Saturday, January 21, 2012

* Thornton Wilder and The Magical Land of the Quinnipiac

Thornton Wilder, 
playing the Stage Manager in his 
Our Town.

Above and Typed Below: 
Thornton Wilder's response 
to Donald Hall's poem  
The Sleeping Giant: A hill in Hamden, Connecticut.  
Mr. Wilder and Donald Hall lived in Hamden
(actually, Mt. Carmel, Centerville, and Hamden), 
where I was born and raised. 

Apparently I like the poem better 
than Mr. Wilder does.

Poet Donald Hall, 
native of Centerville, Conn.,
 is honored by the Hon. Scott D. Jackson, 
 Mayor of Hamden ,Conn., 2011, 
a town which decades ago gobbled up the villagette Centerville, 
and erased its name.

                     "Better" Poems?

In  1974, when I was thirty, I was sitting in New Haven’s Olde Heidelberg one night, with a friend, and I said,   "They say Thornton Wilder frequents this place, but I’ve never seen him.”

The next moment, as if summoned by a genie, Thornton Wilder, portly septuagenarian,  wearing a trench-coat, with newspaper in hand, bustled through the door and shot toward the circular booth in the corner by the bar immediately under one of the sidewalk windows.  A waitress later told me that Wilder would pace up and down outside that window until that booth was empty and then make a bee-line for it. It was "Thornton Wilder's booth", she declared.

( If you want to read about my encounter and the beginning of a 20-year friendship with his sister, Miss Isabel Wilder,  click here.)  

Suffice it to say, before we knew what had happened we were at Thornton Wilder's table chatting away, a bit awe-struck, while he ate dinner.

My agenda here is not to rehearse that encounter; it is to point out the difference between childhood and adulthood in appreciation of a poem.  

Thornton Wilder lived on Deepwood Drive in Hamden, Connecticut for fifty years, in "the house The Bridge built," the home he built with the profits from his first literary success The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

The Wilder home  Hamden. Conn., 
50 Deepwood Drive,
"The house The Bridge built."

 Hamden is the town contiguous with New Haven, connected by Whitney Avenue and leading to villages (or villagettes) Centerville and Mt. Carmel, the latter my birthplace and site of  the Sleeping Giant,

The Sleeping Giant is a mountain which Quinnipiac Indians thought was an actual slumbering titan  who  awakened, arose, and walked about on days when the fog made him disappear from their vantage point on East Rock in New Haven.

I was raised at the foot of the Sleeping Giant, Mt. Carmel, Connecticut.  The poet, Donald Hall was raised in Centerville, one villagette farther away from the Giant, but Hamdenite Thornton Wilder had NOT been raised in the land of the Sleeping Giant at all ------except metaphorically, since he was raised in China for part of his childhood, a formerly fabled economic 'sleeping giant'.

This is my circuitous way of saying that  I sent Mr. Wilder a copy of Donald Hall’s poem entitled The Sleeping Giant after our meeting at the Olde Heidelberg.

He didn’t like it (see above and below).

Sanibel, Fla. Jan. 30, 1975

Dear Mr.Keane:

Thanks for your note 
with Donald Hall's poem.
I met Mr. Hall over 20 
years ago in Cambridge and I 
think I remember his saying
he was brought up in 
Mt. Carmel. He has written
many better poems than
that one.

Thanks again,


Thornton Wilder

But then, he never grew up in the magical land of the Quinnipiac.

I did.

And, so did Donald Hall, now 83, who wrote of Hamden in his New Yorker article "Out My Window"  this week.  (Jan. 23, 2012, p. 40)

Our Giant walked.

Thornton's didn't.

My  Mount Carmel birthplace, 
43 Norwood Avenue, 
with the magical hills 
leading up to the Giant
 in the background.


The Sleeping Giant

      A hill in Hamden, Connecticut

Donald Hall

The whole day long under the walking sun
That poised an eye on me from its high floor,
Holding my toy beside the clapboard house
I looked at him, the summer I was four.

I was afraid the waking arm would break
From the loose earth and rub against his eyes
A fist of trees, and the whole country tremble
In the exultant labor of his rise;

Then he with giant steps in the small streets
Would stagger, cutting off the sky, to seize
The roofs from house and home because we had
Covered his shape with dirt and planted trees;

And then kneel down and rip with fingernails
A trench to pour the enemy Atlantic
Into our basin, and the water rush,
With streets full and all the voices frantic.

That was the summer I expected him.
Later the high and watchful sun instead
Waked low behind the house, and school began,
And winter pulled a sheet over his head.

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