american_characteristics

American Characteristics

Those who know Thornton Wilder only as a novelist and playwright owe it to themselves to read his essays. Sharp, witty, original, cogent, perceptive and various, the open our eyes to fresh aspects of many writers we know well. James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, Goethe and Thomas Mann are among the objects of his loving scrutiny. There are likewise eight memorable commentaries on drama and the theater.

– Carlos Baker, Princeton University

If we are eager to witness the way literature can shape a man’s life—in this case a respected novelist and playwright—then this is an extremely rewarding book.

– David Brooks Andrews, The Christian Science Monitor

It’s refreshing to have literature talked about by one who loves it, learns from it, illuminates it…in a style that’s clear, resonant, available.

– Richard B. Sewall, National Book Award winning author of The Life of Emily Dickinson

The title of this volume of twenty-eight sections–lectures, essays, forewords, introductions, and research papers written between 1928 and 1968– is taken from the collective title of the Norton Lectures, “The American Characteristics of Classical American Literature,” that Wilder gave at Harvard University in 1950-1951. The first three selections presented here were subsequently re-worked by Wilder and published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1952. The other selections, provocative and illuminating essays, range in tone and theme, but they are all distinguished by Wilder’s penetrating and experienced intelligence . . . his marvelous intellect and his desire to speak to his readers of all backgrounds.

 

A section on Drama and the Theater, includes essays that range from his ideas on dramatists from Sophocles to George Bernard Shaw, to prefaces to his own plays and thoughts about playwriting, including his own “Preface” to Our Town, written only two weeks after this famous drama’s Broadway opening. His essay “Goethe and World Literature” is a homage to a writer who was his literary hero from the age of sixteen to the end of his life, and another “On Reading the Great Letter Writers” is a salute to “the heroine of his literary life”—Mme. De Sévigné.

 

Wilder’s friendship with Gertrude Stein is celebrated here with the inclusion of the introductions he wrote to three of her books over a span of eleven years. His appreciation of James Joyce’s writings is represented by three pieces: his posthumous tribute to Joyce, his essay “Joyce and the Novel,” and Wilder’s scholarly research paper on a section of Finnegans Wake, the novel that Wilder spent months and months in his lifetime deciphering. Two other research papers included in an Appendix reflect the other serious scholarly project Wilder immersed himself in for several years —dating the plays of Lope de Vega, the leading dramatist of Spain’s golden age of literature.

 

Isabel Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s sister writes in her Foreword: “As I glance over the table of contents of this collection of my brother’s essays I see a faint outline for a biography, the self-story that he would never, never have written in the first person singular….” Readers can turn to American Characteristics for this reason or they can enjoy it as a fascinating record of Wilder’s interests and gain insights into the artistry and ideas that lie behind his novels and plays.

 

Edited by Donald Gallup, with a Foreword by Isabel Wilder.