While teaching classes at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, Thornton Wilder grew overnight success and fame with the publication of his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He got the idea for the Pulit
zer Prize winning novel "on the winding walk from the golf club to the Graduate College" and began writing it in his room on the top floor of the Graduate College (Leitch). As Clark Andrews recalls in his tribute to Wilder, "To Us, He Was Always T.W.," "
One day, on a beautiful April morning, the news broke: the book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, had won the Pulitzer Prize, and overnight and unknown school teacher became a celebrity"(Andrews). By July of 1927, the novel had sold close to 200,000 cop
ies and in 1928, it became the number one best seller for fiction and it also appeared for twelve consecutive weeks at number one on the Publisher's Weekly fiction list. Yet, what might explain this sudden explosion of interest in a novel which explores
the lives of five travelers who fall to their death in a Peruvian gulf during the early eighteenth century and the unraveling of the destinies that brought them together at that moment? Wilder's first novel, The Cabala was published in 1926 but it
"gave no special promise of distinction"(Hooke, 730). However, it did introduce Wilder to the literary world and "arouse the most exciting hopes of its author"(Shanks, 323). Therefore, when The Bridge of San Luis Rey came along, people were alread
y slightly familiar with Wilder's; yet, the novel also provided readers with something refreshing and new.
One reason Thornton Wilder has gained so much acclaim from the novel is that its ideas and style of writing were very out of the ordinary for the time. In the 1920's, due to the effects of the First World War, there was a huge gulf between generations a
nd sons often rejected the standards by which their fathers lived. Most writers "belonged to a conspiracy of youth," in which there was a "moral rebellion against middle age"(Cowley). However, Wilder grew up in a rather stable family, worshipped in his fa
ther's church, and followed the career of teaching that his father picked out for him. Therefore, his writing revealed a certain amount of "continuity and tradition" that was extraordinary for the time (Cowley). While most writers at the time were "nove
lists of manners," Wilder was a "novelist of morals"(Cowley). As Wilder once stated, "I am not interested in the ephemeral- such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of mill
ions"(McIntyre). Readers of fiction were getting tired of the same old realistic novels and were extremely thirsty for a mystical, philosophical, and sentimental novel like The Bridge. Also, there were no good novels on the market at that time, so
The Bridge managed to fill that gap.
The critic, Burton Rascoe, states, "At the age of thirty Wilder has achieved the astonishing feet of writing a classic"(Rascoe, 559). However, what does Rascoe mean exactly by a classic? Rascoe continues by comparing The Bridge to such works as Gol
dsmith's "The Vicar of Wakefield" and Madame de Lafayette's "La Princesse de Cleves" because they both are "brief, compact, beautiful, perfect in their several ways" yet they even lack the wonderful intricacy of The Bridge of San Luis Rey(Rascoe
, 559). Many critics have claimed that it is his dependence upon classical materials such as The Bible as well as Greek and Roman classics that make the novel a classic. In The Bridge, Wilder "dresses up a very complicated period just prior
to imperial Rome in order to illuminate the enduring ambiguities associated with love and politics, art and power"(McIntyre). In The Bridge, there is great emphasis on form and intelligibility, much like the classics, as Wilder clearly draws out a
plan and design for the reader such as in the line that motivates the whole novel: "Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan"(Wilder, 6). Furthermore, Wilder was always a reader of literature from around the world
such as literatures of Italy, France, Germany, and Spain. John McIntyre compares him to Henry James, Mark Twain, and Hawthorne for his willingness to "explore the American daimon by assaying the New World in terms of the Old"(McIntyre).
It is also true that "according to classical theory, we fall in love with the beautiful"(McIntyre). Much of The Bridge of San Luis Rey's popularity has come from Wilder's ability to create such beauty, even within rather vile landscapes. Wilder d
oes this through his strong compassion and sentimentality throughout the novel. As Matthew Parris says, "His Bridge of San Luis Rey is one of the best short novels written but I expect it is because he offers no 'searing critique' of his age, nei
ther is he 'angry,' 'bitter,' 'hilarious,' or 'hugely entertaining.' He is just tender, and honest"(Parris). Throughout his writing career, Wilder turned time and time again to the theme of selfless love as shown in the final line of The Bridge
: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning"(Wilder, 148). In The Bridge, this selfless love is explored through the character analysis of five people, which results in "fi
ve aspects of love that is really love and not mere concupiscence"(Rascoe, 560).
Furthermore, much of The Bridge's success lies in Wilder's ability to reach out to the universal man and become "Everyman." Wilder had always had an interest in all kinds of people: "the rich, the poor, the old, the young, in those who, so to sp
eak, had won the battle of life and those who had lost it"(McIntyre). In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder stands for the "tradition of civility" as he portrays a "universal event". As Burton Rascoe says in 'Present Thee At Felicity Awhile," Wild
er "has qualities that are bound to be acclaimed by members of the extreme left as well as members of the extreme right"(Rascoe, 559). Also, Wilder manages to reach every reader as the "optimist may draw an optimistic conclusion form it and the pessimist
a pessimistic conclusion"(Salpeter, 634). Furthermore, because Wilder is dealing with moral issues here as he deals with the relationships of individuals with individuals as well as the relations of man with "himself, his destiny, and his God" as means to
explain problems of "faith, hope, love, charity, art, duty, submission, and one's fate," the novel is able to appeal to the universal reader and "can be illustrated from the lives of any individuals, in any place, at any time since the beginning of time
While some of The Bridge's success may have been enhanced by its media adaptations and advertising, the novels popularity definitely did not depend upon them. The Bridge was twice made into a movie, first in 1929 and then later in 1944; how
ever, both productions were not very big hits. Some critics say that it is inevitable that "Wilder's moody, unusual story of five people meeting doom on a rickety bridge makes a slow-moving movie"(Maltin). The 1944 production was directed by Rowland Lee
who also directed such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Son of Frankenstein. Unfortunately though, The Bridge of San Luis Rey was one of the less memorable productions of his career. As The Apollo Guide Review of the mov
ie states, "This version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is disappointingly static and talky. Too much time is spent with talking heads describing the story, and not enough is devoted to actually showing it. It's as if the story not only got halfway
off the print page and the filmmakers decided to handle the rest by reciting it." As for the advertising aspect of The Bridge's success, little is to be said of its significance. As Harry Saltpeter says in "Why Is a Best-Seller?," "It was not for
ced down the throats of a subservient host of subscribers who read what they are told to read. One hundred thousand individuals have been paying $2.50 apiece for an unusually brief novel, to which weight and bulk were lent by such devices as generous marg
ins and chapter divisions, large, well-spaced type, heavy paper and binding"(Salpeter, 634).
