The Eighth Day
by Thornton Wilder
(Harper & Row; $6.95)
Thornton Wilder's career is one of the oddest in American letters. After the publication of his first two novels in the twenties, he was accepted by the most demanding critics as a serious figure. In the same breath Edmund Wilson spoke of "Hemingway, Wilder, Fitzgerald" or, a dozen years later, of "Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Wilder." The incongruity of those groupings today is almost comment enough. In 1960 Wilder's play, Our Town, was drubbed by Dwight Macdonald as Kitsch; but in 1930 Wilder was castigated (in this journal) by Michael Gold for dwelling in the loftier reaches of high art while the masses were starving. It would all be simple if Wilder's career were plainly a toboggan-slide-of commercialization or continuous deterioration; but neither is true. His worst detractors would not accuse him of being a money-grubber; and the line of his achievement does not go relentlessly down. His first novel, The Cabala (1926), was one of his two best; the other. The Ides of March, was published in 1948. (Incidentally, both books deal with Rome--contemporary and ancient.) Between these two came the too-clever Bridge of San Luis Key, the effete Woman of Andros, and the moderately successful Heaven's My Destination. Among his plays there are no comparable peaks, but even the severe Macdonald readily grants that Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), though not profound, are often extremely affecting. Wilder's career is now further complicated by his new long novel--his first since The Ides of March--which is shockingly and unredeemedly bad.
There is no question here of whether Wilder has sustained claims to serious consideration; seriousness does not even enter into it. Although the Wilder views are recognizable, this new book almost seems to have been written by another man, an imitator inferior to the feeblest Wilder we have previously seen. The writing--by a man distinguished in his youth for style--is without grace, though he strains for it constantly; the characters are stagy, hollow, unrealized, though they are laden with characteristics; the plot, full of arthritic twists, is attenuated and un-dramatic although the author himself seems generally breathless with excitement; the theme, as apprehended here, is sophomoric, although Wilder has dealt with it before with at least some immediate effect. What the book conveys basically is the wrong kind of urgency: that Wilder was conscious of the nearly twenty years since his last novel and that he wanted to publish at least one more. (I must add--without irrelevance--that Wilder's reputation as a man and as a helper of young writers makes these judgments especially unhappy.)
The Eighth Day gets its title from a turn-of-the-century sermon by a small-town American preacher who says that the world was created in six days, that the Lord then rested, and that "we are at the beginning of the second week. We are children of the eighth day." The book's shape is a mirror-image of The Bridge of San Luis Key. In both novels the central fact is a physical catastrophe. The earlier book unravels the design that led certain lives to the catastrophe; the new book unravels the design caused by the catastrophe. Each book opens with a statement of the central fact:
On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.
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.
This latter is a fairly promising beginning. The year, the fact, the flavor--and a latent hope for the author, based partly on his feeling for Americana--stimulate at least expectation of ingenuity, of superior entertainment. Not justified. Very early in the book the convicted man is mysteriously rescued from the train that is taking him to execution and there are hints that, despite some ostensible facts, he is innocent. Over 400 pages later the mysteries are cleared up, without even much gratification on that simple score, both because our interest is fatigued and the clarifications are pat. Further, Wilder commits the technical error of "appearing" in the book as narrator from time to time--occasionally even in the first person. ("His Scots speech, which I have omitted to reproduce. ...") The effect of this is only irritating; we feel that, if the author, who knows the secrets, is "present," he ought to quit being coy, tell us the answers, and save our plodding through a couple of hundred pages more.
But no--his intent is to reveal design; to uncover inch by inch the blessings and destinies hidden in the initial catastrophe. And because this is the book's prime purpose, its prime shortcoming is that it fails in this purpose. The convict, John Ashley, flees to Chile and meets people he would never have known if it had not been for the murder, but in any significant way, he is unchanged. In fact, he makes his way through his new life because of the character he displayed before the murder. In further fact, he would not otherwise have been rescued from the train. What growth or change in his essential being was caused by the catastrophe?
His son becomes a successful journalist, one of his daughters a great singer, another daughter a famous political activist; superficially, the family's changed position brought about circumstances that instigated the children's careers, but there is nothing absolutely requisite in those circumstances to spur them to what they become. How many journalists, singers, and activists have needed a convict-father in order to get going?
All through the book Wilder suffers from the belief that extension equals depth, so we get long sections, particularly toward the end, that detail irrelevances. Why do we need to know all about the early lives of the convict and the murdered man, years before they met? Why do we need the details of the journalist-son's love affairs? These and similar episodes, presumably meant as flesh on the novel's bones, are foam-rubber padding.
Worse is the consciously mysterious air of the book. Part of this hokey mystery comes from narrative devices, such as beginning a section by telling us that "a young man with a beard like cornsilk" has been sitting nightly in a New Orleans cafe, when both Wilder and we know that the man is John Ashley, soon to be named as such. (It reminded me of the wartime newscaster Gabriel Heatter who used to open portentously: "Tonight a man whom men call Churchill. ...") To further this air of mystery, of a sub-world of arcane wisdom, Wilder uses repeatedly the stock device of the tacit, gnomic seer. Male: an Indian youth, his grandfather, a Scots mine superintendent, a cynical newspaperman. Female: a fortune-teller, an old hotelkeeper, a Russian exile. All of them are of that type so common in fiction and so rare in life who look quietly at strangers and immediately "know." They are meant to be Delphic but are only theatrical.
Still worse is the book's treatment of its theme, which is the Our Town theme of universality: the similarities of men and women of all times and places, the links between us all, the fact that no horizon is the end of any human landscape. Instead of dramatizing this theme or allowing it to permeate his novel, Wilder states it regularly so that we cannot miss it. Sometimes he even puts it in italics. (Hills beyond hills, plains and rivers.) Any feeble progress he makes toward establishing this theme is destroyed by the incredibly banal aphorisms that litter the book. Three from a long list:
There is no true education save in answer to urgent questioning.
Mysterious are the laws of sexual selection.
Boys are filled with exhausting energies; they enjoy noise; they are (or where would we be?) adventurous and inquiring.
Even after the least portions of Wilder's lesser works, this kind of writing, with which the book is freighted, comes as a shock.
So his career remains a puzzle, not to be explained by sheer deterioration. Let us forget the young stylist of The Cabala; what happened to the valid Americanist of Heaven's My Destination, the prober of true mysteries in The Ides of March, the effective heart-tugger of Our Town? Possible explanations occur for his failure to realize his promise, but they all falter. Is it because he has spent much of his life as a wanderer and observer, unintegrated for long with any society or community? So did Ibsen and Strindberg. Is it because, admittedly, he derived much of his story material from literature rather than from life? Whisper the names of Shakespeare and Racine. Is it because he has remained aloof from 20th-century currents in sociology, politics, psychology? So--quite deliberately--did Nabokov and Waugh. And if these are high names against which to posit Wilder's, that only aggravates the puzzle, because It was on a high level that he was first hailed.
It is easy to see what happened: the thinning of the artistic blood, the substitution of the literary cracker-barrel for ruthless vision, of tinny contrivance for intricate jewelry. (And, to repeat, these changes were not unvaried; as with leukemia, there were remissions.) But why it happened--that is still a mystery. There is no question of sellout; Wilder is as sincere and enthusiastic as ever. But the art of the man who was once scolded for being too much of an artist has become simultaneously shriveled and bloated. The sad result is that, toward the end of his career, we have--from a man who has always meant well--a book that means nothing.
Stanley Kauffman is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffman