Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7522
Wilder, Thornton 1897–1975
Wilder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright and novelist, always pondered—and affirmed—the purpose of human life. Considered significantly experimental at one time, Our Town and Skin of Our Teeth are now standard repertory works. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 53-56.)
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Wilder, Thornton 1897–1975
Wilder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright and novelist, always pondered—and affirmed—the purpose of human life. Considered significantly experimental at one time, Our Town and Skin of Our Teeth are now standard repertory works. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 53-56.)
[Wilder's] portrayal of good and evil action, friendship, tyranny, justice, and community make his writings a proper setting for an examination of the perennial questions of political philosophy. Throughout his novels and plays, Wilder, the dramatist and poet, is concerned with the variety and forms of human action. School teachers, tourists, mining engineers, preachers, housewifes, and even young children are transformed into models of virtue and vice in the hands of the poet. Courage, justice, avarice, and prudence are all illuminated as Wilder draws his stories. Indeed, Wilder consciously speaks of his own art as "an effort to find the dignity in the trivial of our daily life."…
Wilder the "stylist," the creative artist, has been widely and properly honored. Unfortunately, the moral insight and force of [his] plays and novels has been too long neglected….
[His] most directly political work [is] The Ides of March. While focusing upon the reign and murder of Julius Caesar in historical style, Wilder warns his audience not to read the novel as "historical reconstruction." Rather, "it may be called a fantasia." Stylistically, his story emerges from letters, diaries, public decrees, and eye witness testimony in four books of overlapping time durations. Typically, the intricate form of the novel tends to obscure the political and philosophical issues Wilder places before us. The form is important. By his own admission, book one deals with the nature of the political leader, book two with the nature of love, book three the relation of politics to religion, and book four with history and providence. The story, however, not the style, has primacy. "The myth, the parable, the fable are the fountainhead of all fiction and in them is seen most clearly the didactic and moralizing element of a story." (p. 150)
Beginning with an analysis of "the man of action," the political leader, Wilder considers the relation of ruler and ruled, ultimately moving toward the problem of "tyrannicide." From these fundamental political concerns, Wilder develops the broader question of the relation of politics and religion. The historical problem of civil religion is cast in the personal perspective of man's relation to God and State leading to what shall be termed "a search for limits."… Wilder's unfolding of these perennial questions produces an alternative to the modern bourgeois vision of politics as self-assertion and economic satisfaction. (p. 151)
Through the generals, wives, poets, kings, and murderers of The Ides of March, Wilder touches the inner depths of our nature. In the simple development of his human story, we come face to face with the inconsistencies and audacity of the "modern" vision of man and society. Having rejected God, man strives to fill the void by his own creative actions. Man becomes his own measure….
In the face of "modernity" Wilder does not debate the historical or intellectual origins of this "discomfiting deification." It exists. Nor does Wilder offer alternative social or political formula. Rather, the dramatic poet places before us the human experiences of suffering and death, love and beauty, envy and greatness, poetry and grace. These too exist. Like Georges Roualt standing before his finished portrait of the head of Christ, Thornton Wilder could inscribe the words, ecce homo. The poet's vision allows us to grasp the potential and the limits of our nature. (p. 158)
Michael Dillon, "Poet and Statesman: Thornton Wilder's Political Vision in 'The Ides of March'," in The Intercollegiate Review (© Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Inc., 1974), Summer, 1974, pp. 149-58.
One does not so much attend this play [Our Town] as visit it the way one would Williamsburg. Grover's Corners is a turn-of-the-century New Hampshire town with its simple verities and its God-fearing townsfolk perfectly restored.
Wilder's is essentially an air-brushed vision of life. The closest Our Town comes to the problem of evil is a tipsy choirmaster-organist. Insofar as Wilder sought to suggest the sublime in the commonplace, he failed; but in placing the stamp of value and continuity on everyday life, he succeeded. He celebrates the cycle of growing up, falling in love, marrying, giving birth and suffering death with all its attendant joys and sorrows. (p. 68)
T. E. Kalem, in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), June 30, 1975.
The Skin of Our Teeth is a musical comedy, without either. Like most of Wilder's work it is written to be played by high school juniors emerging from the relentless hysteria of their sophomore year into the suicidal notions of the senior. It is meant to be watched by parents who delight in nothing as much as in-jokes and audience participation. Here the in-jokes are textbook references to Moses and Aristotle, and the audience participation is effected by Lily Sabina, the maid-cum-beauty queen, complaining that she can neither stand nor understand the play; by the stage manager pleading with her to continue; and by a dress rehearsal of the third act to begin the third act.
