Interviews

Thornton Wilder, The Art of Fiction No. 16

Interviewed by Richard H. Goldstone

A national newsmagazine not very long ago in its weekly cover story depicted Thornton Wilder as an amiable, eccentric itinerant schoolmaster who wrote occasional novels and plays, which won prizes and enjoyed enormous but somewhat unaccountable success. Wilder himself has said, “I’m almost sixty and look it. I’m the kind of man whom timid old ladies stop on the street to ask about the nearest subway station. News vendors in university towns call me ‘professor,’ and hotel clerks, ‘doctor’.”

Many of those who have viewed him in the classroom, on the speaker’s rostrum, on shipboard, or at gatherings, have been reminded of Theodore Roosevelt, who was at the top of his form when Wilder was an adolescent, and whom Wilder resembles in his driving energy, his enthusiasms, and his unbounded gregariousness.

It is unlikely that more than a few of his countless friends have seen Wilder in repose. Only then does one realize that he wears a mask. The mask is no figure of speech. It is his eyeglasses. As do most glasses, they partially conceal his eyes. They also distort his eyes so that they appear larger: friendly, benevolent, alive with curiosity and interest. Deliberately or not, he rarely removes his glasses in the presence of others. When he does remove them, unmasks himself, so to speak, the sight of his eyes is a shock. Unobscured, the eyes—cold light blue—reveal an intense severity and an almost forbidding intelligence. They do not call out a cheerful “Kinder! Kinder!”; rather, they specify: I am listening to what you are saying. Be serious. Be precise.

Seeing Wilder unmasked is a sobering and tonic experience. For his eyes dissipate the atmosphere of indiscriminate amiability and humbug that collects around celebrated and gifted men; the eyes remind you that you are confronted by one of the toughest and most complicated minds in contemporary America.

An apartment overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. During the conversations, which took place on the evening of December 14, 1956, and the following afternoon, Mr. Wilder could watch the river lights or the river barges as he meditated his replies.

 

INTERVIEWER

Sir, do you mind if we begin with a few irrelevant —and possibly impertinent—questions, just for a warm-up?

THORNTON WILDER

Perfectly all right. Ask whatever comes into your head.

INTERVIEWER

One of our really eminent critics, in writing about you recently, suggested that among the critics you had made no enemies. Is that a healthy situation for a serious writer?

WILDER

The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work.

INTERVIEWER

One of your most celebrated colleagues said recently that about all a writer really needs is a place to work, tobacco, some food, and good whiskey. Could you explain to the nondrinkers among us how liquor helps things along?

WILDER

Many writers have told me that they have built up mnemonic devices to start them off on each day’s writing task. Hemingway once told me he sharpened twenty pencils; Willa Cather that she read a passage from the Bible (not from piety, she was quick to add, but to get in touch with fine prose; she also regretted that she had formed this habit, for the prose rhythms of 1611 were not those she was in search of). My springboard has always been long walks. I drink a great deal, but I do not associate it with writing.

INTERVIEWER

Although military service is a proud tradition among contemporary American writers, I wonder if you would care to comment on the circumstance that you volunteered in 1942, despite the fact that you were a veteran of the First World War. That is to say, do you believe that a seasoned and mature artist is justified in abandoning what he is particularly fitted to do for patriotic motives?

WILDER

I guess everyone speaks for himself in such things. I felt very strongly about it. I was already a rather old man, was fit only for staff work, but I certainly did it with conviction. I have always felt that both enlistments were valuable for a number of reasons.

One of the dangers of the American artist is that he finds himself almost exclusively thrown in with persons more or less in the arts. He lives among them, eats among them, quarrels with them, marries them. I have long felt that portraits of the nonartist in American literature reflect a pattern, because the artist doesn’t really frequent. He portrays the man in the street as he remembers him from childhood, or as he copies him out of other books. So one of the benefits of military service, one of them, is being thrown into daily contact with nonartists, something a young American writer should consciously seek—his acquaintance should include also those who have read only Treasure Island and have forgotten that. Since 1800 many central figures in narratives have been, like their authors, artists or quasi artists. Can you name three heroes in earlier literature who partook of the artistic temperament?

