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December 11, 2017

Wilder and the Lost Generation

On this day in 1975 Thornton Wilder died, at the age of seventy-eight. Wilder is the only person to receive Pulitzer Prizes for both literature (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927) and drama (Our Town, 1938; The Skin of Our Teeth, 1943). Add his The Merchant of Yonkers (evolved to The Matchmaker, then Hello, Dolly) to the list and it becomes clear what critics such as Edmund Wilson are talking about: "Wilder occupies a unique position, between the Great Books and Parisian sophistication one way, and the entertainment industry the other way, and in our culture this region, though central, is a dark and almost uninhabited no man's land." Which is to say that while most of Wilder's contemporaries were building their reputations upon Lost Generation despair, he went his own popular, warm-hearted, life-affirming way. This left some with a suspicion that he didn't see the despair, rather than saw through it, and that he was "at heart a middlebrow charlatan" who inevitably "seems pretentious because...he can never answer the huge questions he asks." That is Martin Seymour-Smith, who picks Wilder's Heaven's My Destination as his best novel, and The Cabala, his first book, as next best.

Though he kept his thematic distance, Wilder was close to Stein, and probably as close to Hemingway and Fitzgerald as he wanted to get. After one dinner, and "floating divinely on good wine and gay conversation," host Fitzgerald took Wilder up to his attic to show him something. This turned out to be a gun, which went off in Fitzgerald's confused hands, the bullet hitting the wall just beside Wilder. While walking in Paris, Wilder ran into Hemingway, who insisted that he come over immediately, to see young baby "Mr. Bumby" and lunch on whatever "potluck" a struggling writer and family might have. When Hemingway's wife (Hadley, at this time) put paté on the table, Hemingway screamed, "I promised them potluck, you've gone and spoiled everything, you've shown off, you've made me a fool," which sent her running from the room in tears.

These events were in the late 20s, when The Bridge of San Luis Rey was just starting its rise to international fame. In a memorial service speech shortly after the World Trade Center disaster, British Prime Minister Tony Blair quoted the last lines of the novel, seeming to find in them if not answer, solace: "Soon we shall die," says a survivor of the bridge's collapse,
    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.

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