These things are inspired on Wilder's part: the existence of the gimmicks more than their contents. Wilder said of drama generally that "it is addressed to the group mind," which in our case he recognized as the embarrassed mind, the mind in perpetual adolescence. What better theater can we have, then, but the embarrassed play, where the democratic performers awkward in their distance from the audience, bridge the gap by means of direct appeal? Aware of the potential sense of conspicuousness in a theater, Wilder exaggerated that sense, making his players at once show off and apologize for doing so, which captures half of the audience in commiseration. The other half is won by explosions of passion in place of character building, so that great feelings are given their due, like spot commercials, without involving us in the machinery of a whole human heart.
This saves time—watching actors cavort only on the peaks of emotion—but something must happen in the time saved. In The Skin of Our Teeth the something is the act of waiting—a fanatic eagerness created by the self-consciousness of the play itself, for one terrific funny line, which never comes. If the play did not have its deliberate high school mentality, such waiting would be intolerable. But here it is like waiting for the entrance of your neighbor's boy, hilarious by its own nature, and intense as Coleridge waiting for the sunrise.
The pleasure of waiting for that one joke is only topped by the ecstasy of waiting for final wisdom. Wilder knew this too: that the very sight of bingo parlors and beauty queens flicks on in our minds very serious lights. The … fortune teller of act two, made up like the mechanical carnival gypsies in glass booths, saunters to the apron of the stage and tells us that nothing is easier than predicting the future: "but who can tell your past,—eh? Your youth,—where did it go? It slipped away while you weren't looking…. What did it mean?" That's the stuff; just enough of the symbols of philosophy to keep us content. Add that we know this, that the invocation of lost youth, no matter the context, will always trigger a collective privacy of feeling at once painful and socially acceptable, and we have Wilder's genius at a glance.
Whether that genius is optimism is something else. Surely man's survival through ice, flood and fire is a happy thought—not a delirious one if we consider the frequency of the tests—but optimistic enough. Yet The Skin of Our Teeth is not about survival; it is a play about an audience looking at a play about survival. An audience that is not only easily pleased by the dog's bells of thought and feeling, but that would have it no other way for fear of losing itself in an experience from which it could not simultaneously sit apart. The Skin of Our Teeth is not merely a two-way performance for the playwright or actors, but for us; we want them to talk to us.
If this be optimism (as Patrick Henry might have said in act four), give me Philadelphia. The fact that a successful play can be built on the premise that American audiences will never be as interested in any passion as much as an awareness of themselves is nothing to dance about. This idea, I believe, is the real brilliance of Wilder's work—not the Joycean touches (which are more Flann O'Brien than Joyce), and not the intentionally under-stretched cleverness.
Yet the play is more, not less moving, because of its self-consciousness…. The lines themselves are not stirring in a comedy, but the beautifully pathetic fact that we repeat them so often so earnestly in front of each other—the great national wish said aloud, fingers crossed, knock wood—that is moving beyond tears. (p. 32)
Roger Rosenblatt, "Give Us a Hand," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 2, 1975, pp. 31-2.
Thornton Wilder's profundity, Van Wyck Brooks once said, is chiefly cosmetic. That was a perhaps too tart reaction to The Skin of Our Teeth, which received the Pulitzer Prize for 1942–43.
It is probably more just to say that the play is a children's colored picture book of an American (Protestant) reading of the Scriptures. A sugary homily, it reassures us that no matter how close to disaster humanity comes through floods, earthquakes, massacres and wars, it somehow survives. (Cynics might call this view "pessimistic.") The family, furthermore, is the core of mankind's coherence. Women protect the home, always forgiving their husbands' and children's follies. Man clings to the wisdom of the ages—the judgments of Moses, Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza—and reaps ever renewed encouragement from new ideas, aids to progress toward a saner existence. Men will sometimes stray from the straight and narrow on the basis of the pleasure principle, but loyal wives and their children lead them back to the righteous path. There is always a Cain in the domestic pile, but loving forbearance serves to tame such unfortunates. A silly hussy who believes—as do many others, men and women—only in fun and power may disturb the peace, but such types are always packed off to the "kitchen." In brief, Wilder, honestly genial, looks on God's world and, like the Deity, sees that it is good.
Howsoever simplistic it may be, I have no serious objection to all this. Wilder does not bid us take his comforting sermon as grave thought. He is quite humorous and playful in tone and stage technique (he scrambles time with easy nonchalance) and he writes with simple grace. Indeed, his manner here is decidedly folksy. In a kindly frame of mind, matching his own, one may even absolve him of committing platitude….