INTERVIEWER

Did the young Thornton Wilder resemble George Brush, and in what ways?

WILDER

Very much so. I came from a very strict Calvinistic father, was brought up partly among the missionaries of China, and went to that splendid college at Oberlin at a time when the classrooms and student life carried a good deal of the pious didacticism that would now be called narrow Protestantism. And that book [Heaven’s My Destination] is, as it were, an effort to come to terms with those influences.

The comic spirit is given to us in order that we may analyze, weigh, and clarify things in us that nettle us, or that we are outgrowing, or trying to reshape. That is a very autobiographical book.

INTERVIEWER

Why have you generally avoided contemporary settings in your work?

WILDER

I think you would find that the work is a gradual drawing near to the America I know. I began with the purely fantastic twentieth-century Rome (I did not frequent such circles there); then Peru, then Hellenistic Greece. I began, first with Heaven’s My Destination, to approach the American scene. Already, in the one-act plays, I had become aware of how difficult it is to invest one’s contemporary world with the same kind of imaginative life one has extended to those removed in time and place. But I always feel that the progression is there and visible; I can be seen collecting the practice, the experience and courage, to present my own times.

INTERVIEWER

What is your feeling about “authenticity”? For example, you had never been in Peru when you wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

WILDER

The chief answer to that is that the journey of the imagination to a remote place is child’s play compared to a journey into another time. I’ve been often in New York, but it’s just as preposterous to write about the New York of 1812 as to write about the Incas.

INTERVIEWER

You have often been cited as a “stylist.” As a writer who is obviously concerned with tone and exactness of expression, do you find that the writing of fiction is a painful and exhausting process, or do you write easily, quickly, and joyously?

WILDER

Once you catch the idea for an extended narration—drama or novel—and if that idea is firmly within you, then the writing brings you perhaps not so much pleasure as a deep absorption. . . . You see, my wastepaper basket is filled with works that went a quarter through and which turned out to be among those things that failed to engross the whole of me. And then, for a while, there’s a very agonizing period of time in which I try to explore whether the work I’ve rejected cannot be reoriented in such a way as to absorb me. The decision to abandon it is hard.

INTERVIEWER

Do you do much rewriting?

WILDER

I forget which of the great sonneteers said: “One line in the fourteen comes from the ceiling; the others have to be adjusted around it.” Well, likewise there are passages in every novel whose first writing is pretty much the last. But it’s the joint and cement, between those spontaneous passages, that take a great deal of rewriting.

INTERVIEWER

I don’t know exactly how to put the next question, because I realize you have a lot of theories about narration, about how a thing should be told—theories all related to the decline of the novel, and so on. But I wonder if you would say something about the problem of giving a “history” or a summary of your life in relation to your development as a writer.

WILDER

Let’s try. The problem of telling you about my past life as a writer is like that of imaginative narration itself; it lies in the effort to employ the past tense in such a way that it does not rob those events of their character of having occurred in freedom. A great deal of writing and talking about the past is unacceptable. It freezes the historical in a determinism. Today’s writer smugly passes his last judgment and confers on existing attitudes the lifeless aspect of plaster-cast statues in a museum. He recounts the past as though the characters knew what was going to happen next.

INTERVIEWER

Well, to begin—do you feel that you were born in a place and at a time, and to a family all of which combined favorably to shape you for what you were to do?

