Thursday, November 7, 2013

* Thornton Wilder: An "insufficient sense of the tragic"

"He was the most nervous man I ever met."

"I think it's because in Wilder 
there is an insufficient sense of the tragic."
Arthur Miller

A Reflection from Our Town
Paul Keane

I didn’t  know Thornton Wilder.

But I grew up in his town, Hamden, Connecticut ------ actually Mt. Carmel.

I spent an hour with him at the Old Heidelberg in New Haven listening to him hold forth as he ate a mountain of fried seafood and drank  2 Heinekins, 2 double martinis, and 2 double  scotches, the year before he died.

I exchanged a couple of letters with him: One pretty rude one in which he said “until your Commission finds a more laudable project (also excluding a horse trough and a bird bath) I do NOT wish to be represented on your fund raising brochure.”

I had been on the Mayor of Hamden’s Bicentennial Commission  where Thornton lived, and had requested of the famous author  that he allow us to use his photo to raise funds for our Bicentennial project: A museum for Hamden.

His hilariously rude reply made it clear; a museum for Hamden was a waste of time and resources as far as he was concerned.

Ironically, when he died later that year (1975) that worthless project became not a museum for Hamden  but “restoration of Thornton Wilder’s study" as an exhibit in Hamden’s Miller Library. 

Long story. Too long for here.

 See link.

After Thornton Wilder died his sister, Isabel, gave his desk and memorabilia to our Commission and ten years later it became a display in our town.

In the process, Miss Wilder and I became friends. When she died in 1995 at age 95,  she had become a second mother to me after my own mother’s death. 

As Robert Gottlieb asks in a January, 2013  New Yorker article ,
”What is left of Thornton Wilder?"

Surely Our Town which Gottlieb seems to pan as going “on and on and on and on” as the most performed play in the American theatre;  and,  The Skin of Our Teeth which may come to be seen as prophesying the Global Warming debate, with a glacier heading toward the Excelsior New Jersey home of George Antrobus preceded by  apocalyptic hurricanes.

        The question of Thornton Wilder's sexuality seems to be what's left of Wilder ---- both for Gottlieb’s New Yorker review and for Blake Bailey's New York Times review disemboweling Penelope Niven’s biography Thornton [Niven] Wilder: A Life.

What a strange shift of attention for the literati in only my short lifetime. 

As one of Wilder’s eulogizers at the 1975 Yale Battell Chapel memorial service observed, during Thornton Wilder’s career, fiction moved “from the bedroom to the bathroom and back” ----except for Thornton Wilder.

And so too with the biographies.

Aye, and there’s the rub: "an insufficient sense of the tragic" , as Arthur Miller put it when I asked him at a Yale talk in 1979,
 “Why doesn’t the work of Thornton Wilder appear on college reading lists?”

"I think it's because in Wilder there is an insufficient sense of the tragic."

I recall at the end of the ten years it took from Wilder’s death in 1975 to the actual display of his desk and memorabilia in Hamden’s library in 1985, I was having trouble getting the Town to complete the long delayed project, so I invited Hamden’s richest citizen, G. Harold Welch, to join our Commission.  

Welch knew Wilder and Miss Wilder. He owned a big chunk of the center of New Haven; the block on which The Edward Malley Co. stood, across from the New Haven Green and Yale,  and the Century Building  at the edge of the Yale campus. He was also President and principal in New Haven's The Second National Bank.

His presence on the Commission would light a fire under Hamden’s mayor and get the Wilder project finally completed after ten-years of delay.

Mr. Welch invited me to lunch at the Old Heidelberg to discuss the project.  During lunch he asked if I had ever met Thornton Wilder and I told him I had only met him once, ten feet from the very table at which we now sat.

“He was the most nervous man I ever met”, Welch offered as a non-sequitur, as if I was supposed to find that remarkable.

And perhaps in that observation lies the explanation for both Ms. Niven’s aversion to details of Wilder’s sex life and to Wilder’s insufficient sense of the tragic. 

The  man was tormented by fear of impropriety, despite his protestations that American theatre ought to be about “window breaking ideas.”

It’s always safe to throw bricks through other folks’ windows by proxy as a dramatist, especially if it assuages your own fear they might throw them through yours if they found your soul unacceptable--- and especially when you hale from a town where your father's Yale connections are legendary.

Gottlieb quotes Wilder’s one documented male lover, Samuel Steward, as saying “Thornton was afraid of sex.”

It’s more  likely that that most nervous man, Thornton Wilder, was afraid of what his particular sexual  preference could do to his reputation, locally and nationally : recall that when he died in December 1975, homosexual intercourse was still illegal in the United States; Lawrence v. Texas  rendering state laws which outlawed  sodomy Unconstitutional, would not be decided by the  Supreme Court until 2003, almost thirty years after Thornton was safely in the earth at Mt. Carmel Burying Ground which has no windows to break. 

Wilder’s writing and his life both are insufficiently tragic. He carefully ensured that.

He crafted the persona ---as the title of Gilbert Harrison’s biography of Wilder claims --- of  'the enthusiast.'  (Ticknor and Fields, 1983: The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder)

One could hardly say that of Oedipus, or Willy Loman for that matter: No enthusiasts they.

Or even that other enthusiast, and homosexual writer, Walt Whitman. Wilder’s work  didn’t sing the body electric.  The body  for Wilder doesn’t exist, even when it kills Emily in childbirth.  

His literary achievement, not his body,  sings itself electric, avoiding complications of the flesh ---- just as the enthusiast did in his own, proxy, life.

What then is left of Thornton Wilder ?

His closet:  A stage-manager's closet ----- full of the costumes which sang his persona electric.

Paul D. Keane
M.A., M.Div., M.Ed.

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