As I found the show dull, I had time to reflect on another aspect of the occasion. The Skin of Our Teeth was first produced during the early years of World War II. Besides the jocose novelty of its presentational method—for example, Sabina interrupting the proceedings with asides to the audience in which she complains of not understanding the play—it seemed to have a certain "relevance." During wartime, audiences need reassurance: "we will come through O.K.," etc., etc. But I remember New York in 1942 as being animated and visibly prosperous; the audiences not at all troubled. I consider 1975 in every regard a worse period and the audience—our "public" in general—apathetic, sunk in unconscious stupor. So the play is no longer "relevant"; today we require not reassurance but rebelliousness. (p. 286)
Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), September 27, 1975.
Thornton Wilder was a member of the Lost Generation who was never lost, and his own generation never quite forgave him for that. Born a year after Fitzgerald, two years before Hemingway, he confessed to being "fundamentally a happy person."…
His talent won Wilder three Pulitzer Prizes for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) and for his plays Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). But his gifts—the polished style, the scholarly allusions, the slightly didactic plots with an elegant touch of mysticism—were viewed in critical circles as relics of the genteel tradition. His optimism ("He says nice things whenever possible," one acquaintance complained) was regarded as a threat to his integrity.
Wilder accepted even criticism cheerfully. In a period dominated by Ezra Pound's fierce injunction, "Make it new!" he admitted: "I am not an innovator but a rediscoverer of forgotten goods." Many of his works were in one way or another derivative. The Skin of Our Teeth was born of Finnegans Wake. The Merchant of Yonkers (1938) evolved from a 19th century Viennese farce and developed into The Matchmaker (1954) and Hello, Dolly!
Wilder knew his limits as few members of the Lost Generation knew theirs. A onetime archaeology student, he took the long view. From Julius Caesar's Rome in his novel The Ides of March to Grover's Corners, N.H., in Our Town, it was "the ocean-like monotony of the generations of men" that fascinated him. He had a Roman mind and an American heart. He saw "the absurdity of any single person's claim to the importance of his saying, 'I love!' 'I suffer!'" But his democratic passion was writing about the most ordinary people in love or in pain.
Our Town, despite daredevil risks with the sentimental and the obvious, was his masterpiece. Wilder's death is enough of a loss to produce at least one small question. Who will play the Stage Manager at Grover's Corners, improvising muted trumpet solos over the graves of literature's Unknown Americans?
"The Rediscoverer," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 22, 1975, p. 71.
[Neither] encomiums, nor shrewd promotion, nor Thornton Wilder's handsome portrait [in advertisements for the novel] could account entirely for the fantastic sales of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which exceeded a quarter of a million in the first year alone and in fact, have continued at a high level throughout the fifty years since the book's publication. The Bridge had little in common with the fiction of Fannie Hurst, Edna Ferber, or Kathleen Norris; yet, it entered the same households as the novels of those indefatigable ladies. At the same time, it engaged the absorbed attention of R. P. Blackmur, Edmund Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. The Bridge of San Luis Rey seemed to have something for everybody: Even today it still has.
Book watchers of the time, accounting for The Bridge's phenomenal critical and popular success, attributed it to Wilder's exquisite and pellucid style; to his rejection of the realistic-naturalistic mode of Dreiser-Lewis-Upton Sinclair; to the American public's desire to escape from the ugliness and crassness of the contemporary scene; to the spiritual-theological questions the novel raises. (Was Wilder's position essentially Roman Catholic? Calvinist? Agnostic? Atheist?) The Bridge combines a sound narrative technique with a Puritan perspective, a combination that evoked a profound response from an America whose popular national leader was Calvin Coolidge…. (p. 6)
Edmund Wilson quite promptly and perceptively identified Marcel Proust as Wilder's chief model and influence. One of Proust's major themes, in Wilson's words, "the abject and agonizing love on the part of a superior for an inferior person, or, at least, on the part of a gentle person for a person who behaves toward him with cruelty," is the central theme of The Bridge. But Edmund Wilson chose not to show how the theme is transformed in its journey from a ripely civilized France to a Puritan United States. In Proust's novel, abject and agonizing love is the source of both pain and pleasure, agony and ecstasy; in Wilder's, the sufferer finds release only, as a good Christian should, in death … "for there is the land of the living and the land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
So it was that The Bridge enjoyed success in all the Puritan countries: The United States, Great Britain, Australia, Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia. (The Italians liked it also, but, perhaps, for the reason that Italians admire any work where men and women die for love.) The French, of course, except for André Gide, rejected it utterly, despite the novel's several and considerable debts to the literature of France. (p. 7)
Our Town showed that realistic-naturalistic theater had pretty much exhausted itself and that realism now properly belonged to the realm of films and radio plays. Further, it was clear now that legitimate theater, if it were to survive, would have to address itself to a smaller, more discriminating audience and devise new modes of representation. The models of drama which were rooted in the nineteenth century and whose heights were reached by Ibsen and Chekhov would have to give way to newer (and older) modes; moreover, plays by Americans ought to have their roots in the cultural soil of America, not in that of England or Germany or France. (p. 138)
Much of what happens in Our Town … [fuses] easily into the remembered experiences of the millions for whom the play is an exercise in nostalgia. Just as Wilder looked back thirty odd years to his own childhood, successive generations have looked back and found their own correspondences in the play. Yet,… [many now contend, like] the New York Times drama critic Clive Barnes … that the play is no longer relevant.