WILDER

Comparisons of one’s lot with others’ teaches us nothing and enfeebles the will. Many born in an environment of poverty, disease, and stupidity, in an age of chaos, have put us in their debt. By the standards of many people, and by my own, these dispositions were favorable—but what are our judgments in such matters? Everyone is born with an array of handicaps—even Mozart, even Sophocles—and acquires new ones. In a famous passage, Shakespeare ruefully complains that he was not endowed with another writer’s “scope”! We are all equally distant from the sun, but we all have a share in it. The most valuable thing I inherited was a temperament that does not revolt against Necessity and that is constantly renewed in Hope. (I am alluding to Goethe’s great poem about the problem of each man’s “lot”—the “Orphische Urworte”.)

INTERVIEWER

Did you have a happy childhood?

WILDER

I think I did, but I also think that that’s a thing about which people tend to deceive themselves. Gertrude Stein once said, “Communists are people who fancied that they had an unhappy childhood.” (I think she meant that the kind of person who can persuade himself that the world would be completely happy if everyone denied himself a vast number of free decisions, is the same kind of person who could persuade himself that in early life he had been thwarted and denied all free decision.) I think of myself as having been—right up to and through my college years—a sort of sleepwalker. I was not a dreamer, but a muser and a self-amuser. I have never been without a whole repertory of absorbing hobbies, curiosities, inquiries, interests. Hence, my head has always seemed to me to be like a brightly lighted room, full of the most delightful objects, or perhaps I should say, filled with tables on which are set up the most engrossing games. I have never been a collector, but the resource that I am describing must be much like that of a collector busying himself with his coins or minerals. Yet collectors are apt to be avid and competitive, while I have no ambition and no competitive sense. Gertrude also said, with her wonderful yes-saying laugh, “Oh, I wish I were a miser; being a miser must be so occupying.” I have never been unoccupied. That’s as near as I can get to a statement about the happiness or unhappiness of my childhood. Yet I am convinced that, except in a few extraordinary cases, one form or another of an unhappy childhood is essential to the formation of exceptional gifts. Perhaps I should have been a better man if I had had an unequivocally unhappy childhood.

INTERVIEWER

Can you see—or analyze, perhaps—tendencies in your early years that led you into writing?

WILDER

I thought we were supposed to talk about the art of the novel. Is it all right to go on talking about myself this way?

INTERVIEWER

I feel that it’s all to the point.

WILDER

We often hear the phrase, “a winning child.” Winning children (who appear so guileless) are children who have discovered how effective charm and modesty and a delicately calculated spontaneity are in winning what they want. All children, emerging from the egocentric monsterhood of infancy— “Gimme! Gimme!” cries the Nero in the bassinet—are out to win their way—from their parents, playmates, from “life,” from all that is bewildering and inexplicable in themselves. They are also out to win some expression of themselves as individuals. Some are early marked to attempt it by assertion, by slam-bang methods; others, by a watchful docility; others by guile. The future author is one who discovers that language, the exploration and manipulation of the resources of language, will serve him in winning through to his way. This does not necessarily mean that he is highly articulate in persuading or cajoling or outsmarting his parents and companions, for this type of child is not usually of the “community” type—he is at one remove from the persons around him. (The future scientist is at eight removes.) Language for him is the instrument for digesting experience, for explaining himself to himself. Many great writers have been extraordinarily awkward in daily exchange, but the greatest give the impression that their style was nursed by the closest attention to colloquial speech.

Let me digress for a moment, probably you won’t want to use it. For a long time I tried to explain to myself the spell of Madame de Sévigné; she is not devastatingly witty nor wise. She is simply at one with French syntax. Phrase, sentence, and paragraph breathe this effortless at-homeness with how one sees, feels, and says a thing in the French language. What attentive ears little Marie de Rabutin-Chantal must have had! Greater writers than she had such an adjustment to colloquial speech—Montaigne, La Fontaine, Voltaire—but they had things to say: didactic matter. She had merely to exhibit the genius in the language. I have learned to watch the relation to language on the part of young ones—those community-directed toward persuasion, edification, instruction; and those engaged (“merely” engaged) in fixing some image of experience; and those others for whom language is nothing more than a practical convenience—“Oh, Mr. Wilder, tell me how I can get a wider vocabulary.”

