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The American Loneliness

Fitzgerald, eager to draw the shy, Yale-educated prep-school French teacher into his dashing retinue, arranged to have Wilder and Wilson picked up at the train station, but it was Marcel Proust who helped to smooth the way between them. "I had just read the final installment of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, which had reached New York not long before, and was about to describe it to Wilder," Wilson recalled.

"There are few things I enjoy so much as talking to people about books which I have read but they haven't, and making them wish they had--preferably a book that is hard to get or in a language that they do not know. But in this case my expectation was disappointed, for it turned out that Wilder had been following Proust just as attentively as I had and had read Le Temps Retrouvé as promptly."

This unexpected and slightly deflating news prompted an immediate revaluation of Wilder on Wilson's part. He was, he confessed, surprised to find Wilder "a person of such positive and even peppery opinions."

"He had his doubts about Le Temps Retrouvé; he declared that too many of the characters turned out to be homosexual. Charlus was all right, he said; but in the case of Saint-Loup, for example, some further explanation was needed: there was a psychological problem there that Proust had simply shirked. I called his attention to the fact that the novel ended with the phrase "dans le temps," as it had begun with the key sentence, "Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure," and he said he had noticed this."

The exchange in the motorcar turns out to have been a bit of a Princeton-Yale game after all, as the two precocious schoolboys showed off their French and their profound love of literature while fending off any suspicion that they might be, you know, that way.

The weekend frolic declined to its inevitable dyspeptic close. "The aftermath of a Fitzgerald evening was notoriously a painful experience," Wilson remarked. Wilder left the scene early, apparently having suffered the kind of awkward misunderstanding he often experienced with women. "You, Scott, seemed to have the impression that I was restless under Miss Murphy," he wrote.

Restlessness of various kinds--geographical, psychological, aesthetic--marked Thornton Wilder's long career, as this generous selection of his letters makes abundantly clear. Like his friend Robert Frost, Wilder was a New Englander by adoption; but in Wilder's case the adoption never really "took." Born in Wisconsin in 1897, he spent much of his life in university towns--Madison, Berkeley, Oberlin--before finding at Yale, when he was twenty, a place to come back to, if not exactly a home. As a teenager Wilder had attended school in Shanghai for a couple of years, when his father, a newspaper editor and popular public speaker, served as American consul in Hong Kong and China before settling in New Haven to run the Yale-in-China program. And as soon as he graduated from Yale, Wilder was off again, for a residency at the American Academy in Rome.

In April 1921, Wilder announced to his bookish mother that he had found "an Italian playwright whose plays I adore." He attended the first performance of Six Characters in Search of an Author, and relished Pirandello's "strange contorted domestic situations illustrating some metaphysical proposition." Wilder had begun writing a wistful, yearning novel of his own based on a metaphysical proposition: that the aristocratic Romans whom a visiting young American meets--including a cardinal who reads Freud and Proust and a dying poet who resembles Keats--are actually the old pagan gods in decline, and constitute a "cabal" with vague political and religious aims. Initially called "Roman Portraits" and dedicated to "my friends at the American Academy in Rome, 1920-1921," it was published five years later as The Cabala.

Wilder's letters from these years bear a burden of alienation that feels heavier than that of the typical college grad abroad. Newly arrived in Rome, he offers his family a self-portrait of "a young man of about twenty-one" with "large shell glasses" and a look of "strong naïveté, mercifully mitigated by a sort of frightened humor." In a letter to his father, he compares himself to his sturdier older brother Amos (a theologian and poet who taught for many years at Harvard) and their sister Charlotte, another writer: "Your queer 'aesthetic' over-cerebral son may yet turn out to be your most fundamental New Englander and most appreciative of the sentiment of the group; when Amos and Charlotte have set up independent self-centered institutions, I shall turn out to be a sort of male Cordelia!" Encounters with women in Rome seem to have been particularly strained for a male Cordelia. "I had myself a strange little sentimental experience," he confessed to his mother, "that made concrete the warnings that Continental women[,] however impersonal, comradely and full of good sense they seem, cannot understand friendship that is without romantic concomitants, cannot, cannot. Queer!"

