From the November 2011 issue of Chronicles.
Thornton Wilder met Sigmund Freud in the fall of 1935. Freud had read Wilder’s new novel, Heaven’s My Destination. “‘No seeker after God,’” writes Wilder’s biographer (quoting Freud of himself), “he threw it across the room.” At a later meeting Freud apologized. He objected to Wilder’s “making religion a theme for amusement.” “Why should you treat of an American fanatic; that cannot be treated poetically.”
As usual, Wilder was running against the literary wind—but more than holding his own. He had already won a Pulitzer (The Bridge of San Luis Rey) and would win two more (Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth), despite the fact that his themes were classical and Christian in a critical era that usually rewarded secular “realism” and wanted Depression stories that reflected class conflict and the hard times of the underclasses.
Oddly enough, considering Freud’s response to Heaven’s My Destination, Wilder would forever after call himself a “Freudian.” Wilder never read Marx—“had no interest”—but Freud struck both intellectual and emotional chords. Wilder wrote in his journals that religion suffers assaults from new enemies every hundred years or so, and that psychoanalysis is the newest, and maybe the most dangerous one: “It attacks in two places: the sense of sin, and the concept of a personalized agent behind the universe who can bestow security. Both concepts it traces back to the infantile life.” He was never analyzed, but he deeply appreciated Freud’s poetic insights; he wondered why everyone hadn’t noticed Shakespeare’s obsession with dreams; and sin so often linked up with sex and “our murder”—the Crucifixion. On a more personal level, he often said that the Wilders were all “crazy as coots.”
Freud had told Wilder during their first meeting that “I come from an unbroken line of infidel Jews.” He had, however, just recently revised his lifelong conviction that “religion is an illusion; now I say it has a truth—it has an historical truth. Religion is the recapitulation and the solution of the problems of one’s first four years that have been covered over by an amnesia.” Freud’s epiphany tempted Wilder, whose early life with an unbending, dogmatic, missionary-spirited Calvinist father and an adoring, sensitive, literary mother—complicated by his birth as the twin who survived—had to be covered over by something-or-other.
Part of this Thornton Wilder had already worked out in his Depression novel, Heaven’s My Destination. It is his funniest novel (and maybe his best), and Freud was right: It is about an American fanatic. The story line is one year in the life of George Brush, a traveling salesman (in schoolbooks) whose territory is pretty much American picaresque—Tennessee and Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. He travels from adventure to adventure by rail, stopping regularly only at Queenie’s boarding house in Kansas City (the exact middle of the country, it should be noted), where he shares a dilapidated flat with Louie, Herb, Morrie, and Bat.
Brush’s friendship with these tenants reposed upon a complicated treaty. Brush promised not to harangue them, unless invited, on religion, temperance, chastity, and tobacco; and they in turn promised to remain within reasonable limits of decency in conversation and in the invention of practical jokes. The cement of this precarious friendship lay in the fact that Brush carried a wonderful second tenor and that the practice of singing in parts constituted their chief pleasure.
It reminds you of a depressed fraternity house: Reasonably good-natured young men, instead of sometimes going to class, go to increasingly marginal jobs (which, except for George, they lose) and otherwise occupy themselves with Animal House pleasures. Nobody has a home.
George wants one. “Brush no longer regarded the farmhouse in Michigan as his home; he had no home,” and his parents never appear. His chief ambition in his 24th year is to Found an American Home. “You know what I think is the greatest thing in the world? It’s when a man, I mean an American, sits down to dinner with his wife and six children around him. Do you know what I mean?”
George’s other serious preoccupation (literally before his job) is to find a way to live out his religion. He’s a Baptist, he says, converted in his sophomore year at Shiloh Baptist College (“a very good college”) in Walling, South Dakota, where he excelled at sports, music, and in the classroom—“I got all A’s.” He can’t figure out why his classmates never elected him to one of the “literary societies” and is greatly disappointed that one of his teachers blew up one day and said to him, “You’ve got a closed mind, Brush, an obstinate, closed mind. It’s not worth wasting time on you.” George insists that, deep down, “I’m the happiest man I’ve ever met,” but admits that most people he meets, especially on trains, depress him, and that “people are always getting mad at me and . . . even disgusted.” He thinks it’s because his ideas aren’t the same as everybody else’s.
Eight different characters call him “crazy” or “nuts,” including the one woman who admits she would marry him in a minute, if only he would ask. Any number of scenes—the novel is like a play, in that it develops in a series of beautifully connected scenes rather than in a plot—illustrate why so many people reacted this way, but here is George “witnessing” to a jaded, whiskey-and-smoke besotted veteran traveling salesman on a train:
“Brother, can I talk to you about the most important thing in life?”
The man slowly stretched out his full lazy length on the reversed seat before him and drew his hand astutely down his long yellow face. “If it’s insurance, I got too much,” he said. “If it’s oil wells, I don’t touch ’em, and if it’s religion, I’m saved.”