It is true that the play is not directly relevant to current social conditions, but neither was it relevant in 1938. No one in Grover's Corners is addicted to anything stronger than coffee, no one seems to sustain any disease worse than whooping cough; crime seems unknown, and the poor Polish families across the tracks seem to know their place. The village life described by Wilder, however, although it avoids the depiction of the mean, petty, ugly, and sordid, is no sentimental idyll…. Nevertheless we can see how from the point of view of a great many of those who were coming of age in the late sixties and seventies, Our Town has become irrelevant in a basic way.
Our Town, essentially, is a play about belonging—belonging to a family, of course, but even more so, to a community and to a nation…. George and the denizens of Grover's Corners, regardless of whether their natures determine that they remain in their region and their state, or move on to Boston or Ohio or California, never question the allegiance they pledge to the flag and the republic…. [The] people of his play are more American than they are Christian, more patriotic than they are religious…. For Wilder, for the people of his play, for the audiences to whom the play was directed, being an American was a source of pride…. To be sure there was economic, social, and racial injustice. But … just as Americans had ended the tyranny of a foreign monarchy and had eliminated slavery, so could they end the range of injustices that still prevailed. Encouraged by such assurances and despite depressions, industrial strife, and vast pockets of wretched poverty which rendered somewhat discordant the strains of "America the Beautiful," Americans in general continued to love their country and to foresee a future when even the Negroes would have enough to eat. The American dream was not a discreditable one; and somehow, for millions of Americans, Our Town came as a reassurance. In purging the American past of most of our travails and squalor; in eliminating from our consciousness our colossal debts to Negroes and Asians, Irish, Italians, Poles, Mexicans, and Jews; in viewing the typical American community in terms of a decent, clean, hard-working New England village, the play somehow provided hope and promise for the American future. Its inherent optimism derived from its native soil.
And so the life of Our Town has been determined by a people with faith in itself, in the nation's capacity to survive, in the principles that accompanied the nation's coming into being. When the faith, the survival, the principles go, presumably another nation will come into being, and it will have its own play. (pp. 140-42)
[His] qualities of spontaneity, of ease, of joyful improvisation are the essence of Wilder's achievement as a dramatist. They are qualities that distinguish his stage work from the novels that preceded Our Town…. Both Wilder's admirers and his detractors had called him a stylist, with reason. His first three novels had been written with a French elegance, characterized by quotable apothegms ("Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world") and fine turns of phrase. His fourth novel, Heaven's My Destination was a further demonstration of Wilder's virtuosity: inspired by Don Quixote, he conceived a picaresque novel and composed it in the idiom of the American Middle West.
In Our Town there is nothing of the virtuoso visible. The author, in fact, has utterly disappeared; only the dramatis personae comment and grasp the implications of the action. The play, moreover, avoids delicate ironies and edged satire. Wilder never patronizes his New England villagers, who are never quaint, narrow, or absurd. Each has his dignity, his individuality, his reason for being. While Wilder makes no effort to plumb their depths, neither does he present them as types…. This is no play about the meanness of small town life, nor about the pathos of the disadvantaged. The play does not expose social ills or reveal the corruption beneath the skin. Rather, it depicts the outward behavior of some unexceptional people in a rural American community around the turn of the century. In describing little more than what they did, said, and thought aloud, Wilder—eschewing plot, complication, conflict, scènes á faire, climaxes and catastrophes, substituting how for why—provided insight into the human condition and helped his countrymen to see precisely what it is to be an American. For the characters in the play resist classifying and stratifying human beings; they resist the idea of limiting anyone's opportunities and scope; they reject both tribalism and a state religion. In short, for all that Our Town could not and would not encompass, it provided (and perhaps for a little while longer it will continue to provide) that shock of recognition to all of its heterogeneous audiences, enabling them to see that we are, in fact, a nationality and a people. (pp. 142-43)
No reader of Finnegans Wake, seeing or reading The Skin of Our Teeth, could fail to receive Wilder's signals [deliberate references to Joyce's novel], just in case the connection had not already been established.
