Bedside books

170-woman-of-androsThe Woman of Andros: This third novel by Thornton Wilder, following his first, The Cabala, and the second, The Bridge of San Luis Ray, seems more inspired than either of the first two, as brilliant as they are. Wilder stands separate from the other great artists of his era: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc., as if Wilder himself was from another era, a time not so much American as universal.

I’ve read his first four novels now and his selected letters (the fourth novel: The Ides of March). It’s uncanny how Wilder produced so many good novels (not to mention America’s greatest play, Our Town) with so little visible struggle; they rolled off his pen while he was holding down significant teaching jobs. They seemed to come from the clouds rather than from underneath his feet.

The Woman of Andros, Chrysis, is a hetaera (prostitute) on a backwater Greek island several centuries before the Christian era begins. She is one of the educated, artistic, deeply spiritual hetaerae who served as mentors or companions to the leading men of the times and as a muse or inspiration to educated youth. She is officially ostracized by the women on the island because of the all-male banquets she holds in her house, where men are introduced to the works of the leading Greek poets and playwrights, as well as the arts of love, but at the same time she dominates the community’s attention because of her beauty, independence and commanding physical presence.

She has turned a part of her home into a refuge for outcasts – the sick and the strays of life. She dreams of being a part of a living community of love and compassion at the highest planes of selflessness. Pamphilus, the only son of a prominent villager, fathers a baby out of wedlock with Chrysis’s younger sister. The questions faced by Pamphilus, his family and the other “respectable” citizens of the island expose the imprisoning strictures of culture and social class.

Like the lives of many people in those times, Chrysis’ journey is suddenly cut short, but it lives on briefly in the life of her sister whose own life is then stopped cold with little warning.

A handful of otherwise anonymous lives are made flesh and brought to a fullness, reflecting the soul’s search to find higher meaning and safety in our chaotic world of chance and suffering.

Wilder wrote with full confidence from a place accessible to very few artists.

Selected Letters Harper Cover 238 dpiThe Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder: I think it’s possible to make a case that Wilder learned to observe life and to write by writing letters; he came out of a milieu and a family that saw letter writing as essential to keep the family closely bound together. Letter writing was seen as a mark of seriousness and discipline. The book’s first letter was written to his grandmother at age 12 in 1909. It wasn’t unusual for Wilder to write dozens of letters each day from his earliest years, each one particular and well crafted. Letter writing was a must for Wilder’s large family, who seldom lived all together at the same place.

His letters are wide ranging and with Wilder’s early worldwide fame, he had easy access to the elite in literature, the theater and other arts. Early correspondents included Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein (with whom he shared a close bond), a host of actors, directors and theater people, and perhaps most importantly his parents and siblings with whom he kept in constant touch throughout his life, offering glimpses of his inner life and travels. Wilder was a constant traveler who needed new places where he could work. He was constantly searching out different locales – France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, the Texas coast, East Coast spas during off season, as a passenger on a freighter or ocean liner – places where he felt some kinship or charged freedom that allowed his writing to flow.

What comes out of the letters is Wilder’s well-balanced life and the seeming ease in which he created his novels and plays. He experienced almost no inner turmoil or wrenching emotional setbacks. He must be at the top of the list of the least affected creative artists that America has ever produced. Amazingly, none of his work rings hallow. It was written to last – grounded in compassion and hope – serious books written to help lighten the burden of life’s struggles.

wilsonThe Shores of Light and Classics and Commercials: By Edmund Wilson.  Clive James, in an essay on Edmund Wilson, said something to the affect that as America’s pre-eminent, creative literary critic, Wilson was still new and it is still impossible to assess his greatness and impact on his times. However, it is possible to say these two collections which cover the Golden Years of modern American letters from the 1920s, 30s to 40s are essential to any judgment. Wilson, unlike a Harold Bloom, was a working journalist-critic (for much of his life for The New Republic and The New Yorker) and as such his influence was cumulative and immediate. For a real understanding of America’s radicalism and workers’ movement and how the literature of the times was affected, Wilson is essential.

His highest art is found in The Wound and The Bow and Axel’s Castle, yet both sprang from honing his ideas in magazine work, much like Clive James’ own career as a critic-journalist of the highest order. At the same time, this collection is a running commentary on the artists who illuminated the first half of the century and who to some extent have passed out of the scene except among specialists: Cummings, Upton Sinclair, Elinor Wylie, Firbank, Mencken, Dos Passos, Wilder, Strachey, Stein, Bernard De Voto,  Edna St. Vincent Millay and others. It’s easy to forget or to have never known their value and impact, but going back and reading Wilson’s verdicts is charged with the vibrancy of those hugely creative decades of the 20s and 30s. From the 40s, one can feel the power of Van Wyck Brooks, John O’Hara, Saroyan, Steinbeck, Alexander Woolcott, Katherine Anne Porter, Paul Rosenfeld, Glenway Wescott and so many others. Reading Wilson on Hemingway and Fitzgerald is to understand their uniqueness and immediacy in ways now often closed from view.

Wilson was able to write so intelligently about the contemporary writers of his day because of his deep grounding in Early Greek and European works, and the collections include assessments of earlier masters.

James’ essay centers on Wilson’s own poetry and creative writing. You can see it here. But for Wilson’s true value as a critic, see these two collections and a third, The Bit Between My Teeth, which covers the 1950s and 60s.

 

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