When Thornton Wilder wore his glasses, which was much of the time, he had a mild, professorial air—like an owl, some said. Catch him without spectacles, though, and the change was extreme. His blue eyes had what one reporter called "a blade-like sharpness." They reminded you that behind his genial demeanor lay "one of the toughest and most complicated minds in contemporary America."
There, in brief, is the Wilder conundrum. When he is remembered today, it is almost always in his owl persona, as the folksy author of a folksy play, Our Town. But this gets both play and author almost completely backward. Done right, Our Town isn't a nostalgic wallow in small-town life, it's a harrowing story about human limitation—all the beauty and value we fail to recognize in our day-to-day lives. Far from being a homespun yarn-spinner, Wilder is one of the most sophisticated and penetrating writers the country has produced.
He's also, in his quiet way, one of the weirdest. A Wilder boomlet of recent years—a new collection of his plays, a new anthology of his letters to fellow cosmopolitans like Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, a sterling revival of Our Town currently running off-Broadway—has just entered an especially captivating phase. This month the Library of America republished his first five novels. In style, setting, and subject, they dance around from ancient Rome to 18th-century Peru to the 1930s Midwest. They are also, for the most part, excellent—as compelling and puzzling today as when they first appeared between 1925 and 1948. Nobody who reads them could ever again mistake their author for a man right out of Pepperidge Farm.
For people who know Wilder only via Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, the mere existence of these books may come as a surprise. In fact, his fiction came before his drama. Though he won a Pulitzer for each of those plays, he'd already collected one in 1928 for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Even now, he remains the only writer to be so recognized in both art forms.
Wilder achieved all of this thanks first to those uncanny eyes. He perceived with equal acuity the tiny details of daily life and the grand sweep of space and time. After graduating from Yale in 1921, he spent a year doing archeology in Rome, an experience that changed his outlook forever. Once you've dug up a 4,000-year-old highway, he said, "you look at Times Square as a place about which you imagine some day scholars saying, 'There appears to have been some kind of public center here.' "
That Roman year also gave him material for his first novel, The Cabala, in which the fruits of his distinctive vision become clear. Though Wilder resorts to a couple of iffy supernatural flourishes, his story about a young American getting tangled up in the lives of Roman gentry has an insinuating style. The accounts of the characters' romances and family histories are like being treated to gossip in high WASP style. (Though he was born in Wisconsin and spent his early years in China and California—prefiguring a life spent zipping around the globe—Wilder came from New England Protestant stock, and not the late arrivals, either.)
To say that Wilder was all-seeing doesn't mean that he sat in cruel judgment. Unlike Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, whose picture peered out of a billboard in The Great Gatsby, he didn't look down on a malign and dirty world. All of Wilder's books depict a world shimmering with mysteries. He's one of literature's most earnest explorers of faith and love. The heroes of four of these novels and an important character in the fifth all wonder explicitly if there's a God and try to puzzle out his intentions.
This question looms particularly large in Heaven's My Destination. Wilder used knowledge he'd gained on his lecture tours—"I know America down to every absurd Keep Smiling Club, every gas station, every hot-dog stand," he wrote in 1931—to depict the travels of George M. Brush through the Depression-era heartland. All he wants is to find his girl, sell his textbooks, and discover why God lets bad things happen to good people, himself included. Wilder showed an easy comic touch here, giving the Gandhi-worshiping George a trial scene worthy of Joseph Heller.
Despite this early success, Wilder grew dissatisfied with the novel form. His vast reading (in at least four languages) told him that the omniscient narrator didn't suit the chaos of 20th-century life. So after three years' wartime service in Army intelligence (from which he returned, characteristically successful, as a lieutenant colonel with a Bronze Star), he took a new approach to fiction. The Ides of March is a novel about Caesar's last months told entirely through letters among the dictator, his confidants, and his enemies. It's a kind of highbrow puzzle that befits a writer who, in his spare time, became one of the world's authorities on Finnegans Wake. By book's end, Wilder's ingenious structure, which traverses the same events from different angles, makes Caesar's questions about religion and politics seem to hang in the air, to outlive him. How many novels are intellectually haunting?
Wilder wrote more books after Ides—they'll be included in a forthcoming second volume, also edited by J. D. McClatchy—but he never improved on one reprinted here. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is his delicate, devastating masterpiece. When a Peruvian bridge collapses and sends five people to their deaths, a well-meaning monk sets out to learn all he can about the deceased, thus to reveal whether we live by plan or by chance. Nowhere did Wilder write more vivid characters or more deeply felt (and sometimes brutally heartbreaking) stories, or put to better use a literary touch that's as light as a spider's. In a speech after the 9/11 attacks, Tony Blair made an inspired citation of the book's closing peroration on love, and how it endures through cruelty and death. "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead," it concludes, "and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
Wilder's fiction endures not just because his spooky eyes let him see so much, but because he was too honest to depict any more than that. By refusing to give easy answers to the hard questions he pondered, he makes us a little more attuned to them ourselves. After you read these books, people seem a little more mysterious, more infused with some ineffable spirit beyond flesh and blood. In their modest way, Wilder's novels do what he believed Shakespeare had done when he created his great heroines: to alter "the spiritual weather of the world."