INTERVIEWER

Well now, inasmuch as you have gone from storytelling to playwriting, would you say the same tendencies that produced the novelist produced the dramatist?

WILDER

I think so, but in stating them I find myself involved in a paradox. A dramatist is one who believes that the pure event, an action involving human beings, is more arresting than any comment that can be made upon it. On the stage it is always now: the personages are standing on that razor-edge, between the past and the future, which is the essential character of conscious being; the words are rising to their lips in immediate spontaneity. A novel is what took place; no self-effacement on the part of the narrator can hide the fact that we hear his voice recounting, recalling events that are past and over, and which he has selected—from uncountable others—to lay before us from his presiding intelligence. Even the most objective novels are cradled in the authors’ emotions and the authors’ assumptions about life and mind and the passions. Now the paradox lies not so much in the fact that you and I know that the dramatist equally has selected what he exhibits and what the characters will say—such an operation is inherent in any work of art—but that all the greatest dramatists, except the very greatest one, have precisely employed the stage to convey a moral or religious point of view concerning the action. The theater is supremely fitted to say: “Behold! These things are.” Yet most dramatists employ it to say: “This moral truth can be learned from beholding this action.”

The Greek tragic poets wrote for edification, admonition, and even for our political education. The comic tradition in the theater carries the intention of exposing folly and curbing excess. Only in Shakespeare are we free of hearing axes grind.

INTERVIEWER

How do you get around this difficulty?

WILDER

By what may be an impertinence on my part. By believing that the moralizing intention resided in the authors as a convention of their times—usually, a social convention so deeply buried in the author’s mode of thinking that it seemed to him to be inseparable from creation. I reverse a popular judgment: We say that Shaw wrote diverting plays to sugarcoat the pill of a social message. Of these other dramatists, I say they injected a didactic intention in order to justify to themselves and to their audiences the exhibition of pure experience.

INTERVIEWER

Is your implication, then, that drama should be art for art’s sake?

WILDER

Experience for experience’s sake—rather than for moral improvement’s sake. When we say that Vermeer’s Girl Making Lace is a work of art for art’s sake, we are not saying anything contemptuous about it. I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. This supremacy of the theater derives from the fact that it is always now on the stage. It is enough that generations have been riveted by the sight of Clytemnestra luring Agamemnon to the fatal bath, and Oedipus searching out the truth, which will ruin him; those circumambient tags about “Don’t get prideful” and “Don’t call anybody happy until he’s dead” are incidental concomitants.

INTERVIEWER

Is it your contention that there is no place in the theater for didactic intentions?

WILDER

The theater is so vast and fascinating a realm that there is room in it for preachers and moralists and pamphleteers. As to the highest function of the theater, I rest my case with Shakespeare—Twelfth Night as well as Macbeth.

INTERVIEWER

If you will forgive me, I’m afraid I’ve lost track of something we were talking about a while back—we were talking about the tendencies in your childhood that went into the formation of a dramatist.

WILDER

The point I’ve been leading up to is that a dramatist is one who, from his earliest years, has found that sheer gazing at the shocks and countershocks among people is quite sufficiently engrossing without having to encase them in comment. It’s a form of tact. It’s a lack of presumption. That’s why so many earnest people have been so exasperated by Shakespeare: They cannot isolate the passages wherein we hear him speaking in his own voice. Somewhere Shaw says that one page of Bunyan, “who plants his standard on the forefront of—I forget what—is worth a hundred by such shifting opalescent men.”

INTERVIEWER

Are we to infer from what you say that the drama ought to have no social function?

WILDER

Oh, yes—there are at least two. First, the presentation of what is, under the direction of those great hands, is important enough. We live in what is, but we find a thousand ways not to face it. Great theater strengthens our faculty to face it.

Secondly, to be present at any work of man-made order and harmony and intellectual power—Vermeer’s Lace Maker or a Haydn quartet or Twelfth Night—is to be confirmed and strengthened in our potentialities as man.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if you don’t hammer your point pretty hard because actually you have a considerable element of the didactic in you.

