BOOKS I LOVE: THE CONNECTICUT CONTINGENT, PART II
5. THE EIGHTH DAY by Thornton Wilder
In my last post, I talked about four of my favorite Connecticut-connected authors: Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ursula Curtiss, and Sigrid Undset. But my absolute favorite is Thornton Wilder, and he’s not just one of my favorite Connecticut writers, but one of my favorite writers of all time, so it’s sad when people say, “Thornton Wilder who?” to me when I mention his name.
By rights, he should be just as famous as his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Notice that nobody says “Who?” when you mention them.) Thornton Wilder’s the only writer ever to have won the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and drama, and one of the few to win a Pulitzer for drama more than once. He also won the National Book Award, Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And he wrote a play, OUR TOWN, that’s been done by practically every high school in the country. He also wrote brilliant novels, and THE MATCHMAKER (which HELLO, DOLLY is based on), and THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, an impossible-to-describe play about Adam and Eve–and Moses, Plato, Muses, fortunetellers, famines, singing dinosaurs, sniping maids, Ice Ages, wars, a casting crisis in the middle of Act Two, the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and Armageddon.
And unlike his contemporaries, everything Wilder wrote is completely different from everything else. Which is probably why his name isn’t as well known as the more easily described Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Wilder is serious and off-the-wall funny and deeply philosophical He’s also the most quotable author I know. His work is full of great lines, and at our house we quote him constantly, from Barnaby and Cornelius’s code word for adventure:
“Pudding, Cornelius?” “Pudding, Barnaby.”
to Horace Vandergelder’s:
“‘Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion.'”
and Emily Webb’s:
“‘Goodbye, Grover’s Corners. Goodbye to clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful to realize you!'”
It’s impossible to read Thornton Wilder without a pencil to underline memorable lines with, and sometimes you end up underlining the entire book. Everything he wrote is chock-full of memorable comments–and dialogue–like:
“Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous, it is nothing if it is not ridiculous.”
* * *
“Money, pardon the expression, is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”
* * *
“We’ve always had two children…just not the same two.”
* * *
“…every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor- edge of danger and must be fought for.” * * *
“Any man who goes to a big city deserves what happens to him.”
* * *
“Dr. Gillies was lying for all he was worth. He had no doubt that the coming century would be too dreadful to contemplate–that is to say, like all other centuries.”
* * *
“Have you milked the mammoth?”* * *
“There are the stars–doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet…seem to think there are no living beings out there. Just chalk…or fire. Only this one is straining, straining away all the time to make something of itself. Strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.”
Even Wilder’s stage directions–“No curtain, no scenery”–and the warnings his characters give the audience–“I advise YOU not to think about the play, either”–are worth writing down and keeping.
Wilder also wrote two of the best endings in literature. The first, from THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, about a random group of people killed in the collapse of a rope bridge in the Andes in 1714, is so hopeful and true I’ve read it aloud at several funerals, and the British prime minister Tony Blair read it at a memorial service honoring the victims of 9-11.
Wilder’s talking about the five people who died in the bridge’s collapse, and he says, “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
The ending of THE EIGHTH DAY, which begins, “There is much talk of a design in the arras…” is even better. Which is doubly remarkable because THE EIGHTH DAY also has one of the best first lines ever: “In the early summer of 1902, John Barrington Ashley of Coaltown, a small mining center in southern Illinois, was tried for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, also of Coaltown.”
The paragraph goes on to tell us,
“He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Five days later, at one in the morning of Tuesday, July 22, he escaped from his guards on the train that was carrying him to his execution.”
There’s enough plot in that paragraph for an entire novel, but Wilder’s just getting started, in a story that’s part murder mystery and part quest and part family saga, and yet not really any of those. The novel starts in the middle and goes not just backward and forward, but off in all directions, reading sometimes like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and sometimes like AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY and sometimes like a post-modern work of metafiction–and nothing like any of them. As Wilder himself said, “It’s not really like usual novels.”
I’ll say! And because it wasn’t, the critics had no idea what to make of it (or its ending). Some of them thought it was too ambiguous and depressing. Others called it old-fashioned and “too optimistic.”
They were right. THE EIGHTH DAY is all those things, cutting-edge and old-fashioned, ambiguous and crystal-clear, cynical and optimistic. And also wrenching and compulsively readable, full of indelible characters like Porky and Sophia and Dr. Gillies–and of adventure and tragedy–and plot twists that leave you gasping. It’s full of digressions and impromptu sermons and stray comments and asides. And suffragettes, journalists, nuns, singers, shooting matches, South American mines, Aphrodite, sea voyages, saloons, lemonade stands, boardinghouses, chinchilla pelts, newspapers, and homemade fudge.
It’s about no less a theme than history and the small, obscure part we play in it. Or about fate. Or that design in the arras, which may or may not be decipherable, which may or may not even be there.
All that makes THE EIGHTH DAY sound ponderous and heavy, but it’s not. It’s fascinating, fun to read, and light as a feather, written with what John Updike called “globe-spanning nimbleness and cosmic lift-off.” And full of marvelous insights, marvelous lines. Which is why it’s one of my favorite books.
NOTE: I said Thornton Wilder wasn’t as famous as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, but actually that’s not true. On any given evening of the year, OUR TOWN is on stage somewhere, to say nothing of matinees. Pixar introduced HELLO, DOLLY to a whole new generation in WALL-E. A new production of THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH was produced off-Broadway this year, and Bette Midler just won a Tony playing Dolly Levi opposite David Hyde Pierce (you know, Niles from FRAZIER) in a Broadway revival of HELLO, DOLLY, so I can hardly complain. I just wish people knew Thornton Wilder wrote them all. And that they were reading THE EIGHTH DAY.