But … The Skin of Our Teeth is no "Americanized, thinly disguised recreation" of Finnegans Wake [as Henry Morton Robinson and Joseph Campbell maintained]. Robinson's and Campbell's further charge that The Skin of Our Teeth is "not an entirely original creation," was eminently unjust; the play is at least as original as Shaw's Saint Joan and it is considerably more original than Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The Skin of Our Teeth is, in fact, as original as a good play ought to be and more original than any significant American play written since Our Town. Joyce's novel, as a novel, was unique both in form and content. And so was Wilder's play, as a play. Apart from the ocean that separates the themes of the two works, the basic generic difference makes comparison absurd. (p. 174)
Like Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth has become fixed in the tradition of twentieth century dramatic literature, regularly performed on the stage, and read in the schools and colleges here and abroad. Its vitality stems from its retreat from naturalism into the freer theatrical forms that characterize post-World War II drama. And related to those techniques (which no longer startle today's audiences) are the high-spirited improvisational effects that emphasize the human comedy: man's cliff-hanging capacity for survival, endurance, and renewal. Though Our Town would seem to be America's favorite play, there are many who prefer Skin's broad comic sweep to Our Town's admixture of nostalgia, irony, and lacrimae rerum. (p. 182)
The assumptions of The Skin of Our Teeth are pervasively moralistic: man's significance and survival derive from his adherence to a set of ethical values conveniently framed for him by Hebrew prophets, Greek philosophers, and Judaic-Christian synthesizers…. George Antrobus, composite of Amos Wilder, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, and Warren Harding, is not so much Everyman as Everyman's leader in the battle for survival. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the portrait that provides for a glimpse of a Gandhi, a Juarez, or even a Lenin, who in the minds and hearts of his followers was also a champion of man's survival—survival that lay outside of or endured in spite of the Protestant ethic and the American image of itself. (p. 185)
Wilder [as evidenced in The Ides of March] had moved away from the Christian humanism of his twenties; his destination was a more venturesome teleology which, while it rejected the ultimate existential insistence that man is directed by no forces outside himself, incorporated a number of existential postulates. His Caesar had achieved power and was determined to use power, not because he required adulation, but because power provided him with the kind of freedom that a man of his capacities required. In becoming emperor, he wrested freedom from an indifferent universe by virtue of his own self-discipline and energies and the prudent application of his extraordinary intelligence and gifts. Caesar defined his self-fulfillment in providing every Roman citizen with the opportunity of obtaining the measure of freedom he could exercise in a rational and constructive manner. Caesar, the father of his country, would enable each of his "sons" to become their own fathers … a course of action that he understood would ensure his own violent death at the hands of a "son." (p. 214)
Within three months of its publication, The Ides of March had disappeared from view.
In retrospect, one can see that Wilder's sense of timing failed him in respect to The Ides of March, as it had done with The Woman of Andros. The planet had just survived a cataclysm initiated by a trio of dictators. Yet, Wilder's Caesar was the dictator as tragic hero. Spring 1948 was too soon for Americans to embrace Julius Caesar, the first Roman duce. Dictators, absolute rulers, and ruthless military commanders were not, for the moment, eligible for sympathetic and respectful treatment in the years immediately following the war. Three of the most successful American novels in the period dealt harshly with authoritarian leaders: Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, and Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. Given the climate of expectation that nourished those three books, many readers of The Ides of March were puzzled by the heroic portrayal of the man whose very name evoked both czar and kaiser and whose namesakes were historically associated with the massacres of Jewish and Christian martyrs…. Perhaps Michael Gold's baseless charge that Wilder displayed an aristocratic disdain for the sensibilities of the common people vaguely echoed in the minds of the liberal and left-wing critics when they had their initial encounter with The Ides of March. Considering that Wilder was the first American novelist of consequence to create an existential hero, consciously and deliberately patterned after the ideas set forth by Kierkegaard and Sartre, one wonders whether the book's failure to receive a serious evaluation was a reflection upon the work, or upon the critical establishment. (pp. 220-21)
From the very outset of his career, with the publication of The Cabala, critics have referred to Wilder's urbanity and sophistication. While there can be no question about his broad academic learning—no American playwright or novelist in three generations has read so widely as he—his urbanity is another question. Except for The Cabala, his work dealt exclusively with provincial life. (Even Caesar's Rome reminds one more of New Haven than it does of Paris, London, or New York.)… Wilder never resided in large cities, he merely visited them…. The house in The Wreck of the 5:25 had to be deep in suburbia because Wilder had always to return to his provincial refuge where well-read, well-behaved people, together with an extensive university library, provided him with all the security he required after his excursions with the irreverent, unconventional, sacrilegious, and ribald frequenters of the Oak Room, the Algonquin, and the Colony. (p. 239)
