These days, it seems like you can’t lean an imaginary ladder against an imaginary barn without hitting an article about Penelope Niven’s new biography of Thornton Wilder. It’s not hard to see why. Wilder was a commanding and erudite and strange writer, and it’s exciting to see him rescued from decades of being misremembered as, in the words of Michael Dirda, writing in this month’s Harper’s, “the gray-flanneled Rotarian of American letters.” (You can also pick up the New York Review of Books for a description of the public perception of Wilder as “the quintessential middle-American writer,” despite Wilder’s affinity for existentialism and the resultant “relatively radical forms of his books and plays.”)
But this recognition of Wilder as an innovator and literary weirdo isn’t the only common theme in reviews of the book. Wilder was apparently an intensely private person, and even this exhaustive biography is unable to tell us just exactly how alone he was in this world. Wilder’s romantic entanglements seem to have all been vague, either fleeting or sexless or both. The NYRB review has a nice summary of the list, including the amazing, “Somebody broke his heart in 1925 but was never identified.” Robert Gottlieb, reviewing the book for The New Yorker, writes that, “Niven ties herself in knots in her discussion of Wilder’s confusing sexuality.” Basically, even the most thorough investigation of every piece of published and private writing by or about or to Thornton Wilder reveals almost nothing about his love life, suggesting he didn’t particularly have much of one at all.
So what does alone-ness have to do with it? I started reading Our Town a few months ago as part of a project to learn more about Spalding Gray, who played the Stage Manager in the 1989 production at Lincoln Center. (The Stage Manager, for the record, has been portrayed by a solid litany of stately and kind-eyed men, including Paul Newman, Hal Holbrook, and President Jed Bartlet.) I’ve been struck by how the innocuousness that makes it acceptable to conservative school boards across America in no way dampens its wildness–it’s funny and morose and full of strange instructions, with stage directions like “(Acidly)” and a short primer on pantomime at the back of the script.
Our Town’s rough power is its third act, which takes place after Emily, the female lead, has died in the course of delivering her second child. The Stage Manager delivers an opening monologue in which he explains, matter-of-factly, that “the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. … They get weaned away from the earth–that’s the way I put it, weaned away. Yes, they stay here while the earth-part of ’em burns away, burns out, and all that time they slowly get indifferent to what’s goin’ on in Grover’s Corners.” I’m not sure I’ve ever read such an odd, bodily account of the progression of the conscious mind in death.
From Emily’s place in the graveyard (an encampment of folding chairs set off to the side of the town), she decides, over the cautionings of the other dead people, to return to the world of the living for one day. She scarcely makes it through breakfast, though, before being unable to press on. It’s too hard for people to “realize life while they live it–every, every minute.” Before she returns to the little dead village of chairs, Emily says goodbye to an enumerated list of what she loves about life. In this monologue, she barely mentions other people. For the most part, she names sensory experiences of the world that we really have alone, interactions between our bodies and the physics around us. She says goodbye to the ticking of clocks, to hot baths, to sunflowers. She says goodbye to sleeping! As distinct from death. As part of what makes us alive.
I’m not saying that Thornton Wilder’s lonesomeness or closeted-ness or asexuality or whatever it was is any kind of necessary precondition for the writing of this scene. It is just that there is so much focus now on Wilder’s alone-ness, and I like the alone-ness of this monologue. It is not someone summing up her life by locating her place in a grand social fabric. It is simply an affirmation of the experience of being a creature, to say that each small sensory moment has a deep meaning unto itself, that our wholly interior responses to the built world are what makes life worth it, even in this fantasy of return.