WILDER

Yes, of course. I’ve spent a large part of my life trying to sit on it, to keep it down. The pages and pages I’ve had to tear up! I think the struggle with it may have brought a certain kind of objectivity into my work. I’ve become accustomed to readers’ taking widely different views of the intentions in my books and plays. A good example is George Brush, whom we were talking about before. George, the hero of a novel of mine that I wrote when I was nearly forty, is an earnest, humorless, moralizing, preachifying, interfering product of Bible-belt evangelism. I received many letters from writers of the George Brush mentality angrily denouncing me for making fun of sacred things, and a letter from the Mother Superior of a convent in Ohio saying that she regarded the book as an allegory of the stages in the spiritual life.

Many thank me for the “comfort” they found in the last act of Our Town; others tell me that it is a desolating picture of our limitation to “realize” life—almost too sad to endure.

Many assured me that The Bridge of San Luis Rey was a satisfying demonstration that all the accidents of life were overseen and harmonized in providence; and a society of atheists in New York wrote me that it was the most artful exposure of shallow optimisms since Candide and asked me to address them.

A very intelligent woman to whom I offered the dedication of The Skin of Our Teeth refused it, saying that the play was so defeatist. (“Man goes stumbling, bumbling down the ages.”) The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden received its first performance, an admirable one, at the University of Chicago. Edna St. Vincent Millay happened to be in the audience. At the close of the play she congratulated me at having so well pictured that “detestable bossy kind of mother.”

Most writers firmly guide their readers to “what they should think” about the characters and events. If an author refrains from intruding his point of view, readers will be nettled, but will project into the text their own assumptions and turns of mind. If the work has vitality, it will, however slightly, alter those assumptions.

INTERVIEWER

So that you have not eliminated all didactic intentions from your work after all?

WILDER

I suspect that all writers have some didactic intention. That starts the motor. Or let us say: Many of the things we eat are cooked over a gas stove, but there is no taste of gas in the food.

INTERVIEWER

In one of your Harvard lectures you spoke of—I don’t remember the exact words—a prevailing hiatus between the highbrow and lowbrow reader. Do you think a work could appear at this time that would satisfy both the discriminating reader and the larger public?

WILDER

What we call a great age in literature is an age in which that is completely possible: The whole Athenian audience took part in the flowering of Greek tragedy and Greek comedy. And so in the age of the great Spaniards. So in the age of Elizabeth. We certainly are not, in any sense, in the flowering of a golden age now; and one of the unfortunate things about the situation is this great gulf. It would be a very wonderful thing if we could see more and more works that close that gulf between highbrows and lowbrows.

INTERVIEWER

Someone has said—one of your dramatist colleagues, I believe, I can’t remember which one—that a writer deals with only one or two ideas throughout his work. Would you say your work reflects those one or two ideas?

WILDER

Yes, I think so. I have become aware of it myself only recently. Those ideas seem to have prompted my work before I realized it. Now, at my age, I am amused by the circumstance that what is now conscious with me was for a long time latent. One of those ideas is this: an unresting preoccupation with the surprise of the gulf between each tiny occasion of the daily life and the vast stretches of time and place in which every individual plays his role. By that I mean the absurdity of any single person’s claim to the importance of his saying, “I love!” “I suffer!” when one thinks of the background of the billions who have lived and died, who are living and dying, and presumably will live and die.

This was particularly developed in me by the almost accidental chance that, having graduated from Yale in 1920, I was sent abroad to study archaeology at the American Academy in Rome. We even took field trips in those days and in a small way took part in diggings. Once you have swung a pickax that will reveal the curve of a street four thousand years covered over which was once an active, much-traveled highway, you are never quite the same again. You look at Times Square as a place about which you imagine someday scholars saying, “There appears to have been some kind of public center here.”