All of this estrangement made its way into Wilder's oddly schematic fiction. Wilder loved artifice, the dilapidated machinery of the omniscient narrator and the epistolary novel (which he exploited in both The Bridge of San Luis Rey and The Ides of March). He sometimes seems to have anticipated the exposed-beam construction of the French nouveau roman of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet, with its insistent reminders that we are not to mistake the novel at hand for "real life." He sought to inherit the legacy of the most exacting of the modernist masters--Proust, Joyce, and his close friend Gertrude Stein--while preserving a comforting decorum reminiscent of the eighteenth century.

Among Wilder's variegated output, the enduring popularity of The Bridge of San Luis Rey remains a puzzle. It is a bookish novel loaded with erudition, and there is something breathtakingly absurd about its premise, as stated in the opening sentence: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." Having contrived this "accident," the writer spends the next hundred pages--via the distancing perspective of a monk who happened to witness the event--wondering how such a catastrophic coincidence could possibly have occurred, and whether, as Brother Juniper wonders, "there were any plan in the universe at all." The book poses a question we often feel in the face of disaster: why did these particular people at this particular time suffer this particular fate? (Tony Blair quoted from the book in the aftermath of September 11.) "Literature," as Wilder once told a reporter from Time, "is the orchestration of platitudes."

Brother Juniper's neo-Calvinist meditations give a rigid (and, to the alert reader, unreliable) frame to the book. Its seductiveness lies elsewhere, in its richly delineated characters, all of whom are unhappy in love. These include the Marquesa de Montemayor, who courts her distant daughter in faraway Spain with gossipy letters; the twins Esteban and Manuel, who try to prevent the great actress Camila Perichole from coming between their love for each other; and the polymath Uncle Pio, who, from his deep love of Spanish classical drama, cultivates La Perichole's talent. Uncle Pio's definition of love gives an alternative interpretive frame to the novel: "He regarded love as a sort of cruel malady through which the elect are required to pass in their late youth and from which they emerge, pale and wrung, but ready for the business of living."

When his subsequent novels failed to match the extraordinary success of The Bridge of San Luis Rey--which won the Pulitzer Prize and allowed Wilder to quit his teaching job and buy a house outside New Haven--Wilder discovered that his penchant for exposing artifice was more welcome in the artificial world of the theater than in the realist novel. Other writers have excelled in prose and verse (Melville and Stephen Crane, Hardy and Lawrence), but Wilder may be the only American writer (Henry James failed notably in this regard) to have written both remarkable novels and equally remarkable plays. The know-all narrator of Wilder's fiction became the confiding Stage Manager of Our Town, his bare-bones masterpiece of 1938.

The bleak wisdom of Wilder's play, with its three-act evocation of youth, marriage, and death in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, is lost on high school audiences eager to dismiss the play as sentimental. In a watershed revival in 1989, Spalding Gray was neither folksy nor corny as the Stage Manager, and gave a memorably mordant inflection to lines about the Civil War dead in the graveyard, who "had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they'd never seen more than fifty miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends--the United States of America." When Emily Webb, dead in childbirth, asks to return to the happy scene of the living, her epiphany regarding human ignorance of time passing is almost unbearable. "I can't go on, " she says, like one of Beckett's heroes. "It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another." Before returning to the cemetery, where Wilder has ordinary chairs marking the graves, she bids goodbye to "food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up." She asks the Stage Manager, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"

In writing plays such as the dazzling The Skin of Our Teeth of 1942, where the Ice Age and Noah's Flood intrude on ordinary life in New Jersey, Wilder found that he no longer needed to explain (as he had with the laborious gods-as-mortals machinery of The Cabala) how a single character could have multiple identities. Wilder dispensed with explanations in The Skin of Our Teeth, where George and Maggie Antrobus of Excelsior, New Jersey, are also Adam and Eve. The madcap maid Sabina (played by Tallulah Bankhead in the original production) periodically breaks character to complain about the multi-layered play and its author, who "hasn't made up his silly mind as to whether we're all living back in caves or in New Jersey today." Wilder's "palimpsistic" method, as Harry Levin called it, prompted Joseph Campbell to accuse Wilder of plagiarizing from Finnegans Wake, a mindless charge that shadowed Wilder's career during the 1940s.

