“This character,” Williams reflected of his colleague at the time, “has never had a good lay.” With the perspicacity that would lead him to become, arguably, our greatest postwar playwright, Williams had pretty much hit the nail on the head.
The lines above come from a review by Blake Bailey of Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven. The review appeared in The New York Times Book Review on December 28th, 2012. Bailey did not think very highly of Niven’s book which I haven’t read. The smirking tone in Bailey’s comments was nothing new to me and I was aware of the encounter between Wilder and Williams. However, I had never read or heard Williams’ specific comments. When I read Bailey’s lines, and the Williams quote in his review, a whole lot suddenly snapped into place for me. I actually don’t know that many of Thornton Wilder’s works but what I do know, I’ve really admired. One of his books I love as much as one can love a book. These feelings have long put me in a literary minority. I used to think there were a variety of fairly unimportant reasons for this. Now, after reading Bailey and Williams in that review, I know there is one primary reason and it is DEEPLY important. That reason, put very simply, is sex. First, some background.
When I was a junior in high school, we were given an “independent” reading assignment in English class. The quotation marks are because it was not truly independent. We had to pick from a list of novels. You could not use a book that was not on the list. For most of my life, I’ve been a slow reader so my primary factor in choosing a book from that list was that it be short. By far the shortest turned out to be The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. The title was familiar to me and I knew of Wilder’s fame as a dramatist. Beyond this, I was ignorant of the book. However, it was short and that was what mattered to me. Several pages in and I was totally entranced. I finished the The Bridge of San Luis Rey in record time, for me anyway. In the back of my copy, Wilder was described as having been a closeted homosexual. That fascinated me since I was then one myself. There was also mention of another novel, The Cabala, written shortly before The Bridge of San Luis Rey and long out of print. The title intrigued me. A month or so later, I was at the Bruised Apple, in my opinion the world’s greatest bookstore. To my delight, they had an old copy of The Cabala. I bought it and it has become one of my literary north stars. It cannot be overstated how much I love that book. Perhaps readers will understand when I say that I was restored to happiness by Thornton Wilder’s The Cabala. Much of what contentment and faith I have still comes from what I learned from The Cabala. I actually wrote a review of it for amazon a year or so after reading it which can be found on this blog. It is immature and overheated but I preserve it for sentimental reasons. Amid all this love, The Bridge of San Luis Rey receded somewhat in my mind. I don’t think it is as insightful or powerful as The Cabala. However, I still have a great deal of affection for it on its own and as the book that led me to a greater book.
The funny thing was, when I was first enjoying The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I seemed to be irking several people. Nearly every time I mentioned the book to a teacher, I’d get a roll of the eyes. There would be comments like “Oh, THAT book! Why is it still on the list?” If I tried to explain why I loved it so much, I’d be greeted with polite, tight little smiles and shakes of the head. Words like “artificial” and “overwritten” turned up a lot, neither of which struck me as having any connection to the book I was reading. In college, I heard much sharper comments on Wilder, by professors and fellow students. Much of the vitriol seemed to focus on Wilder’s blasphemous, unforgivable dislike of Tennessee Williams. I might as well be honest and admit that I’ve never really liked Williams all that much myself but that’s neither here nor there, is it?
So what is The Bridge of San Luis Rey and why all the contempt? It is probably clear by now that this is not a conventional review but I should say a few words about the book in question. It takes place in colonial Peru, in the early eighteenth century and concerns the collapse of a bridge that kills five people. A monk attempts to prove that God had a solid reason to kill those five particular people but his inquiries are deemed heretical. An omniscient narrator then gives us in depth, personal background on the victims. There is plenty of philosophizing but it never interested me all that much. Honestly, there are some aspects of the plot that I don’t remember particularly well, unlike The Cabala which is burned into my memory. What I DO remember well about The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and what I think irked all those other people I talked to, is the style. Wilder carefully crafted his sentences, clearly working hard to make his words flow like music. Everything is chiseled like the work of a master jeweler. Wilder doesn’t aim for the stars, nor does he seek to jolt or shatter. His goal is to beguile and move quietly and softly, with grace and delicacy. Praising the book, a contemporary reviewer said it was “like some faultless temple erected to a minor deity.” In short, Wilder wrote the way decades of critics and creative writing teachers have railed against. We live in an age when fragmentation, brutality and crudeness are the only ways an author proves he or she is honest and realistic. Also, The Bridge of San Luis Rey spent years being assigned in high schools. This rarely does any good for a work of literature. In fact, it often causes it to be resented by students and strategically loathed by teachers who wish to prove their street cred with reluctant pupils. As an English teacher, I’ve done this numerous times myself but I always feel bad about it. I long thought these were the reasons why Wilder was out of favor. Maybe they play minor roles but, as I said, I now believe the central reason has to do with sex.
Actually, the REAL reason is the absence of sex as a controlling factor. In the two Wilder novels I have read, sexuality does appear but it is deeply muted. It becomes quickly apparent that, while acknowledging sex, Wilder is not primarily concerned with it. His characters’ animating passions are over other matters. I strongly believe it is this that keeps Wilder scorned and (in my opinion) underrated. People today are baffled, angry and, strangely, a bit alarmed when sexuality moves to the background. If it is not the ONLY factor, it must AT LEAST be one of the primary factors in a work of art. When it isn’t, critics and readers often resort to sarcastic put downs to avoid considering the possible virtues of a sexless piece. Witness the comments of Blake Bailey and Tennessee Williams. I also bear witness myself. As a gay man, I’ve been tremendously lucky to have experienced little homophobia in my life. I have, however, had my friendships dismissed as unimportant, life-altering events derided as “in my head,” and my somewhat quiet lifestyle viciously attacked as somehow unnatural, all because sexuality is not THAT important to me. My relationships with family and close friends and my ideological concerns bulk far larger in my life than my brief romantic and sexual experiences. Contrary to received wisdom, there ARE people for whom sexuality is less central in their lives. Thornton Wilder was one. I am another.
There is a great deal of noise, much of it justified, over representation in literature. People rightly want themselves and their experiences reflected in art. I ask now, what about those of us who don’t care about sex as much as the average person? Are we to go ignored in art? Are our passions, and we do have them, irrelevant? Do we have no wisdom to offer? Wilder writes about the desperate desire of a mother for her daughter’s love. He writes about the fiery, destructive but life-affirming love between friends. He writes about how blind devotion to principal can drive a person to a kind of madness. Maybe, since he was less focused on sexuality, Wilder was able to get to the heart of these matters better than most other writers. Perhaps his calm, pristine style was a reflection of the absence of sexuality’s trademark illogical and messy nature. Rather than being an artificial affectation, maybe Wilder’s style was a conscious path to some insight he found lacking elsewhere. Possibly, there are things everyone can learn from such insights, just as we can all learn from writing about sexuality and its impact. Understand I do not turn away from art that is primarily focused on sexuality nor do I disdain the kinds of styles that most critics and educators favor. I simply assert there is more. There are other experiences and other modes of creative expression and they all have something to say. To Blake Bailey and Tennessee Williams, I say that there is more than a good lay. To everyone who would say Thornton Wilder didn’t write about real life, I say my life is real, there are insights to be drawn from it and I want it reflected in art. Thornton Wilder wrote for me and I am not alone.