Vital Signs

Thornton Wilder's Depression

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...

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