Wilder's letters from this period reveal a staggering range of acquaintance. In 1942, at the age of forty-five, he managed to get himself accepted into the Army Air Intelligence, but made a quick detour to Hollywood to write the screenplay for Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (included in the Library of America's recent edition of Wilder's plays). He seems to have avoided the emotional and financial turmoil that engulfed Fitzgerald and Faulkner in the film industry. He patiently explained to Cary Grant why he could not undertake a screenplay of Gulliver's Travels, but added that if Howard Hawks ever directed such a thing, he should "treat it as dead-pan sober-serious travel-experience." He patiently explained to Lillian Gish why his fourth novel, The Woman of Andros, would make a lousy movie: no plot, silly Greco-Roman costumes.

Wilder's impressive service during World War II, when he served with distinction in North Africa and Italy, opened up a new circle of social and literary attachments. He befriended Sartre and adapted one of his plays into English. When he met Camus in 1946, he was relieved to find that he "didn't like him as much as Sartre or I'd have committed my time away in translations, services, etc." He dedicated his fifth and perhaps best novel, The Ides of March, to Lauro de Bosis, an Italian poet who died in the resistance to Mussolini. He called the book, in a letter to Glenway Wescott, his "post-war adjustment exercise," and found in its collage construction--imaginary letters and documents from, among others, Cicero, Catullus, Cleopatra, and Caesar--an arresting setting for existentialist ideas. "How terrifying and glorious the role of man," Caesar observes, "if, indeed, without guidance and without consolation he must create from his own vitals the meaning for his existence and write the rules whereby he lives."

Wilder was a charmer, as Edmund Wilson discovered at Ellerslie. His letters are chatty, intimate, appealingly self-deprecating. And yet there is something deeply private and withheld in both the letters and the novels; they confide without confessing. Wilson thought that he discovered a clue to the subterranean theme, or undertone, in Wilder's work, and that it had something to do with Proust. Less than a month after the weekend at Ellerslie, Wilson's "A Short View of Proust" appeared in the March 21, 1928 issue of TNR. His pioneering assessment of Wilder appeared in these pages later that summer, in the issue of August 8.

Certain aspects of the conversation with Wilder insinuated their way into Wilson's impressive essay on Proust, which, revised and expanded, became in 1931 the fifth chapter of Axel's Castle, his landmark study of modernist writing. Wilson took up the "psychological problem" that Proust, in Wilder's view, "had simply shirked." Wilder had declared that "too many of the characters" in Proust "turned out to be homosexual," a point that Wilson gave a baroque elaboration: "When Albertine finally leaves [the narrator], the emotional life of the book becomes progressively asphyxiated by the infernal fumes which Charlus has brought with him--until such a large percentage of the characters have tragically, gruesomely, irrevocably, turned out to be homosexual that we begin for the first time to find the story a little incredible." What Wilson has to say about Proust's "problem" culminates, quite predictably, in his claim that "Proust is a perfect case for psychoanalysis."