Even though The Bridge has received incredible fame, sold 100,000 copies within its first year without the help of the Literary Guild or the Book-of-the Month Club, and won numerous honors, the novel has actually received less critical attention th
an the work of any other major American writer. This unusual phenomena may be explained by the fact that many critics in the 1920's and even today, believe that a piece of literature "could be a best-seller or a work of art, but not both" and that really
fine books do not become best-sellers (Cowley). In fact, the Literary Guild and the Book-of-the-Month Club turned down The Bridge of San Luis Rey because they believed the book was "to beautiful to sell"(Salpeter, 634). Another theory to explain t
he disregard of The Bridge from critical recognition was and is ironically due to the main reason it gained such popular acclaim: its strong optimism. However, some critics admire Wilder for these courageous attempts to set himself apart from "the
abyss-leaning tendency of the modern temper"(Lewis). For example, a critical review in the New Republic, states, "He really was a buoyant being, and for me he rings least true when he is talking modernistically about boundless human misery, and mos
t true when, for example, he tried hard late in life to work up a mood of resentment about a recent biography of him, but had to confess that 'cheerfulness is always breaking in'"(Lewis). Also, some of the neglect may derive from the fact that Wilder ne
ver really had a specialty because he was not only distinguished as a novelist but also as a dramatist and essayist. Therefore, critics have been confused how exactly label Wilder as a writer.
Furthermore, much of the neglect of the novel derives from the fact that Wilder is not "essentially American"(McIntyre). He has actually been attacked for "ignoring American subject matter in favor of dimly imagined classical worlds full of 'little laven
der tragedies'"(Mallon).Wilder once wrote, "it is not easy to be an American because the rules aren't made yet; the exemplars are not clear. It is like leaving the Known and Comforting and crossing an ocean and a trackless wilderness in which one must g
radually set up a form of government and one must decide what should be taught in the schools and one must build a church. and one can't rely very much on those one knew before - over there, because, for us, those weren't quite right"(McIntyre). Most wr
iter's of his time had a home place to focus their writing on such as Faulkner's county in Mississippi or Hemingway's Michigan woods; however, Wilder had no "geographical starting point" upon which to center his work since he was constantly moving back
and forth from China to the U.S. and also from one side of the U.S. to the other (Cowley).
Overall, besides the neglect of critics, it is evident that Wilder had no problems in reaching out to the "trackless wilderness" of America in The Bridge of San Luis Rey which not only gave him a single success but led to popular appeal in his late
r novels and playwrights such as the Pulitzer-Prize winning plays, Our Town(1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). says, "There is no newcomer on the horizon, not even Ernest Hemingway, Julian Green or Elizabeth Madox Roberts, whose future
I would bet on with so much enthusiasm and so much cold cash as Thornton Wilder"(Rascoe, 559). Most likely, she has gained a great deal of "cold cash" from this bet because Wilder's success and fame remains permanently fixed. The Bridge of San Luis Re
y is still in print and even by 1981, Pocket Books sales alone of the novel had reached 1,189,764. Therefore, it is slightly an understatement when Harry Salpeter states, "The Bridge is a good book" (Salpeter, 634).
**(Retrieved form Internet or Lexis-Nexis)***
Andrews, Clark. "To Us, He Was Always T.W." Yankee. Sep 1978. www.thornton-wilder.com/trib/tributes_andrews.html
Apollo Guide Review. http://apolloguide.com
Cowley, Malcolm. "The man Who Abolished Time." Saturday Review. 6 Oct 1956.
Leitch, Alexander. mondrian.princeton.edu/CampusWWW/Companion/wilder_thornton.html
Lewis, R.W.B. "The enthusiast: a life of Thornton Wilder." The New Republic. 12 Dec 1983
Mallon, Thomas. "The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder." National Review. 1 June
Maltin, Leonard. Leonard maltin's Movie & Video Guide. http://us.imdb.com/Maltin?0036672
McIntyre, John. "Homage for Thornton Wilder." www.thornton-wilder.com/trib/tributes_mcintyre.html
Parris, Matthew. "Matthew Parris Column." Times Newspapers Limited. 6 Sep. 1993.
Salpeter, Harry. "Why Is a Best-Seller?" Outlook. CXLVIII. April 18., 634, 640.
Hooke, S.H.. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." The Canadian Forum. v8, 730
Rascoe, Burton. "Present Thee At Felicity Awhile." Bookman. LXVI, 559-62.
Shanks, Edward. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." London Mercury. Jan., XVII, 323-4.