Professor Christopher Benfey | The Wilder-Proust Questionnaire

With the 3rd International Thornton Wilder Conference just around the corner, scholars, friends and fans of TW answer 7 short questions, giving us a window into their Wilderian identities:

Christopher Benfey is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review, he served as the long-time art critic for the online magazine Slate. He is the author of seven books, including A Summer of Hummingbirds (Christian Gauss Award) and Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay. Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012, he won the 2013 Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award of the American Academy of Arts and Le

At the Thornton Wilder Conference, Professor Benfey will take part in the "Wither Wilder" panel, along with Carl Forsman and David Greenspan, chaired by Tappan Wilder.  Together they will discuss the questions that  bedevil Wilder on page and stage: Where does Wilder fit in? Does it matter? This session will take place on Friday, July 13 at 11:15 a.m. at the Monadnock Center in Peterborough, NH.  Reservations available here.

1. What is your favorite Wilder quote?

"We do what we can. We push on, Esteban, as best we can. It isn't for long, you know." --Captain Alvarado in THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY.

2. What is your favorite Wilder work? 

THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY. What better argument could there be for the deep truth that life does not consist of the pursuit of happiness but rather of the pursuit of love?

3. Describe Wilder in three adjectives. 

Wise, kind, visionary.

4. With which Wilder character do you most identify / which character do you find is most like you?

I'm a big fan of Captain Alvarado, who, like some of Wilder's most interesting characters, haunts the fringes of the narrative. He's a great traveler, like Wilder himself, and makes it his business, like Wilder, to connect his life with the lives of others. He's the character I would MOST want to be like.

5. Who is your favorite Wilder hero or antihero?

My favorite Wilder hero is Emily Webb, of course. I think she's partly based on Emily Dickinson, whose poetry Wilder loved. "It goes so fast," Emily says at the end of OUR TOWN. "We don't have time to look at one another."

6. Who is your favorite fictional Wilder woman?

I was much taken with Alix, the Princess d'Espoli, when I first read THE CABALA, Alix who is "a pure well of heartbroken frivolity." I can't remember which Greek goddess she corresponds to. Aphrodite, maybe? But I'd like very much to meet her again.

7. What is Wilder's best love scene?

George and Emily in OUR TOWN, after he asks to carry her books home. What could be better?