An admirable and absorbing novel, The Ides of March, was nevertheless overlaid with a forbidding chill, a remoteness between writer and reader that characterized Wilder's work thereafter. Wilder's perception of the failure of The Ides of March had turned him back to drama. But that same philosophical glaze that characterized the novel limited the appeal of his Bleeker Street plays. (pp. 243-44)
Of all of Wilder's work, The Eighth Day is the most difficult to analyze and evaluate. Its beginnings suggests that it is a mystery novel. And a mystery it is indeed with a construction (who killed X and why?) not greatly different from that of The Brothers Karamazov. And just as The Brothers is essentially Russian, The Eighth Day is essentially American, one of the most consciously American novels written in this century. Wilder's feeling for and about America, first manifested in The Cabala, was sounded again in Our Town and became fully developed in The Eighth Day. The idea that the United States is the last best hope on earth, in the light of current history, has a decidedly hollow ring. The central irony in The Eighth Day is that even at the turn of the century, when the main action of the novel takes place, the American Dream had already gone sour…. As both subject and theme, the failure of America is thoroughly absorbing. But Wilder's approach to his theme in 1967 was sadly mistimed. The Bridge of San Luis Rey was in tune with the American psyche of 1927, but The Eighth Day coincided with riots in the Black ghettos of American cities and with the fury over our destroying the people and land of Vietnam; in spite of its seriousness, the book seemed irrelevant and politically archaic.
Further, the stylistic texture of The Eighth Day seemed hopelessly old-fashioned coming from a writer whose avant-garde plays had once turned American theater upside down. At first glance, the book appears to combine some of the fictional devices of Louisa May Alcott and Samuel Clemens. And a closer reading reveals that the novel's exuberance (and its ironies) indeed derives from Wilder's implicit allusions to nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century fiction. Horatio Alger, Huckleberry Finn, and Little Women are wryly evoked. Also present in the novel (disguised as an Italian voice teacher in Chicago), is Sigmund Freud whose observations in The Eighth Day are identical to the things he said to Wilder in Vienna and later in London in the 1930s. The celebrated freethinker of the twenties and thirties, whose prototype was Clarence Darrow, appears in the novel disguised as a newspaper reporter. And playing a cameo role under the name of Atticus is Henry James. The protagonist of the novel, John Ashley, the quintessential American (graduated at the top of his class from Stevens Institute in Hoboken), is actually based in part upon St. James of Compostela—Wilder, violating the cardinal rule of the traditional novel but following the story line of the saint's life, causes him to be drowned ten pages before the middle of the volume. Thus The Eighth Day is not so much a traditional novel as it is a commentary on it. (pp. 247-48)
The Eighth Day, a novel whose fulcrum is patricide, deals with a subject that haunted Wilder for over twenty years. Patricide overtly entered Wilder's work in Our Town and then in the early forties when Henry Antrobus tries to kill George Antrobus in the penultimate scene of The Skin of Our Teeth. Patricide is also the subject of The Ides of March; not only is Caesar the father of his country, but Brutus (in the novel) is possibly Caesar's natural son. In The Eighth Day, subject and theme merge, and the pattern of Dostoevski's Brothers Karamazov is repeated: the novel begins with a trial for murder and ends with the revelation that the victim has been killed by his own son. Where the patricide of The Eighth Day materially differs from Wilder's earlier patricides is in the circumstance that Lansing's murder is almost justified; no blame attaches itself to the son, no guilt is felt, no punishment assigned. (p. 249)
Wilder survived the 1930s, artistically, not so much because he outgrew his Puritan values but because he transmuted them in a succession of comic works, Heaven's My Destination, Our Town, The Merchant of Yonkers, and The Skin of Our Teeth. But the obsession that beset his father—to be a torchbearer of Christian thought—later led Wilder to embrace Christian existentialism, which dampened, indeed almost extinguished, his comedic gifts and his nearly infallible sense of irony. The Ides of March, written when Wilder was at the height of his powers and abounding in his characteristic wit, suffers from the authoritarian overtones of New England theocracy. And in The Eighth Day, the voice of the New England divine warns, cautions, explicates, and admonishes. (p. 253)
Why did The Eighth Day, a work so carefully and thoughtfully composed by an established writer, become ultimately the subject of abuse and neglect? Here again, as with The Ides of March, Wilder's timing was off. He had written a novel glorifying individualism, the concept of the American that haunted Emerson and Thoreau; his novel also celebrated the American soil, which nurtured and fostered individualism…. Wilder had captured all the respected hard-working young heads of family, men who possessed mechanical ingenuity and common sense and were not afraid to assume moral leadership in American communities from Maine to Oregon before they went off to fight in World War I and World War II. The emergence of the United States as a world power was achieved neither by Babbits on the one hand nor by Public School boys or Junkers on the other. Rather, it was the John Ashleys, those quintessential nineteenth-century Americans, making their impact upon their twentieth-century children, who propelled their country into global prominence.
