Thornton Wilder, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and scion of the American cultural scene for half a century, is curiously both omnipresent and absent in our literary history. His 1938 "Our Town" is inescapable, produced hundreds of times a year by amateurs and professionals alike (including a recent run on Broadway with Paul Newman). Yet his novels, seven erudite and elegantly written tales, have all but disappeared. One can find "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" at most decent bookstores. For most everything else, it's off to the secondhand shops.
That will change. When Wilder died in 1975, his literary estate was managed with input from his elderly sister and with the guidance of his long-standing dramatic and literary agents; it was tended with a certain patrician neglect. It is now in the hands of his nephew Tappan Wilder, who has thrown open the doors to his uncle's legacy, making new material accessible to scholars and encouraging the republication of his fiction. Beginning in March, novels like the 1973 "Theophilus North" will come back into print in new editions by Perennial Classics. Prominent writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, John Guare and John Updike, will contribute introductions to the new series. An edition of Wilder's voluminous correspondence is in the works, as well as a new biography. Documentaries and television adaptations are also planned.
And then there are efforts like Arena Stage's new "Theophilus North," the first stage adaptation (by playwright Matthew Burnett) of Wilder's last novel. Critics have not been enthusiastic, calling it saccharine and static. But if one wanted to trace the decline of Wilder's reputation as a serious author, one could look no further than the strains and stress put on "Theophilus North" in the process of adapting it for the stage.
In both his first and last novels, Wilder explored a basic premise of character and storytelling that he would return to several times: A young man, fresh to the world and loaded with charm and curiosity, finds himself bound up in the lives of others. In his first novel, "The Cabala" (1926), it is a world of decadent Italian aristocrats plotting the return of the divine right of kings; in "Theophilus North" (set in Newport, R.I., the same year that Wilder published "The Cabala"), it is a world of mostly benign American aristocrats, victims of neurosis and boredom. And the narrator has changed as well. In "The Cabala" he was wide-eyed, a little callow and voyeuristically detached. In the final novel, he emerges with a striking self-confidence and humility, almost faultless in his duties as priest and psychiatrist to the people around him. His empathy and wisdom, critics have noted, are not quite believable in a character who is barely 30 years old.
Throughout his career Wilder explored the idea of goodness -- not the simple goodness of the stock literary grandmother or kindly servant, but a deeply wise, intellectual goodness. The form of his last novel is a string of small miracles, and, perhaps, is meant to leave the reader just a bit incredulous.
Few writers succeed in making decency interesting: Turgenev could, but it often eluded Dostoevski. In American fiction, perhaps only Willa Cather has done it consistently well. Many writers, especially in the past century, weren't particularly interested in decency at all. Saints are built up to be debunked.
"I call it the Mary Poppins syndrome," says Burnett, who was aware of how easy it would be for Wilder's hero to become preachy or cloying onstage. "You have to find the weak link in the character, the flaw, and make it as big and as interesting as you can."
In the case of "Theophilus North," in the novel and (unfortunately) to a lesser extent in the new play, the flaw is a kind of metaphysical detachment from the world (and sexual love) that may have been the safety mechanism of a deeply closeted man (writing in a deeply homophobic world). Wilder's fiction exudes a lonely compassion for the mass of humanity, and a depth of understanding about love that is surprising given how assiduously the author seemed to avoid romance himself. And so many of his male characters are always just passing through, getting the lay of the land, making themselves indispensable, then moving on.
If Wilder's novels are fundamentally peripatetic, about people wandering through the world, his plays are rooted in imaginary communities. They were written for a wider audience and though innovative in their day, they are now often lumped in with a treacly Americana, alongside the worst of Norman Rockwell and Aaron Copland. To borrow Dwight Macdonald's damning formula, they are "midcult."
"They can leave a claustrophobic impression," says Jackson R. Bryer, a professor of English at the University of Maryland, and co-editor of the upcoming edition of Wilder's letters. "They don't often indict America or the middle class; they are more about the cycles, rather than the pathologies, of life."
One's impression of claustrophobia is often directly proportionate to the familiarity of the setting. Americans who can come to "Our Town" without prejudice against its homegrown nostalgia are often pleasantly surprised. European playwrights, even trenchantly modernist authors like Friedrich Durrenmatt, Bryer points out, have long admired Wilder's theater.
