Sunday, April 10, 2022

Eddy Greater

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

Detail from Soubrette, 1883, oil on canvas by British artist Alexander Mann (1853–1908). Courtesy of Bonhams. Click on image to see full painting. Wilder’s short story features “Eddy Greater, the soubrette of the seventies, who was in the height of her fame during the years of Sebastian Torr’s last illness.” Originating in French comedy, a soubrette was often a flirtatious, cheeky chambermaid or servant in nineteenth-century opera and musical theater.
In 1961 a group of Yale alumni, faculty members, and students went through the 32,000 pages published in the Yale Literary Magazine (“the Lit”) during its first 125 years and winnowed the material down to 150 pages showcasing 67 of the best stories, essays, poems, and other short pieces written by the college’s undergraduates. Among the contributors to the collection, titled Art and Craftsman, are the novelist Sinclair Lewis, the short story writer Thomas Beer, and the poets Archibald MacLeish and Stephen Vincent Benét, each of whom were represented by two selections. The book also included two works by Thornton Wilder, the first and last pieces he published in the magazine during his student years. The first, from the October 1917 issue, was one of his so-called three-minute plays, “The Angel on the Ship,” later included in the 1928 collection The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays. The second selection, from the June 1920 issue, was the short story “Eddy Greater,” which had never been reprinted. Among Wilder’s other works that appeared in the Lit during his years at Yale was his first full-length play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, published in four consecutive issues. It was eventually produced off-Broadway in 1926, opened to moderately negative reviews (which Wilder considered fully justified), and ran for thirty performances.

A cursory examination of any copy of the Lit reveals what you’d pretty much expect: largely unremarkable and clichéd undergraduate work. For example, in the issue containing “Eddy Greater,” which is far and away the standout selection, readers will come across the following:
Hark! The footfalls of the past!
Many a graduate at last
      Comes back to the fold.
Time has peopled with its throngs
All the walks—and Yale belongs
To the vanished, while their songs
      Echo as of old.
That bit of collegiate spirit is from the “Campus Evening Hymn,” by Thornton’s brother and senior-year roommate, Amos, who would go on to become a distinguished professor of divinity at Harvard and the author of nearly a dozen books on theology—as well as an award-winning poet. “Most writers, of course, would pay to have their earliest work destroyed, but readers are fascinated by an author’s early efforts,” wrote the late J. D. McClatchy, who edited the Library of America’s Thornton Wilder edition and who for a quarter century was the editor of the prestigious Yale Review—which most definitely has not made a habit of publishing student work. “In Thornton Wilder’s case, it’s fascinating to watch him experiment with ironic situations and sophisticated dialogue. Just like the plays he was writing as a Yale undergraduate, these early stories show him becoming himself.”

For “Eddy Greater,” Wilder returned to the character and premise of “‘Spiritus Valet’,” a story he had published two years earlier in the Lit’s rival magazine, the Courant. “The Lit was solemn, awesome, grammatical, traditional, and completely useless as a workshop, the Courant was frivolous, humble, and of the greatest use,” recalled Sinclair Lewis, who had also published his apprentice work in both magazines—“long mediaeval poems, with (O God!) ladys clad in white samite.” In “‘Spiritus Valet’,” Wilder introduces the fictional Sebastian Torr, an elusive and reclusive poet who had died many years earlier. Torr’s biographer pesters a New York City widow whom he believes is the mysterious “golden-haired lady” of Torr’s masterpiece and who must therefore have in her possession letters or even poems from the great author. When the woman decides to oblige the scholar by forging letters from Torr, she seems to be visited by the poet’s ghost. In “Eddy Greater,” all hints of the spiritual world are gone; while in London, the biographer happens upon a different woman, a former opera singer, who appears to have Torr’s journals and who might be willing to sell them.

In later writings, Wilder would explore more fully the topics he touches on in these stories: the intersection of life and art, the differences in “truth” between letters or diaries and fiction or poetry, and the chasm between literary biography and life. In his 1928 essay “On Reading the Great Letter Writers,” Wilder asks, “What would Keats or Walt Whitman or Queen Victoria say if they read their biography? Wouldn’t they cry out: But this is only one tenth of the truth; all that is really myself escaped?”

Note: The German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach was a dominant force in French theater from the 1850s to the 1870s, staging more than 100 operettas. La boîte au lait (1876) and Madame Favart (1878) were two of his last productions; the latter, an extraordinary success, marked his final triumph in London before the advent of the new style epitomized by the musical comedies of Gilbert and Sullivan—a transition noted by Wilder in his story. Offenbach died in 1880.

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The fall of 190- I spent in London collecting material for my Life and Works of Sebastian Torr for the English Sebastian Torr Society. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.