Sunday, April 12, 2020

New Haven, 1920

Thornton Wilder (1897–1975)
From Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings

Hand-colored photo of the original Dwight Hall, Yale University, ca. 1905, from a postcard produced by the Paul C. Koeber Co. “It was a center of elevating ‘discussion groups,’ prayer meetings, and social service programs,” wrote Thornton Wilder. “The members of the most sought after (that is, most exclusive) Senior society were all drawn from the leaders of Dwight Hall.” Designed by architect J. Cleaveland Cady, built in 1886, and named after former Yale president Timothy Dwight, the hall originally housed the Yale chapter of the YMCA. Eventually the umbrella organization governing the various religious and service-based campus groups that met within its walls also became known as Dwight Hall. The building was demolished in 1926.
Nearly fifty years after he graduated as a member of Yale’s Class of 1920, Thornton Wilder wrote, “My father was a stone’s throw [from] my successive rooms in the dormitories. I was very much under his eye.” A devout Congregationalist, Amos Parker Wilder was an American diplomat in Hong Kong and in mainland China from 1906 to 1914. Forced by poor health to resign his post, he moved to New Haven and eventually returned to his previous career as a journalist and public speaker. The Wilder family lived a peripatetic lifestyle, spread across several continents, separated from each other in various schools, homes, and summer programs, and sent hither and thither by the decrees and whims of their patriarch. Only Amos’s wife, Isabella, seemed able to repel his commands, and she often objected to the micromanagement of their children’s upbringing well into their adult years. He was, to use the current vernacular, an archetype of helicopter parenting.

In letters to his children, Dr. Wilder had no qualms about making comments to one sibling on the strengths and weaknesses of the others. He confided to Thornton about his older sister Charlotte: “I can never make a college president of her while she carries a basket of chips on her shoulder and is too keen in judgments.” He urged his oldest son, Amos, to apply himself more steadily because “in the years to come you will have not only yourself but some of these others, especially hopeless Thornton, to finance.” Even his wife was subject to criticism in his letters, and he complained to Thornton about her interference with his schemes for their children’s education and future careers: “Everybody has his burden; this is mine.”

“Dr. Wilder’s chess pieces did not always move willingly,” writes Penelope Niven in her recent biography of Thornton, “but, ultimately, everyone moved as he ordained.” When his four oldest children were young adults, he was still able to boast, “I usually get things I want where the welfare of my children is concerned.” Still, there were limits. In 1918, when he suggested that he would use his contacts in the diplomatic service to get his sons discharged from the military soon after the war’s end, Thornton replied tersely, “Nothing on earth can get me out of the Army that doesn’t originate in this very building so please don’t try.”

Thornton’s father sent both of his sons to Oberlin College for two years before allowing them to transfer to Yale, where he had received his undergraduate degree and a PhD. Thornton bridled at the path his father had arranged for him, writing with scorn to his older brother about “Oberlin with its compulsory chapels and prescribed Scripture-class-work and its suggested Christian endeavors, Bible-class, YMCAs, and Temperance Society.” As always, Dr. Wilder got his way, adamant that Oberlin would prepare his son to “resist the shocks” of the secular temptations lurking at his alma mater. So Thornton was shipped off to Ohio when his brother, two years older, transferred to Yale—but only after the brothers spent the summer working together without pay on a farm in Vermont, a character-building project arranged by their father. “You with your sheaf of plans won,” he wrote bitterly to Dr. Wilder in 1915, after his future had once again been decided for him.
Thornton Wilder in his senior class portrait.
Beinecke Library.

In 1916 Dr. Wilder convinced Amos to volunteer for the ambulance corps of the American Field Service rather than complete his senior year at Yale, and the young man was in France by November. A year later, after the U.S. entered the war, he enlisted in the Army. Meanwhile, in September 1917, Thornton transferred to Yale and learned that his two years’ coursework at Oberlin would only count as one, so he was enrolled as a sophomore. In September 1918 he joined the Army’s First Coast Artillery Corps stationed at Fort Adams, Rhode Island, but the war ended before he could be sent to France. He was discharged at year’s end and resumed his studies at Yale. Amos returned from Europe the following summer, and the two brothers roomed together on campus for their senior year and graduated in June 1920.

Many years later, Thornton wrote that after he graduated, “my father was faced with the problem of what to do with me. . . . I had been constantly reminded that I lacked concentration and perseverance. I was a woolgatherer. I was a dilettante.” Dr. Wilder’s short-term solution was to commit the 23-year-old to another character-building summer on a farm. But Thornton realized that the other problem was what he should do about his father. With the help of his mother and a family friend, he applied and was accepted for an eight-month residency in classical studies at American Academy in Rome. His father ultimately approved, since his son might then be able to make a living as a teacher of Latin (which, ironically, was one of three courses Thornton flunked at Yale). His escape to Europe inspired Thornton’s first novel, the critically acclaimed The Cabala (1926), about a young American who spends a year in the decadent environment of postwar Rome. The year after his debut as a novelist, his second book, The Bridge over San Luis Rey, made him a household name.

In the late 1960s, Thornton Wilder began work on a semi-autobiographical project. He “had trouble writing directly about himself, and late in life discovered that he could take incidents and occasions from his past and ‘fictionalize’ them.” J. D. McClatchy told Library of America in an interview in 2011. “The fact that he was a twin whose brother died at birth was the most riveting of these occasions and led him to write Theophilus North, which he published at age seventy-six. But he kept on writing up other facts of his life, using the basics while changing the specifics.” Wilder never completed the project, and a few unfinished chapters survive in his papers—three of which were published for the first time in Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings. The following fragment recalls his days at Yale, and his father—just “a stone’s throw” away—is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure in the memory of this “missionary’s son.”

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Some of the above biographical details and all of the quotes from members of the Wilder family are from Penelope Niven’s Thornton Wilder: A Life.

Notes: Founded in 1909 at Yale, the Whiffenpoofs is the oldest collegiate acapella singing group in the U.S. The name of the group originated in Irish American composer Victor Herbert’s opera Little Nemo (1908). Die Kaiser Wilhelm Schule sogar translates as “Even the Kaiser Wilhelm School.” Dramat is the commonly used appellation for The Yale Dramatic Association

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It was widely believed, in my time, that Yale College was attended solely by clear-eyed, clean cut, high-minded, upright, downright, forthright Christian young men; and—give a little, take a little—this was true. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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