Gilbert A. Harrison: The Enthusiast: A life of Thornton Wilder; Ticknor & Fields; New Haven CT.
by Ronald Berman
Thornton Wilder was a hugely successful writer and evidently a very good man. As to the first, in 1927 The Bridge of San Luis Rey earned $20,000 in royalties, a figure which can be compared with the amount that The Great Gatsby, published two years earlier, generated in 1927: approximately $50.00. As to the second, Wilder has left enough evidence of his loyal friendships, his charities, and his public interest to convince pretty nearly anyone that, like his characters in The Skin of Our Teeth, he did a superior job of being alive. But this biography of Wilder is short of the kinds of interpretation that both the work and the life require. Although it has been praised to death, the book is a kind of respectable failure. It is good reading, but the author spends more time accurately describing social trivia than he does discussing Wilder, whom I admire.
Possibly the best thing to do is draw up a balance sheet. The debit side will begin by noting that Wilder—who was famously and unjustly accused of plagiarizing his material from James Joyce—was evidently a modern writer, even a modernist in some respects. But his work is not placed in the literature of the 1920’s and the 30’s. This is not to demand, along with the wretched Michael Gold, that literature have some—a particular—kind of social significance. But it is to ask that a biographer now writing after Richard Ellmann, Carlos Baker, and Justin Kaplan have some sense of all three elements of a writer’s biography: life, times, and text. The Enthusiast, which is closely based upon letters, carefully, excessively, de tails how Wilder spent the day. But the times are a blank. There is not even an attempt made to sketch in the way things were while Wilder was writing.
Next, the question of criticism. What can be made of a book that includes this observation about The Woman of Andros: ”We are meant to glimpse the cyclical character of experience, day following night, death following life, civilization succeeding civilization, the singularity of each person, place and time”? Now this is the language of piety, the kind of stuff we hear at graduations. It has no critical content—and seems to have no subject.
Third, the bulk of the book is about Wilder’s career as a playwright, and it does tell us a great deal about whom he met and how his work went. But it is all done in a vacuum: there is no differentiation between one theater and another; nothing about the context of the American stage when his work was being performed. On the other hand, we find that Wilder slept in a Murphy bed on one tour, and that he liked zwieback, peanut butter, and boiled eggs.
In short, the biography is not at all about ideas or issues. It is a faithful translation of letters and interviews and of what else we will never know, because, unlike other first or second-rate literary biographies now being produced, The Enthusiast does not name any of its sources or tell us which manuscripts are in which library. There is no chronology. The index is minimal. And there is no bibliography. This is then a pleasant, discursive book for the general reader and not much use for anyone else.
But there is a credit side. The book is flawed, but not a waste of time. First, the matter of Wilder’s homosexuality is tidily disposed of in a single chapter called “Men and Women.” While this means that the rest of the book is free of information, or of speculation, one can also say that the whole matter is handled with grace. Harrison is not a psycho-historian, so he spares us from knowing (or assuming) too much. Evidently Wilder liked women, loved some men, and was often more or less in neutral.
The book is chatty and well-written. It is almost masterful when it considers Wilder’s family, especially his father. In fact, it is worth the price of admission for those chapters that evoke a splendid picture of America before World War I. Here, at its beginning, the book is able to convey some sense of both life and times. Here is Amos Parker Wilder, U.S. consul general in Shanghai, writing to his children in Berkeley, California in 1910:
We did have a big tennis party yesterday, about 40. I led them up to the lemonade trough (of course we had tea, etc. also) and looked them right in the eye. Men love to be led, and they saw I was master of the situation and not ashamed; even the men of vine-kissed France and big-stomached Germans from the far off beer country put their snouts into the cooling beverage and pronounced it good. I do hope my boys and girls will grow up to be not timid, time-serving, mucilage-backboned men and women who are afraid that unless they do as everyone else does they will be out of fashion or laughed at—but big, gracious, jolly, sympathetic, commanding men and women who do not follow the fashion but make it—the whole man and woman touched with the quiet dignity that, in a way detaches him or her without breaking the bond of sympathy.
Amos Wilder—virtually the only character in this book who really comes across-was a magnificent example of Life With Father. He provided Thornton with a good deal of strength and with an unending series of ideas, values, and expectations to rebel against. He seemed to incarnate American values before World War I, from the rugged determination to go his own way, to the ideal shared by so many of being a “whole man,” to the almost incredible range of opinions registered on his scale of Christian optimism. The Wilder children, growing up in the 1920’s, exchanged letters with this postscript: “DO NOT SHOW FATHER”
It is too bad that the reader has to extrapolate all this from the text, to note his own discoveries of resemblance between Wilder and, say, Teddy Roosevelt, to think of his own reasons why abstinence and heroism and modesty and wholeness should, around 1910, have been such high bourgeois values.
The first part of the book is the only part in which some thesis seems about to be stated, in which some sense of the relationships of its subject’s life seem to have some form. After that, there is much information and very little interpretation. One thing that is very helpful, however, is the generous coverage of Wilder’s day-to-day career in the theater. He had to make a lot of changes in his text in order to accommodate critics, audience, and the fearsome Jed Harris, his producer-director. In fact, some of his changes were made for him (completely without consultation) by Harris. Theater historians will like those chapters which, although critically not very useful, provide details about casting, finances, performance, and the long combination of feuding and collaborating between Wilder and Harris.
There are some fabulous openers in The Enthusiast that are not followed up, though which would have been in a comprehensive biography:
Thornton often acknowledged his indebtedness to Freud, whom he met at the seventy-nine year-old’s villa on the outskirts of Vienna that fall of 1935.
Between 20-30 I read all the great books in the French language; between 30-40, all the German; now it’s been Spanish and Italian (the English went on all the time). Waves of excitement have gone over me continuously.
In a memoir, composer Mabel Daniels recounts that from the day he rather haltingly confessed that music was the real love of his life, she had known that Thornton was more than the ordinary amateur.
The Enthusiast shouldn’t be ignored, but one ought to be aware of its limits and shortcomings.
Dr. Berman is with the department of literature at the University of California, San Diego
Leave a Reply