Still, it was the social claustrophobia that critics pointed to when assessing the new stage version of "Theophilus North." It is a world of WASPs and money and privilege; one critic compared it to a gated community. Even the geniality of Wilder's hero rankled. Part of the problem is that the book, which is ambling and episodic, had to be pared down, and Burnett chose to focus on four episodes involving mostly the spoiled wealthy. The original novel, however, cuts across class, and Wilder's other novels deal (albeit glancingly) with race and religious difference as well. Almost any novel, converted to a film or play, will lose something of its linguistic nuance and complexity; the loss in this case was to the basic voice of the book, which has become more "theatrical" and less personal: The humor is broader, the expression more bright and cloying. The Theophilus North of the novel talks to the reader as an intelligent equal; the Theophilus North of the play hectors them with charm and smothering demands to be loved.
Wilder's novels, on the other hand, are quiet and open and they sprawl magnificently. In the 1935 "Heaven's My Destination" (to be reissued this summer), Wilder wrote a picaresque sendup of his young-man-meets-world theme. His George Brush is a saintly Babbitt and an American Don Quixote, a little dull and daft, but determined to sell the Good News of God no matter how few people are buying. He breaks Jim Crow laws to show his contempt for segregation; he accepts the otherness of the world with a missionary's patience. He loses his faith and gets it back again. And in Wilder's penultimate novel, "The Eighth Day" (1967), the author created a picture of small-town life as bleak and maddening as "Our Town" is affirmative.
" 'Our Town' is a paean to the American middle class," says Tappan Wilder, who acknowledges the distorting effect its popularity has had on Wilder's reputation, yet stands behind its power as theater. "The Russians hated it; they closed it down after the war" when it was produced in East Germany.
Wilder's legacy, according to his nephew, may be more deeply appreciated outside this country than it is here. In this country, his popularity has been held against him ("the Wilder family always had trouble with the New York intellectuals," says Tappan); and as the novels disappeared from print, so did much of Wilder's best work. Worse, the stewards of his work have been actors and directors. Novels, if they're in print, of course, require no intervention from interpreters and admit a more private relation to the author.
"Theater people just don't know his fiction," says Wilder.
Nor do many people know his translations, or journals, or letters or librettos. The journals reveal a vastness of intellect that even the novels, with their references to obscure composers, philosophers, Freud and theology, can't contain. Wilder was preoccupied with the mechanics of writing. He charted the progress of dozens of short plays (sometimes only a few pages long), which he wrote the way some writers write short stories, to explore new and experimental possibilities of form. He took up an idea a day, grappling with it, forcing and prodding its possibilities. He kept up with new writers and reexamined old ones. The monklike writer whose fiction seems, to a contemporary reader, mutedly homoerotic could write in his journals about homosexual writers like Andre Gide and Jean Genet with an open mind; he didn't love their work, but he wasn't prudish about it either.
Tappan Wilder doesn't have any conclusions about Wilder's sexual life, accepting the likelihood that he was gay but also the lack of evidence one way or another. According to Bryer, the letters contain no solid evidence either.
"Whatever he was, he worked it out extremely well," says Wilder. But it is not an irrelevant detail. Wilder's sexuality -- whatever it was -- gave him an outsider's perspective even as he became a quintessentially Establishment writer.
And in a way that is difficult to define, his sexuality seems tied directly to his career-long concern with what it meant to be a decent person. In "The Cabala," written when Wilder was in his twenties, the narrator is asked to befriend a teenage boy who has shown himself too promiscuously interested in women for his mother's liking. The narrator accepts the challenge, insinuates himself into the boy's life and esteem, and then berates him.
"I became possessed with the wine of the Puritans, and alternating the vocabulary of the Pentateuch with that of psychiatry I showed him where his mind was already slipping," he writes. The boy, who has been sleeping with his sister, is chastened and broken, and commits suicide.
In his last novel, Theophilus North befriends another teenage boy, who is suffering not from too much sex but from crippling sexual inhibition. And the results are entirely different. The boy is liberated from his fears and he flourishes.
These kinds of things aren't common in Wilder's theater, and the inherent danger in the motif -- the intimacy that makes teacher-student relationships inherently fraught -- gives these scenes a strange and haunting power. But as bookends to Wilder's life as a novelist they also suggest a personal trajectory, a pilgrim's progress in the understanding of friendship and sexuality, from a youth in which that combination was dangerous to an old age when the two could be accepted and enjoyed without fear.
One senses that Wilder, an author who took goodness seriously, had either become a better man himself or, failing that, had learned to imagine what it meant to be good with new richness and insight. If there is a new appreciation of Wilder, it might well be based on his view of the world from the closet, a view that is rapidly vanishing as homosexuality carries less and less stigma. Wilder's closet no doubt came with painful compromises and disappointments; but from it emerged a remarkably sane, civilized and sensitive voice, never deformed by the pain of hiding, or passing, or lying.