This preoccupation came out in my work before I realized it. Even Our Town, which I now see is filled with it, was not so consciously directed by me at the time. At first glance, the play appears to be practically a genre study of a village in New Hampshire. On second glance, it appears to be a meditation about the difficulty of, as the play says, “realizing life while you live it.” But buried back in the text, from the very commencement of the play, is a constant repetition of the words hundreds, thousands, millions. It’s as though the audience—no one has ever mentioned this to me, though—is looking at that town at ever greater distances through a telescope.

I’d like to cite some examples of this. Soon after the play begins, the Stage Manager calls upon the professor from the geology department of the state university, who says how many million years old the ground is they’re on. And the Stage Manager talks about putting some objects and reading matter into the cornerstone of a new bank and covering it with a preservative so that it can be read a thousand years from now. Or as minister presiding at the wedding, the Stage Manager muses to himself about all the marriages that have ever taken place—“millions of ’em, millions of ’em . . . Who set out to live two by two . . .” Finally, among the seated dead, one of the dead says, “My son was a sailor and used to sit on the porch. And he says the light from that star took millions of years to arrive.” There is still more of this. So that when finally the heartbreak of Emily’s unsuccessful return to life again occurs, it is against the background of the almost frightening range of these things.

Then The Skin of Our Teeth, which takes five thousand years to go by, is really a way of trying to make sense out of the multiplicity of the human race and its affections.

So that I see myself making an effort to find the dignity in the trivial of our daily life, against those preposterous stretches that seem to rob it of any such dignity, and the validity of each individual’s emotion.

INTERVIEWER

I feel that there is another important theme running through your work, which has to do with the nature of love. For example, there are a number of aphorisms in The Bridge of San Luis Rey that are often quoted and that relate to that theme. Do your views on the nature of love change in your later works?

WILDER

My ideas have not greatly changed; but those aphorisms in The Bridge represent only one side of them and are limited by their application to what is passing in that novel. In The Ides of March, my ideas are more illustrated than stated.

Love started out as a concomitant of reproduction; it is what makes new life and then shelters it. It is therefore an affirmation about existence and a belief in value. Tens of thousands of years have gone by; more complicated forms of society and of consciousness have arisen. Love acquired a wide variety of secondary expressions. It got mixed up with a power conflict between male and female; it got cut off from its primary intention and took its place among the refinements of psychic life, and in the cult of pleasure; it expanded beyond the relations of the couple and the family and reappeared as philanthropy; it attached itself to man’s ideas about the order of the universe and was attributed to the gods and God.

I always see beneath it, nevertheless, the urge that strives toward justifying life, harmonizing it—the source of energy on which life must draw in order to better itself. In The Ides of March I illustrate its educative power (Caesar toward Cleopatra and toward his wife; the actress toward Marc Antony) and its power to “crystallize” idealization in the lover (Catullus’s infatuation for the destructive “drowning” Clodia—he divines in her the great qualities she once possessed). This attitude has so much the character of self-evidence for me that I am unable to weigh or even hear any objections to it. I don’t know whether I am uttering an accepted platitude or a bit of naive nonsense.

INTERVIEWER

Your absorbing interest in James Joyce and Gertrude Stein is pretty well-known. I wonder if there are any other literary figures who are of particular interest to you.

WILDER

In present-day life?

INTERVIEWER

Well, past or present.

WILDER

I am always, as I said earlier, in the middle of a whole succession of very stormy admirations up and down literature. Every now and then, I lose one—very sad. Among contemporaries, I am deeply indebted to Ezra Pound and Mr. Eliot. In the past, I have these last few years worked a good deal with Lope de Vega, not in the sense of appraisal of his total work, but almost as a curious and very absorbing game—the pure technical business of dating his enormous output of plays. I could go on forever about these successive enthusiasms.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe that a serious young writer can write for television or the movies without endangering his gifts?