But The Eighth Day was published in 1967, the very year when the full implications of American involvement in Vietnam became clear to the intellectual community both in America and abroad: the American role in world affairs had changed from heroic champion to meddling bully…. In this context, Wilder's book, which to his coevals reflected the spirit of nineteenth-century Emersonian enlightenment and celebrated the triumph of the American democratic ideal, to the younger urban liberals seemed paternalistic, condescending, and faintly racist, whether in spirit, in tone, or in intention.
Wilder's grasp of the implications of world change was undoubtedly inadequate when he was writing The Eighth Day. But then his work had never been of particular significance to the social scientist; his attitude toward the colored races, for example, as revealed in both his plays and in his fiction, mingles a judicious sense of compassion and respect. But the Blacks are alien to him as they are not alien to Faulkner. Wilder could generously respond to Blacks, to Jews, and, above all, to Italians and Latins; he could not, however, understand them. Wilder's failure to portray adequately the Indians who play an important role in The Eighth Day represented, in a novel of the 1960s, a grave artistic flaw.
But, beyond the errors of timing and tone, the principal weakness of the novel was structural: Wilder approached fiction, here, more as a dramatist than as a novelist. From the outset of his career the technique of the novel had presented him with difficulties. Both The Cabala and The Bridge of San Luis Rey are a series of discrete dramatic episodes strung together on a merely serviceable narrative thread. The Woman of Andros lacks the thrust and the resonance, the amplitude and the vitality of a conventional novel and is, indeed, basically a novella. In Heaven's My Destination, Wilder sidestepped the modern novel's formal demands by going back to the picaresque mode, with a series of loosely connected episodes depicting the adventures of a wandering protagonist. Here again, we are aware of Wilder's dramatic impulses; the presentation is objective and the inner voices are withheld. In The Ides of March, Wilder again went back to a precursor of the modern novel—the epistolary novel of the eighteenth century. In short, The Eighth Day is Wilder's only full-scale attempt to come to grips with the novel's formal demands. To a considerable degree, he succeeded; but the technical flaws tend to mute and diminish The Eighth Day's many excellences. Wilder demonstrates, for the first time in his career as a novelist, that he can sustain a narrative line brilliantly—in the flight of John Ashley, from the moment of his escape to the moment of his death. But having demonstrated his narrative virtuosity in the first half of the work, Wilder chooses to sabotage his effects in the second part—and to a considerable extent he succeeds. (pp. 255-56)
Wilder's early novels are a paradigm of the liberating and nourishing force of the whole sweep of continental literature—Greek-Roman-French—upon a consciousness and sensibility whose earliest focus had been directed to the Bible and to the children's classics of American and English origin. They are the novels of a man whose nature reached out for tenderness, but who could neither receive nor give it, because in his particular social milieu he could not break through the matrix that formed and enveloped him.
Once he had written the early novels and had been derided by the left-wing Puritans (for who were more Puritanical than the Jewish intellectual Marxists of the 1930s), Wilder understood that his future as an artist lay in exploiting his comic genius. And in the decade between 1931 and 1941, Wilder safely and successfully brought to life a series of comic masterpieces: The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, Heaven's My Destination, Our Town, The Merchant of Yonkers, and The Skin of Our Teeth. By the time Wilder entered military service during World War II, he had carved out for himself a place as a novelist, a playwright, and a man of letters—a position achieved by no other American writer. Having been caught wearing his heart on his sleeve, Wilder, the ardent young cosmopolitan writer, transformed himself into a detached observer of the American scene, an action which metamorphosed him into a sage and philosopher, a servant of his government and spokesman for his country's institutions. In the role of doyen, Wilder emerged from military service carrying a heavy burden. And miraculously enough, The Ides of March was not at all unworthy of a writer whose reputation had become so formidably complex.
