Jul 30, 2014

Thornton Wilder: Gay People Can Write Depressing Novels, Too

I have no time for Great Literature.  It's not only heterosexist, it's usually terribly depressing.

Heterosexuals aren't alone in insisting that Great Literature must be terribly depressing.  When gay people write Great Literature, it's usually terribly depressing.

Like Thornton Wilder.  I've been force to read (or pretend to read) his stuff three times.

1. People fall to their deaths.  

When we were in junior high, we were too young for Great Literature like Ulysses and As I Lay Dying, so our English teacher substituted The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), by Thornton Wilder.

"This is Great Literature," she said.  "It won a Pulitzer Prize because it's so great.  Read it, and you'll see."

I read the back cover blurb.  A group of people fall to their deaths when a rope bridge in the Andes collapses.

"Why on Earth would anybody write about something so terrible?" I wondered.  "I'm certainly not going to read it."

When the teacher asked us to "Explain the theme of this book," I wrote: "Everybody dies."

 I got a C-.

2. People die of various ailments. 

In high school, my English teacher assigned Wilder's Our Town (1938), which also won a Pulitzer Prize because it's so Great.

It's about small-town teenagers George and Emily fall in love and get married. Emily dies in childbirth.  The last act has her in the cemetery, talking to the other people who have died since Act I.

"Why would Thornton Wilder sit down and write this stuff?" I wondered.  "And why would people actually pay to see it performed?"

When the teacher asked us to "Explain the theme of this play," I wrote: "Everybody dies." again.  I got a D.  I guess she wanted detailed analysis.

I should have written "Emily and everybody else dies."

3. The world comes to an end three times.

When I was in grad school at the University of Southern California, my Modern Drama professor insisted that we read Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), which also won a Pulitzer Prize because it's so Great.

I was leery, but also curious.  How could Wilder up the ante of depressing Great Literature?

Easy:  it's about a New England family, George and Maggie Antrobus, who are also Adam and Eve, and their two children, Henry and Gladys.  They live through the destruction of the human race three times.

In the First Act, by an Ice Age.
In the Second Act, by a Flood.
In the Third Act, by a cataclysmic war.

But every time they just start over again, and things go back to being exactly the way they were.

Talk about depression!  It's an endless cycle of death and despair!

When the professor asked us to "Explain the theme of this play," I wrote "It replicates the Hindu cycle of samsara, death and rebirth."  I got a C+.

And, by the way, none of the three works contain any gay characters, themes, plots, or subplots.  Nil.

Who was this Thornton Wilder who spent his life writing depressing, heterosexist Great Literature that I couldn't read, so I had to fudge, with the result of low grades?

He was a celebrity writer,a bon vivant, who traveled in famous circles and knew everyone in the Jazz Age.  He was gay, but so tortured by self-hatred that he didn't do much about it.

Even with his close friend, the very hot Samuel Stewart, who later became famous as the novelist Phil Andros (top photo).  Stewart said that they had a relationship, but their sexual encounters were skittish, furtive, momentary, and never discussed.

Wilder wrote in journal:

 "I am more and more willing to agree with certain authorities that homosexuality is negative — that it is, even when apparently aggressive, a submission to solicitations."

Ok, that sounds homophobic, until you remember that in Thornton Wilder's world, everything is negative.  There is no meaning, no hope, just suffering and the inevitability of death, no matter if you are gay.

See also: Why I am Not a Novelist.