WILDER

Television and Hollywood are a part of show business. If that young writer is to be a dramatist, I believe that he’s tackling one of the most difficult of all métiers—far harder than the novel. All excellence is equally difficult, but, considering sheer métier, I would always advise any young writer for the theater to do everything—to adapt plays, to translate plays, to hang around theaters, to paint scenery, to become an actor, if possible. Writing for tv or radio or the movies is all part of it. There’s a bottomless pit in the acquisition of how to tell an imagined story to listeners and viewers.

INTERVIEWER

If that young writer has the problem of earning a livelihood, is advertising or journalism or teaching English a suitable vocation?

WILDER

I think all are unfavorable to the writer. If by day you handle the English language either in the conventional forms, which are journalism and advertising, or in the analysis, which is teaching English in school or college, you will have a double, a quadruple difficulty in finding your English language at night and on Sundays. It is proverbial that every newspaper reporter has a half-finished novel in his bureau drawer. Reporting—which can be admirable in itself—is poles apart from shaping concepts into imagined actions, and requires a totally different ordering of mind and language. When I had to earn my living for many years, I taught French. I should have taught mathematics. By teaching math or biology or physics, you come refreshed to writing.

INTERVIEWER

Mr. Wilder, why do you write?

WILDER

I think I write in order to discover on my shelf a new book that I would enjoy reading, or to see a new play that would engross me.

INTERVIEWER

Do your books and plays fulfill this expectation?

WILDER

No.

INTERVIEWER

They disappoint you?

WILDER

No, I do not repudiate them. I am merely answering your question—they do not fulfill that expectation. An author, unfortunately, can never experience the sensation of reading his own work as though it were a book he had never read. Yet with each new work that expectation is prompting me. That is why the first months of work on a new project are so delightful: You see the book already bound, or the play already produced, and you have the illusion that you will read or see it as though it were a work by another that will give you pleasure.

INTERVIEWER

Then all those other motivations to which other writers have confessed play no part in your impulse to write—sharing what experience has taught you, or justifying your life by making a thing that you hope to be good?

WILDER

Yes, I suppose they are present also, but I like to keep them below the level of consciousness. Not because they would seem pretentious, but because they might enter into the work as strain. Unfortunately, good things are not made by the resolve to make a good thing, but by the application to develop fitly the one specific idea or project that presents itself to you. I am always uncomfortable when, in “studio” conversation, I hear young artists talking about “truth” and “humanity” and “what is art,” and most happy when I hear them talking about pigments or the timbre of the flute in its lower range or the spelling of dialects or James’s “center of consciousness.”

INTERVIEWER

Is there some final statement you would wish to make about the novel?

WILDER

I’m afraid that I have made no contribution toward the intention of this series of conversations on the art of the novel. I think of myself as a fabulist, not a critic. I realize that every writer is necessarily a critic—that is, each sentence is a skeleton accompanied by enormous activity of rejection; and each selection is governed by general principles concerning truth, force, beauty, and so on. But, as I have just suggested, I believe that the practice of writing consists in more and more relegating all that schematic operation to the subconscious. The critic that is in every fabulist is like the iceberg—nine-tenths of him is under water. Yeats warned against probing into how and why one writes; he called it “muddying the spring.” He quoted Browning’s lines:

Where the apple reddens never pry—

Lest we lose our Edens, Eve and I.

I have long kept a journal to which I consign meditations about “the omniscience of the novelist” and thoughts about how time can be expressed in narration, and so on. But I never reread those entries. They are like the brief canters that a man would take on his horse during the days preceding a race. They inform the buried critic that I know he’s there, that I hope he’s constantly at work clarifying his system of principles, helping me when I’m not aware of it, and that I also hope he will not intrude on the day of the race.

Gertrude Stein once said laughingly that writing is merely “telling what you know.” Well, that telling is as difficult an exercise in technique as it is in honesty, but it should emerge as immediately, as spontaneously, as undeliberately as possible.

Author photograph by A. Tappan Wilder