Prize for Wilder.

Wilder believed that he could achieve in drama what he failed to do in the novel. He opens Our Town simply: “No curtain. No scenery.” He soon introduces the people of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, on specific days during the period from 1901 to 1913. The almost nonexistent plot revolves around two neighboring households—the Webbs and the Gibbses. Both families, eventually united by marriage, are unremarkable, and nothing very special happens to them or the other characters.

What makes Our Town unique is the character of the Stage Manager, who narrates the play, a technique Wilder had previously used in his one-act play The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (1931). Wilder’s innovative use of this device sets him apart from contemporary dramatists; the device draws its strength and roots from the chorus concept employed by William Shakespeare and earlier by the Greeks. The character is not only a stage manager and narrator but also a philosopher, druggist, Congregational minister, and wise seer. He represents a distillation of all of Wilder’s wisdom, a fact not lost on the playwright, as he often played the role himself in various stage productions.

The Stage Manager embodies the spirit of the town by introducing a large number of characters and presenting the scenes chronologically to demonstrate his basic themes. Act 1 is called “Daily Life” and gives a glimpse of the people living in Grover’s Corner and the two families. In act 2, titled “Love and Marriage,” it is three years later. The eldest child of each household—Emily Webb and George Gibbs—are married. The events leading to that happy occasion, including their first date and declaration of love, are dramatized. The act concludes with the wedding ceremony.

Act 3 occurs nine years later and is called “Death.” It is set in the town’s cemetery, with dead townspeople sitting in chairs. Emily Webb Gibbs has died in childbirth, and she soon joins the others. Here Wilder cleverly brings past and present together by having Emily go back to Grover’s Corner one more time to relive her twelfth birthday with her family. She quickly realizes that it is a mistake to be back among the living and cries out: “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” Wilder presses the point by having her also ask, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” The Stage Manager replies: “No. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”

In Our Town, Wilder points out the precious gift of life and the value of even the most common and everyday events. Unaware of this, the people of Grover’s Corner seldom scratch beyond the surface of their lives, the banal and the beautiful.

Artistically, Wilder manages to make his point by taking the ordinary events and making them priceless. By focusing on growing up, love, marriage, and death and providing a running commentary via the Stage Manager on each phase, Wilder portrays life as trivial and absurd as well as significant and noble.

With Our Town, Wilder taps into a mythic vision of America and presents his characters, foibles and all, with love. He presents an ideal America that believes in the dignity of the human spirit. The playwright captures the essence of human nature, dramatizing the spirit of the eternal residing in the collective human psyche.

The Skin of Our Teeth

First produced: 1942 (first published, 1942)

Type of work: Play

This humorous and allegorical work looks at the survival of the family unit as it evolved during the prehistoric, biblical, and modern eras.

Wilder’s last great play was The Skin of Our Teeth, which opened on Broadway on November 18, 1942. The play, with its allegorical mixture of contemporary and biblical events, confused some of the critics but proved delightful to audiences and ran for 355 performances. The play has been revived frequently and in 1961 was given an international tour by the U.S. State Department with Helen Hayes and Mary Martin in the leading roles.

What Wilder dramatizes in The Skin of Our Teeth is the struggle of humankind to survive, a conceit much appreciated by wartime audiences. Again the author focuses on the family unit to make his point—in this case, the Antrobus (anthropos meaning story of humans) family living in Excelsior, New Jersey. The play does not have a continuous action. Although the settings are contemporary, each act is structured around a historic catastrophe: the Ice Age, the Flood, and modern war. Respectively, humans must pit themselves against nature, the moral order, and, finally, themselves. Wilder’s play can also be seen as units of time: geologic, biblical, and recorded.

Wilder’s characters in The Skin of Our Teeth are all allegorical figures and exist on three planes: American, biblical, and universal. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are the simultaneous embodiment of Adam and Eve, Everyman and Everywoman, and an average American couple. Mr. Antrobus has created the wheel, the alphabet, and the lever; his spouse has contributed the apron. They keep as pets a dinosaur and mammoth. Their motto is Save the Family. Daughter Gladys becomes increasingly sluttish and by play’s end has an illegitimate baby. Son Henry (his name had been Cain but it was changed) accidentally kills his brother and now combs his hair to hide the mark on his forehead. In opposition to the Antrobus family is Lily Sabina (combination of Lilith and the Sabine women), who moves in and out of their lives in a variety of roles including that of a servant, a beauty contestant, and a Jezebel out to snare Mr. Antrobus.

As he did in Our Town, Wilder is able to employ in The Skin of Our Teeth a nontraditional, theatrical approach. By this device, the playwright draws the audience directly to the characters as individuals, at the same time making them function as representatives of the human race. To achieve this effect, Wilder has the characters drop their characterizations from time to time and reveal the performers hired to play the roles. He is thus able to present various personalities within each character.

The Skin of Our Teeth generally received favorable reviews, particularly for the acting of Tallulah Bankhead, who played Sabina. Unfortunately, the play also plunged Wilder into an unpleasant controversy. Three months after the play opened, Joseph Campbell and Henry M. Robinson wrote “The Skin of Whose Teeth?” in The Saturday Review of Literature, charging in the article that Wilder had borrowed the theme and technique of his play from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, thus accusing him of plagiarism. Many writers and critics came to Wilder’s defense, and Time magazine, while not liking the play, asserted the attackers were “trying to make headlines out of what should have been footnotes.” Wilder said nothing at the time, but in the 1957 edition of Three Plays, he admitted in the preface that he owed a debt to Joyce and slyly noted that he hoped “some author should feel similarly indebted to any work of mine.”

As in other works, Wilder demonstrates an appreciative view of life in The Skin of Our Teeth. He shows how the human race can survive disasters, both natural and human-made. It is Wilder’s humanity ending in faith that suffuses the entire play. Again, Wilder concentrates on the family, an emphasis technique found in his plays but not his other work. He skillfully juggles the serious and comic elements, telescopes time, and conveys his philosophic and poetic ideas. Wilder presents truth through the use of artifice and theatricality.

Theophilus North

First published: 1973

Type of work: Novel

A meddling good-hearted stranger comes to Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1920’s and proceeds to change the lives of all the people he meets.

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.

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