But Wilson is not interested in what makes Proust such a neurotic wreck--his dependence on his mother to the detriment of all other personal ties, his morbidity, his sexual naïveté, his inner conflict between sentimentality and sadism, and so on. Wilson is interested instead in how such a wreck of a person could produce a towering work of art, which Wilson confidently ranked, long before there was any consensus about Proust's significance, with Tolstoy, Ibsen, Nietzsche, and Wagner. What is most striking in Proust's novel, Wilson concludes, is the rigorously unromantic treatment of love, and the conviction that "reciprocal love was not merely difficult and rare, but universally impossible." An aspect of the structure of the novel seems to Wilson a key in this regard--namely, the close linkage between the death of the narrator's grandmother and the abrupt emergence of the Baron Charlus as a central presence in the book: "About the middle of 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,' in a series of touching, wonderfully written, but exceedingly cruel scenes, the hero's grandmother is made to die; and immediately afterwards, the figure of Charlus begins to swell to enormous proportions." For Wilson, the grandmother is merely a disguise for the mother; in psychoanalytic terms, Proust's incomplete separation from his mother helps explain the emergence (the "swelling") of homosexuality.

If Wilson's conversations with Wilder helped him to organize his ideas about Proust, it is clear that writing about Proust helped Wilson to discover something new about Wilder's early novels. "One of the things about Mr. Wilder that I do not think has yet been said," Wilson wrote, "is that he seems to be the first American novelist who has been influenced deeply by Proust." Wilder, it should be said, made no effort to conceal this debt. When he submitted drafts of The Cabala to The Dial, in 1922, he described the work as "a purely fanciful effort in the manner of Marcel Proust." The Proust imprint is palpable in the finished novel. Of a central character, the Princess Alix d'Espoli, Wilder writes: "Her thought proceeded complicatedly, but not without order, in long looping parentheses, a fine network of relative clauses, invariably terminating in some graceful turn by way of climax, some sudden generalization or summary surprise." When Samuele, the narrator, asks her why she speaks in perfect paragraphs, we expect Alix to answer that she has been reading Proust. She says instead that the nuns taught her to write like Madame de Sévigné.

But Wilson thought Wilder's debt to Proust went beyond style. Wilder, he proclaimed, "has listened to Proust's very heart, and his own has been timed to its beat." He meant that Wilder, like Proust, was "infatuated" with the concept of unrequited love. Just as Wilder was skeptical of the sheer number of homosexuals in Proust, Wilson grew increasingly skeptical of the sheer number of disappointed lovers in The Bridge of San Luis Rey: "Isn't there ... something rather forced about the pining of Captain Alvarados for his daughter?" he wondered of a fringe character. "Isn't it one case of hopeless love too many?"

Surprisingly, Wilson does not explore possible homosexual themes in Wilder's novels. The interaction of love and cruelty that Wilson had explored so tellingly in his essay on Proust gets merely a brief and dismissive mention in the discussion of Wilder: "I cannot quite believe, for example, in the harrowing scene in which Esteban is dressing Manuel's wound while Manuel abuses him so harshly." Wilson ends up finding The Cabala "in some ways, more interesting" than the later novel, primarily because of the contrast between the American narrator and the European sensibilities that he encounters abroad. He concludes by challenging Wilder to write directly about the United States instead--a challenge repeated a few years later, and given a Marxist twist, by Michael Gold and others--"to come away from his first-century Greek islands and his imaginary eighteenth-century Perus and turn his attention to the United States."

But I would suggest a different way to interpret Wilder's eighteenth-century Peru, and one in which the meaning of America remains central. The Marquesa de Montemayor, whose letters to her cold-hearted daughter comprise such an important feature of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, "is evidently," Wilson notes, "a transposition from Madame de Sévigné, who plays herself such an important role in Proust." Wilder was quite explicit about this "transposition," both in his letters and in his lecture "On Reading the Great Letter Writers," delivered at Yale on May 4, 1928, three months after the weekend in Ellerslie. In his Yale lecture, Wilder argues that "the way to enter the fair country that is her mind is to begin by not looking for the anecdotes of the court, or the flowerets of language ... but to enter it as Marcel Proust said his grandmother did, by the door of her heart."

