Issue 15, Winter 1956
A national newsmagazine not very long ago in its weekly cover story limned 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: newsvendors 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 do you 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. The glasses 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. They are the eyes of a man whose novels have enjoyed the attention and aroused the sensibilities, for thirty years now, of the whole gamut of the reading public in America and Europe. (In Germany he is generally addressed as Verehrter Dichter.) His plays have so appreciably affected American theater tradition that few serious dramatists have ignored the fact of their existence.
Why the mask? Ultimately, that must remain Thornton Wilder's secret, as it remains the secret of every artist. A part of the explanation, however, may lie in the fact, as this interview will suggest, that not the least of his virtues is his admirable tact, his consideration for the feelings of others.
(Scene: An apartment overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. During the conversations, which took place on the evening of December fourteenth and on the following afternoon, Mr. Wilder could watch the river lights or the river barges as he contemplated his replies.)
Sir, do you mind if we begin with a few irrelevant —and possibly impertinent—questions, just for a warm-up?
Perfectly all right. Ask whatever comes into your head . . .
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?
(After laughing somewhat ironically) 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.
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?
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 spring-board has always been long walks. I drink a great deal, but I do not associate it with writing.
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?
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 non-artist in American literature reflect a pattern, because the artists don’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 non-artists, 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?
Did the young Thornton Wilder resemble George Brush, and in what ways?
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 that pious didacticism which 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 which nettle us, or which we are outgrowing, or trying to reshape. That is a very autobiographical book.
Why have you generally avoided contemporary settings in your work?
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.
What is your feeling about “authenticity”? For example, you had never been in Peru when you wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
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.
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?
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. . . . (Mr. Wilder reflected here for a moment and then continued.) You see, my waste-paper 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 re-oriented in such a way as to absorb me. The decision to abandon it is hard.