The Ides of March marked the third phase of Wilder's development. His work, henceforth, was to be neither passional nor comedic, but philosophical. Influenced by his long simmering admiration for Goethe, The Ides of March recalls the German poet's ten-year involvement with classical drama and classical thought. Convinced, like Goethe, that a work of ancient Greece could be successfully reshaped in terms of contemporary experience, Wilder produced his version of Alcestis. The snubbing of The Ides of March and the subsequent failure of The Alcestiad did not discourage him from essaying the role of philosophical writer: he resolved to distill some of his most carefully worked out ideas into a large-scale novel whose irregular design and interpolated disquisitions remind us of Goethe's final work, Wilhelm Meister's Travels. But The Eighth Day fell short of Wilder's expectations and grievously disappointed him in its impact upon critics and teachers of literature. Finally, having reached the eighth decade of his life, Wilder withdrew from both theatrical and literary circles. The drama of his life seemed to have played itself out…. Within a few years of the publication of The Eighth Day, many people assumed that Wilder had died. On the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, April 17, 1972, there was no public dinner, no congratulatory editorial in the New York Times, none of the ceremonial ritual that usually marks a milestone in the life of a distinguished man of letters. Wilder had apparently become a victim of the American notion that a man beyond his sixth decade ceases to exist. (pp. 257-58)
Theophilus North is an amiable and readable book, resembling in style the direct, intimate, somewhat old-fashioned rhetoric of The Eighth Day, but eliminating some of that novel's philosophic-speculative excesses and its eccentric structure. Wilder's tales in the later book are forthrightly and inventively set forth although a number of them border on the sentimental and are overingeniously carpentered. To say that Theophilus North is the least interesting example of Wilder's fiction is not to say that it is an utter or contemptible failure. The book enjoyed the respectful attention of large numbers of serious readers who found that it evoked successfully the 1920s and portrayed skillfully those Americans of a half century ago who were still able to remain innocently self-absorbed and unconsciously isolated in places like Newport, Rhode Island.
But despite Wilder's setting out to produce a modest and unpretentious entertainment, he inadvertently revealed some of his less appealing features. And this was something he had done before. In the George Brush of Heaven's My Destination, written when Wilder was in his middle thirties, he caricatured the priggish do-gooder that he had tended to be a decade earlier. The self-portrait, with borrowings from his father, his brother, and Gene Tunney, is ironical, comical, and savingly compassionate. The Wilder who in his midseventies wrote Theophilus North presented the same young man, not in caricature, but instead idealized and fantasized. Heaven's My Destination was also a strung-together account of a young man's adventures, but the stories were invested with Wilder's comic genius, which like Chaplin's had an underlying pathos. Theophilus North is basically a humorless book principally because the older Wilder had lost the capacity to view himself objectively. For although Theophilus is an intelligent, ingenious, and thoroughly decent sort of chap, he is tiresomely superior to everyone he encounters—the rich, the poor, the humble—with the predictable exception of a few women characters and an attractive Austrian baron whom Theophilus accepts as equals in taste, poise, and perception. (p. 265)
Wilder's partial isolation in his old age, though it was self-imposed was nevertheless inevitable. His writing after he passed the age of fifty, that is, following the publication of The Ides of March, had no further interest for the academic critics. His experimental techniques in drama had ended with The Skin of Our Teeth. Moreover, whatever he wrote after 1948 did not seem to come to grips with either the contemporary world or with present-day concerns. The America he had chosen to examine had a reality that existed only in the enclaves of memory, and in the memory of a smaller and smaller audience. The last quarter of his life found him chiefly represented by The Matchmaker (New York in the 1880s), The Eighth Day (the 1900s), Theophilus North (the 1920s). With most of his contemporaries dead, Wilder, in a sense, chose also not to survive except as an explorer of the past—but of a past that does not inform the future. There are some who believe that Wilder's artistic deficiencies stem from a weakness of nerve and that the failure of his life comes from too little commitment. Such speculations are unprovable and to this writer's mind unlikely. Wilder was shaped and straitjacketed by the traditions that bred him, and to the extent that was possible he fought loose from some of them. His control of the American language was in this century surpassed only by Henry James; his dramatic technique has been surpassed by no other American dramatist thus far. As for his life style, he had the compassion, the empathy, the kindness, and the gentleness to have formed an enduring and perfect human relationship—but one, unfortunately, that could have existed only in his imagination. (pp. 267-68)
Richard H. Goldstone, in his Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait (copyright © 1975 by Richard H. Goldstone; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Saturday Review Press/E. P. Dutton, 1975.
One might say that the passing of Wilder symbolizes the passing from American literature of a tradition that began with Emerson, continued brilliantly with Henry James, and found in the novelist of The Bridge of San Luis Rey and the playwright of Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth its most famous contemporary disciple. The tradition I refer to is the Puritan one—humanistic, moralistic, conservative…. (p. 122)
Robert Morris, "Humane, Moralistic, Conservative," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 31, 1976, pp. 122-23.