Friday, July 16, 2010

“Spiritus Valet”

Thornton Wilder (1897–1975)
From Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948

As an undergraduate at Yale during World War I, Thornton Wilder experimented writing short stories—a form to which he would rarely return after the publication of his first novel in 1926. One of these stories, “Spiritus Valet,” won Yale’s John Hubbard Curtis Prize for 1918, which was established in 1900 to honor student achievement in English and which is still given to worthy Yale undergraduates today. (The following year, the prize was awarded to a fellow member of the Class of ’20, Stephen Vincent Benét.) It was a harbinger of Wilder’s career; among his many future honors were the National Book Award and three Pulitzer Prizes; he is the only author to win the latter for both drama and fiction.

The story was also published in one of Yale’s literary magazines, the Yale Courant—which Wilder’s father had edited as an undergraduate three decades earlier—and, unless you somehow had access to a copy of the hard-to-find issue in which the story appeared, you could not have read it until last year, when the text was reprinted in a Library of America edition that includes six of Wilder’s early stories.

J. D. McClatchy, who edited the LOA edition, acknowledges that “Spiritus Valet” is “apprentice work”—but it is very good apprentice work, displaying Wilder’s experiments with “ironic situations and sophisticated dialogue” that he would perfect in his later fiction and drama. Its three parts follow a widow who, earlier in life, had briefly known a famous poet—but the poet’s biographer is convinced that the pair had an affair, the evidence for which is found in the poems themselves. Perhaps the prevailing force of “Spiritus Valet” (Latin for “the spirit is strong”) is the larger-than-life, ghostly, background presence of Sebastian Torr, the “great self-concealing poet, the eternal incognito.” This description of Torr, notes Eric Ormsby in a recent essay in the New Criterion, is Wilder’s “own most prescient epithet.” The subtle intersections of life and art—of “secret” and “confession”—would reappear frequently in Wilder’s writings, and he advised in the 1928 essay “On Reading the Great Letter Writers” that “art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and to hide it at the same time.”

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“The record of Sebastian Torr’s life is the meagrest we have of any great poet’s life since antiquity. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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