Reviews — From the January 2013 issue

The Chameleon

Thornton Wilder’s multifaceted life and work

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Discussed in this essay:

Thornton Wilder: A Life, by Penelope Niven. HarperCollins. 848 pages. $39.99.

Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, edited by J. D. McClatchy. The Library of America. 888 pages. $40.

Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948, edited by J. D. McClatchy. The Library of America. 731 pages. $35.

Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings, edited by J. D. McClatchy. The Library of America. 864 pages. $35.

Poor Thornton Wilder! He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize three times, produced not one but two high school classics — the short novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) and the play Our Town (1938) — and essentially wrote the book for the phenomenally popular Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! Most of his seven novels became bestsellers, as well as selections of the Book of the Month Club. Throughout his career, Wilder served as U.S. literary ambassador to the world, going on goodwill missions to South America, attending conferences in Europe, and appearing on the cover of Time magazine with the American flag in the background.

All of these were, of course, terrible career moves. Even before Wilder’s death in 1975 at the age of seventy-eight, he had come to be widely, if wrongly, perceived as the gray-flanneled Rotarian of American letters, at once middlebrow, patriotic, and — pick one — sentimental or sententious. That his work repeatedly obsessed over the family and family life didn’t help. Out of context, even his most-quoted sentence — from the close of The Bridge of San Luis Rey — sounds as hokey as a Hallmark card: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Alas, the strikes against Wilder don’t stop there. He remained unmarried, enjoyed the company of elderly ladies, liked to pal around with handsome young men, and seems to have been either that old-fashioned thing, a confirmed bachelor, or that politically incorrect thing, a closeted homosexual. Whichever the case, Wilder hardly lived up to his last name. Worst of all, he was your father’s kind of writer — successful.

As Penelope Niven demonstrates in her capacious and authoritative Thornton Wilder: A Life, Wilder was in fact among the most cosmopolitan of men, a writer who never repeated himself, a fastidious stylist with a flair for every kind of comedy, from the most ironic to the most farcical, a major interpreter of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, fluent in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and a guy who could hold his liquor at least as well as his friends Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Just as nearly all of Wilder’s novels remain fresh, readable, and remarkably difficult to categorize, so some of his plays, such as the famous The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) and The Long Christmas Dinner (1931), could almost be the work of a funnier Brecht, a more loquacious Beckett.

It may further surprise readers to learn that Wilder met, and was esteemed by, a greater number of eminences than that tuft hunter Truman Capote could even dream of. Wilder chatted with Sigmund Freud, received fan mail from Albert Einstein and T. E. Lawrence, counted heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney a close friend, worked harmoniously with Alfred Hitchcock on the script for Shadow of a Doubt (1943), discussed existentialism with Sartre, and consorted with such movie stars as Montgomery Clift and Tallulah Bankhead. In the 1930s he tipped that era’s literary kingpin, Alexander Woollcott, to assist a promising eighteen-year-old actor named Orson Welles. In the late 1950s, he suggested that a young poet named Edward Albee should try his hand at plays.

Wilder’s affability and even temper, steady application to his craft, and unwavering devotion to his family can seem unromantic, almost insipid. But he was, in many ways, a European-style intellectual, his favorite writers ranging from Madame de Sévigné and Goethe to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. At the same time, he was a consummate American theater professional, even playing the Stage Manager in innumerable performances of Our Town. And despite the Pulitzers, Broadway hits, and celebrity friends, Wilder never acted the prima donna. He didn’t fuss or go in for star turns; he simply got on with his work.

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is the author, most recently, of Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt) and On Conan Doyle (Princeton University Press).

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