It is at this point that Wilder performs a sleight-of-hand of some importance. What he finds inside the door of Madam de Sévigné's heart is the old theme of unrequited love, tuned to a religious pitch. But this is not what Proust found inside the same door. What Proust saw in Madame de Sevigne was not a special quality of loving but a special quality of seeing. Proust's narrator reads the letters at the same time that he comes under the influence of Elstir, the painter he meets while vacationing on the Normandy coast. "I realized at Balbec that it was in the same way as he that she presented things to her readers, in the order of our perception of them, instead of first explaining them in relation to their several causes." What he learns from Madame de Sévigné, in sum, is to see things as they really are, and not as habit or preconception presents them.

What does all this have to do with America and Americans? I would suggest that it might help explain why The Bridge of San Luis Rey is set in Peru. In a letter from December 1927, Wilder admitted that he had never been to Peru--and added, seemingly irrelevantly, "Oh, isn't there a lot of New England in me." We find a major clue for the Peruvian setting in Wilder's Norton Lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1950 under the title "The American Characteristics of Classical American Literature." In re-reading Melville and Hawthorne, Thoreau and Dickinson, Wilder identified both a quality of loving and a quality of seeing. The lectures also provide evidence that the Marxists were wrong about Wilder--that he had been writing about America all along.

Wilder argued that there was something in the nature of the American experiment that fomented unrequited love, and that this cultural situation, with all its disappointments, created compensating conditions for fresh seeing. In studies of Thoreau and Dickinson, he explored what he called "the American Loneliness." He noted that Thoreau's disappointed love was directed at a woman he insisted on calling his sister. He noticed that Dickinson managed to "enjoy stoically nourishing an unrequited passion" for older men based on her unresolved relationship with her father. (There is more than a hint that another doomed Emily, in Our Town, has a similarly unresolved relationship with her father.) "In America," Wilder concluded in his Norton Lectures, "the family is the nexus of an unusually powerful ambivalence." One might add that Wilder's own family ties were unusually close: a lifelong bachelor with no documented romantic attachments beyond a fleeting homosexual affair with a friend of Gertrude Stein, recorded in 1983 in Gilbert Harrison's biography, he lived with his mother until her death in 1946, and an unmarried sister.

For Wilder, America was the land of unrequited love. To intensify Madame de Sévigné's separation from her daughter, Wilder moved her to the shadow of the Andes. He noted that it was "characteristic" of Emily Dickinson that "her thought turned often to the Alps and the Andes." Distance pushed American writers beyond habitual response, that blinding force of habit that Proust had analyzed so carefully. American writers discovered "American modes of seeing and feeling--characteristics born of a nation's history and geography." Wilder mentions Melville's description of the first sighting of Moby-Dick as "a hump like a snow-hill."

So did Proust anticipate the course of twentieth-century American literature? Edmund Wilson was convinced that he did, and equally convinced that Thornton Wilder's novels, in temperament and tone, inaugurated that inheritance. Wilder, for his part, thought that the American masters Dickinson and Thoreau, in their brokenhearted loneliness, anticipated Proust. Wilson's masterly essay in Axel's Castle concludes with the image of a host in his mansion, an echo perhaps of the gathering of American writers at Ellerslie during the winter of 1928:

"Surely the lament over the impossibility of ideal romantic love ... announces by its very falling into absurdity the break-up of the whole emotional idealism and its ultimate analysis and readjustment along lines which Proust's own researches, running curiously close to Freud, have been among the first to suggest. 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu' subsumes, in this respect, 'The Great Gatsby,' 'The Sun Also Rises,' 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey.'... Proust is perhaps the last great historian of the loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture; and the little man with the sad appealing voice, the metaphysician's mind, the Saracen's beak, the ill-fitting dress-shirt and the great eyes that seem to see all about him like the many-faceted eyes of a fly, dominates the scene and plays host in the mansion where he is not long to be master."

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and the author of A Summer of Hummingbirds (Penguin) and American Audacity (University of Michigan).

This article originally ran in the December 3, 2008, issue of the magazine.