Brush had an answer even for this. He had taken a course in college entitled “How to approach strangers on the subject of Salvation”—two and a half credits—generally followed the next semester by “Arguments in Sacred Debate”—one and a half credits. This course had listed the openings in such an encounter as this and the probable responses. One of the responses was this, that the stranger declared himself already saved. This statement might be either 1) true, or 2) untrue. In either case the evangelist’s next move was to say, with Brush:
“That’s fine. There is no greater pleasure than to talk over the big things with a believer.”
“I’m saved,” continued the other, “from making a goddam fool of myself in public places. I’m saved, you little peahen, from putting my head into other people’s business. So shut your damn face and get out of here, or I’ll rip your tongue out of your throat.”
George is indeed a meddler. “I’ve drawn up a few rules for girls,” he says to the unfortunate Mississippi Corey (whose father tries to sell her to George for $35,000), and proceeds to reduce her to tears. “You might get to be a really nice girl if you worked on these rules.” They are what one would expect: Don’t laugh out loud, drink, or smoke, make “unnecessary movements” with hands or eyes, or believe in evolution. At the same time George idealizes the farmer’s daughter from the haymow, and is completely unaware that the ladies whose “home” his boarding-house friends take him to for Sunday dinner are whores.
His meddling lands him in jail three times: first, for riding in a Jim Crow car in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (“I believe in the equality of races”); second, for causing a bank run in Armina (Arminian?), Oklahoma, when he withdraws his money and tries to refuse the interest it has earned (“savings banks are practically immoral”). The third time involves two offenses in Ozarksville, Missouri: trying to help a little girl and being accused by her parents of attempting to kidnap her (George has taken a vow of silence and exchanges notes with the little girl); and letting a robber go with the money from a poor old lady’s store to test out his belief in Gandhi’s concept of ahimsa. The trial for his Ozark offenses is one of the funniest moments in American literature. All his incarcerations are “misunderstandings,” but it’s easy to believe that this will keep happening to George, and that most people will think he’s “crazy.”
Although George Brush has the outward trappings of an evangelical Christian, he never prays, never mentions the name of Jesus, gets out-quoted on the Bible from a man who is even nuttier than George, resorts to a bad imitation of Gandhi when he wants to act in a Christian manner, and cannot defend himself when he is confronted with the inevitable Satan character, George Burkin. Brush has no home, no church, no community; like so many Americans of the 1930’s, he feels alone. It’s depressing to want to be good and not to know how to go about it. Wilder quotes his own character in the Prologue: “Of all the forms of genius, goodness has the longest awkward age.”
George gets sick. He ends up in a Dallas hospital, dying from depression: “One day he arose to discover, quite simply, that he had lost his faith.” It was like losing his arms and legs, and, by the time he got to the hospital, “Brush had a little of everything. . . . The whole machine had run down and he grew worse daily.” He rejects the words of comfort from a foolish Methodist minister who tries to pray with him. “I made the mistake,” George says, “all my life of thinking that you could get better and better until you were perfect.” He is about to die, and wants to.
Then, on a good Friday, he gets a present. It’s “an ordinary silver-plated spoon,” willed to him by Father Pasziewski, Queenie’s priest from Kansas City. George had never met him, but he knew from Queenie’s reports over the year that the priest had been praying for him. All George knew about Father P was what Queenie told him: He was a good man who tried to live out his religion, and somehow every project he worked up to make people better failed. What Queenie told him about George caused him to pray every day. George perks up. This unbought gift of grace, this sacramental gesture, sends him back on the road, probably to find himself back in trouble quite often—through “misunderstandings,” of course. As George had said to one of his nurses, “if you must know, I’m not crazy. It’s the world that’s crazy. Everybody’s crazy, except me; that’s what’s the matter. The whole world’s nuts.”
Wilder’s friend Gertrude Stein thought that Heaven’s My Destination was perhaps the most American novel ever written. Edmund Wilson liked it better than anything else that Wilder wrote. It was translated into Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Portuguese, French, Punjabi, and Arabic. Just as postwar Germans understood that Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth was a war story, people around the world seemed to understand that Heaven’s My Destination was one of the best of all Depression stories.
Wilder said that Heaven’s My Destination is “in every paragraph a Depression novel,” and thought it was the best thing he had ever written: “I never before liked any of my books. They embarrassed me.” Thornton’s biographer says that a lady wrote to him that she loved the novel but hated George Brush. He wrote back, “Thank you, but the book is autobiographical.” Maybe a snippy response, but also quite true. George Brush is Thornton the meddler, Thornton Wilder the Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. He said that
George Brush is a sort of Short History of the American Mind raised by exaggeration into humor: Idealistic, but unclear; really religious, but badly educated in religion. A subtitle also might be: How instinctive goodness learns to express itself in a contrary world.
Thornton Wilder certainly was not a conventional Christian. He did understand, however, that the world is not driven by economic forces. Even as Freud admitted near the end of his life that religion has, at least, “an historical truth,” Wilder tried to teach us that the malaise that so often interrupts our happiness is spiritual at its source.