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The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, and Autobiographical Writings

You have to hand it to a writer willing to attack the big questions head on, and to embed those questions in the story of small-town America, and then surround it all in the grandeur of the grandeur of America, and then abase some of its citizens for venality while others rise to existential heights.

– Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation

The final phase of Thornton Wilder’s illustrious career was marked by a triumphant return to the novel, a form he had eschewed after the publication of The Ides of March in 1948, questioning its continued viability as a means of artistic expression. The National Book Award–winning The Eighth Day (1967)—according to Wilder, his only “real novel”—put all such questions to flight. It is an epic tale, at once expansive and nuanced, of two American families and their intertwined destinies. John Ashley, a mining engineer in Coaltown, Illinois, is sentenced to death for the murder of his colleague Breckenridge Lansing, but just hours before his execution, a strange and audacious raid sets him free. Out of this “unimportant case in a small Middlewestern town,” Wilder created a story that opens onto philosophical and religious speculation, revisiting the themes of earlier works such as Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and summing up his deepest concerns. The Eighth Day’s “principal idea,” he wrote in 1968, is “that Man is not a final and arrested creation, but is evolving toward higher mental and spiritual faculties.”

 

Couched in a lighter vein, Theophilus North (1973) shows Wilder taking a wry backward glance at his youthful self to fashion a “joking autobiography.” Like the title character (named for Wilder’s twin who died at birth), he had spent a summer in the 1920s working as a tutor in Newport, Rhode Island. A series of loosely connected tales bound by place and mood, Theophilus North is an enchanting work of mischievous wit and elegantly comic storytelling, suffused with fondness for the recollected charms of Newport and its “nine cities.”

 

Wilder’s autobiographical urge is even more evident in the three pieces that conclude the volume, chapters of a never-before-published manuscript from the late 1960s. Writing of his past while permitting himself fictional touches, he engagingly evokes his childhood stay at a boarding school in China, his time as an undergraduate at Yale, and the uneasy experience of visiting Salzburg, Austria, amid the inescapable political tensions of 1937.

 

J. D. McClatchy, volume editor, is the author of many books of poetry and essays including, for The Library of America, American Writers at Home. He wrote the libretto for Ned Rorem’s operatic version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. He teaches at Yale University and is the editor of the Yale Review.

 

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