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Gilbert A. Harrison: The Enthusiast: A life of Thornton Wilder; Ticknor & Fields; New Haven CT.

by Ronald Berman

Thornton Wilder was a hugely successful writer and evidently a very good man. As to the first, in 1927 The Bridge of San Luis Rey earned $20,000 in royalties, a figure which can be compared with the amount that The Great Gatsby, published two years earlier, generated in 1927: approximately $50.00. As to the second, Wilder has left enough evidence of his loyal friendships, his charities, and his public interest to convince pretty nearly anyone that, like his characters in The Skin of Our Teeth, he did a superior job of being alive. But this biography of Wilder is short of the kinds of interpretation that both the work and the life require. Although it has been praised to death, the book is a kind of respectable failure. It is good reading, but the author spends more time accurately describing social trivia than he does discussing Wilder, whom I admire.

Possibly the best thing to do is draw up a balance sheet. The debit side will begin by noting that Wilder—who was famously and unjustly accused of plagiarizing his material from James Joyce—was evidently a modern writer, even a modernist in some respects. But his work is not placed in the literature of the 1920's and the 30's. This is not to demand,...

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