Close Reading — December 26, 2012, 10:00 am

The Worldly Prose of Thornton Wilder

How Wilder evokes the music of our lives

They longed to see one another again, but it would have been impossible. They dreamed of one of those long conversations that one never has on earth, but which one projects so easily at midnight, alone and wise; words are not rich enough nor kisses sufficiently compelling to repair all our havoc. — Thornton Wilder, The Cabala

Portrait of Thornton Wilder, as Mr. Antrobus in “The Skin of Your Teeth.” Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, courtesy the Library of Congress, Van Vechten collection

When I began to read Thornton Wilder’s fiction, I was immediately taken with the dry, sad comedy of his prose. His first novel, The Cabala, is packed with aphorisms, sardonic observations, and the kind of subtle wit we usually associate with the English comic fiction of the 1920s, in particular with such books as Ronald Firbank’s Vainglory, Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, and Evelyn Waugh’s  Decline and Fall, as well as that slightly earlier model and masterpiece, Norman Douglas’s South Wind.

Among the Wilder works  I cite in my essay in the January issue of Harper’s, The Cabala, in particular, deserves to be better known, in part for its deliciously worldly prose. The book, in which a young American observes the love lives and daydreams of a circle of decadent and religious cosmopolitans in Rome, displays a slightly brittle, polished French manner—perhaps overpolished and even bookish at times.  Yet the precisely engineered syntax of its sentences, combined with its striking similes and elegant diction, contrive to make it quite palatable:           

We pursued the Via Po for a mile or two and alighted at the ugliest of its houses, an example of that modern German architecture that has done so much for factories.

Nature had decided to torment this woman by causing her to fall in love (that succession of febrile interviews, searches, feints at indifference, nightlong solitary monologues, ridiculous visions of remote happiness) with the very type of youth that could not be attracted by her.

I returned late to my rooms through the deserted streets — at the hour when the parricide feels a cat purring against his feet in the darkness.

That first sentence neatly holds back its punchline for its final word, while the second traces, through its diction and sibilant alliterations, the sorrowful course of our unreciprocated infatuations. As for the last quotation, I’ve sometimes wondered whether Orson Welles — whose early career Thornton Wilder helped along — remembered that sentence and suggested it for the famous scene in The Third Man when the cat reveals Harry Lime standing in the darkened doorway.

Sometimes, as in the following passage, Wilder aims to compose a virtual prose aria. A handsome young adolescent named Marcantonio is initiated into sex by some Brazilian girls at Lake Como. Disillusionment ensues:

Suddenly his eyes had been opened to a world he had not dreamed of. So it was true that men and women were never really engaged in what they appeared to be doing, but lived in a world of secret invitations, signals and escapes! Now he understood the raised eyebrows of waitresses and the brush of the usher’s hand as she unlocks the loge. It is not an accident that the wind draws the great lady’s scarf across your face as you emerge from the door of the hotel. Your mother’s friends happen to be passing in the corridor outside the drawing-room, but not by chance. Now he discovered that all women were devils, but foolish ones, and that he had entered into the true and only satisfactory activity in living — the pursuit of them. One minute he was exclaiming at the easiness of it; the next he described its difficulties and subtlety. Now he sang the uniformity of their weakness and now the endless variety of their temperaments. Next he boasted of his utter indifference and his superiority to them; he knew their tears but he did not believe they really suffered. He doubted whether they had souls.

What I love about this paragraph is Marcantonio’s sudden existential realization that nothing is as it seems, that the surface manners and relations of men and women are just trumpery, and genteel society largely a façade.  Sex — those “secret invitations, signals and escapes” — pervades and undermines human intercourse. The world is ultimately but a stage, and the best players are all students of Erving Goffman, the sociologist who opened our eyes to the subtleties of “relations in public.” Women, in particular, are reduced — in Marcantonio’s adolescent view — to sexual predators. All this Wilder sets forth with a sorrowful zest, rising to the remarkable last sentence. Marcantonio, it almost goes without saying, comes to a tragic end.

Throughout his work — whether in fiction or drama, letters or essays — Wilder showed he could write every kind of prose, from the elevated and philosophical (The Woman of Andros) to the down-home and vulgar (Heaven’s My Destination). While I’ve emphasized here what one might call Wilder’s early “European” manner, I can’t forbear transcribing a passage from Heaven’s My Destination in which Wilder blends the Homeric catalogue with the open-shirted, all-American exuberance of Walt Whitman. His hayseed Don Quixote, the textbook salesman George Brush, begins his annual road trip to the institutions of higher learning in the American Southwest:

On being discharged from the hospital Brush set out again on that long swing of the pendulum between Kansas City and Abilene, Texas, that was his work. At Abilene he waited his turn in the halls of Simmons University, McMurray College, and Abilene Christian College. He visited Austin College at Sherman, Baylor College at Belton, and Baylor University at Waco. He visited Daniel Baker College and Howard Payne College at Brownwood; he visited the Texas Teachers College at Denton, Rice Institute at Houston, Southwestern University at Georgetown, and Trinity University at Waxahachie. He looked in at Delhart and Amarillo. He went down to San Antonio to see Our Lady of the Lake and to Austin to place an algebra at St. Edward’s University. Returning through Oklahoma, he visited the state university at Norman, the Baptist University at Shawnee, the college at Chickasha, the Agricultural and Mechanical College at Stillwater. He digressed into Louisiana and called at Pineville and Ruston; he spent a solitary Christmas in Baton Rouge. Arkansas tempted him to Arkadelphia and Clarksville and Onachita . . .

This is show-offy, yes, but marvelous. Through his cadences, supported by occasional alliteration and the sheer uniqueness of the place names, Wilder creates a sense of epic timelessness.  To make a list like this read like a poem is no mean achievement.

In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder reminds us that style should serve not only readers, but also a particular vision of existence.  The Marquesa’s letters, he writes, were admired for their exquisite prose, such that her son-in-law “thought that when he had enjoyed the style he had extracted all their richness and intention, missing (as most readers do) the whole purpose of literature, which is the notation of the heart.” In his own books Thornton Wilder’s own style may vary, but it always evokes the still, sad music of our lives.

Share
Single Page

More from Michael Dirda:

From the January 2013 issue

The Chameleon

Thornton Wilder’s multifaceted life and work

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Chances that a gynecologist in Italy refuses to perform abortions for religious reasons:

7 in 10

A newly discovered microsnail can easily pass through the eye of a needle.

Moore’s wife published a letter of support signed by more than 50 pastors, and four of those pastors said they either had never seen the letter or had seen it before Moore was accused of sexual assault and asked to have their names removed.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today