People want easy answers. "Ignorance is bliss," as the old saying goes. So while critics praised Thornton Wilder's first American-set novel, Heaven's My Destination
(1935), as a much needed return from the exotic escapism of his earlier novels, perhaps they secretly relished the work as an escape of its own genre. George Brush, a narrowly Christian, naïve, yet well-meaning traveling salesman is undeniably laughable in his didactic thought. In fact, he's even arrested twice because people simply cannot understand his reasoning. But in the midst of all the twists and turns of life, Brush views things through an immutable frame; although he cannot bear to look for answers outside of his decided way of looking at things, he at least has a solid foundation on which to base his life. Brush hence achieves a simplicity of viewpoint perhaps much envied by readers, for in his unawareness lies happiness; "The hero is, by all current standards, a nit-wit Babbitt, a religious fanatic and unholy nuisance, who, however, by adhering rigidly to the principles of his narrow convictions, follows a logical course through an unhappy world, serene, unperturbed, and triumphant-heroically conceived by his indulgent creator" (Rascoe, 1). Because George does not comprehend the problems that lie outside of his own internal mental and moral struggle, he can live as if the only requirement for achieving something were planning it. "I am I," George says, "because my plans characterize me." As long as he intends well and sticks to his blueprint for life, George feels that the details will work themselves out. He has set ideas about everything, including money, marriage, crime, education, the care of children, smoking, and endless other topics. He truly believes that as long as he perseveres, he can create the ideal life, and is befuddled and dismayed when the world does not turn in accordance with his theories. This is perhaps one factor in why Americans were eager to follow Brush along his journey, for his point of view is so whittled down that all he can see are his own successes and failures. He is completely oblivious to the absurdity of his actions in the face of broad issues like the Great Depression or world relations concerns such as Hitler's ascension. He hence gains a freedom , despite his ignorance, to act freely and without worry. For instance, George has plenty of opportunities to earn money, but refuses to take interest from the bank, and chooses to give all of his remaining money away at the end of each month. "To save up money is a sign that you're afraid," he believes, "and one fear makes another fear, and that fear makes another fear" (Wilder, T., 23). George therefore chooses to live in "voluntary poverty." His point doesn't go unproven, for as a result of the argument he has at the bank when he refuses to accept interest, there is a frantic run only hours later. Readers of the 1930's, all too aware of the economic desolation sweeping the country, and of the pinching and saving in their own lives, were likely somewhat jealous of a man who could at the drop of a hat sweep major nationwide problems and worries aside and close the issue at that, simply because it is part of his belief system. Perhaps readers realized the unfortunate circumstances of their fear, but that realization could not possibly change the truth of its existence. Real people had crying babies to feed and clothe. So readers laughed at George, but deep down perhaps wished that they too could remain unaware of the inevitable clash between real and ideal.
"We live in what is
, but we find a thousand ways not to face it," Wilder explained to The Paris Review
's R.H. Goldstone in 1957. Heaven's My Destination
may have been so popular because it recognizes, like many who may have been reading it, that no matter how hard one may try to escape into the abyss of oblivious idealism, at some point reality will rear its nasty head. Yes, readers may like to flee into characters like George during a read, into someone who has (or thinks he has) everything all figured out, but even in the midst of their longing for simplicity recognize that idealism and the modern world rarely coexist peacefully. For instance, George is deeply moved by a young girl preaching the Word, so moved, in fact, that he declares his conversion to Christianity on the spot. But when he goes backstage to thank her afterwards, he finds her being injected with drugs to boost her gusto for the material. Similarly, Brush's attempt to arrive at self-knowledge is somewhat faulty, for it is built on completely blind moralization. He memorizes excerpts from great authors such as Tolstoy and Shakespeare, because he thinks he's supposed
to find meaning in such works, and even carries around several ready-made booklets from which he draws much of his moralization. Hence though George's intentions are good, he is so determined to believe in people and things that he misses the fact that seemingly ideal concepts are phony. Despite the apparent irony in situations such as these, Wilder insists that he means no satire in Brush, instead he contends that, "I see myself making an effort to find the dignity in the trivial of our daily life, against those preposterous stretches which seem to rob it of any such dignity; and the validity of each individuals emotions." Wilder tries to stress that since in the end so much is trivial, it is admirable for one to find meaning in whatever they can, an important message in an age when things seemed to be falling apart. But since there were no clear-cut answers in what one critic called "the most godless of American ages," Heaven's My Destination
does not attempt to give them conspicuously, and Wilder keeps his own voice fairly mute.
Misinterpretation of the novel troubled Wilder greatly, but its ambiguity may have also held one of its highest appeals, for readers were at liberty to derive whatever meaning they wished in an almost existential manner. For instance, Wilder received letters denouncing him for making fun of "sacred things," while the Mother Superior of a convent in Ohio wrote saying she "regarded the book as an allegory of the stages in the spiritual life" (Wilder with Goldstone, 352). Readers had to face only what they wanted to face and could take from the book any number of messages. As D.H. Lawrence said, "The novel is the highest form of human expression so far attained. Why? Because it's so incapable of the absolute" (Raleigh, 6). While Wilder had hoped that readers would use Heaven's My Destination
as a springboard to investigate meaning in their own lives, he doesn't force any definite interpretation. "Most writers firmly guide their readers to 'what they should think' about characters and events. If an author refrains from intruding his point of view, readers will be nettled, but will project into the text their own assumptions and turns of mind. If the work has vitality, it will, however slightly, alter those assumptions," Wilder concluded on the subject. Heaven's My Destination
certainly did give way to some disparity of interpretation, but because of the leeway Wilder leaves in the novel, it is not surprising that it was accepted fairly universally. The fact that Wilder's work gained such acceptance is perhaps an indication of a fairly logical concept: readers do not like to be force-fed ideas. Wilder even described himself how he tried to capture themes without falling into "a repellant didacticism" (Wilder, A., 11). Like the people who Brush tries endlessly to influence, real people don't generally wish to have someone moralize to them. In turn, it may be true that to be a bestseller, a book cannot be overly ardent on a particular viewpoint, for it then opens the possibility of winning as many critics as it does supporters. By letting the reader decide what to think about Brush's clashes with the world, Wilder may avoid a score of potential enemies.
In fact, Wilder's reputation as an author by 1935 and his warm public persona may also be instrumental in explaining why Heaven's My Destination
became a bestseller. Wilder had already successfully completed several well-known novels and plays and had even won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on The Bridge of San Luis Rey
(1927). Additionally, he was a superb public speaker and taught and lectured all over the country. Because of his personability and public speaking skills, "his driving energy, his enthusiasms, and his unbounded gregariousness," along with his physical resemblance, parallels were often drawn between Wilder and the late Teddy Roosevelt (Wilder with Goldstone, 349). Teddy Roosevelt, who easily won the hearts of Americans as McKinley's running-mate during the 1900 Presidential Election, stole much of the attention away from McKinley even when he tried to lay low. For instance, he became almost a legend on a hunting trip that was actually intended to get him out of the spotlight when he killed a mountain lion with only a knife and his bare hands. In the same way, Wilder was a figure who attracted attention with out seeking it. Also, both men possessed a quiet, but strong and realistic hope that things would come out right. Wilder once said, "The most valuable thing I inherited was a temperament that does not revolt against Necessity and that is constantly renewed in Hope" (Wilder with Goldstone, 350). Similarly, Roosevelt worked on keeping the country running smoothly following McKinley's assassination and assuring the nation that "all was not lost." The nation's affinity towards such strong yet comforting public figures was likely additionally heightened by the humanistic work of Teddy's distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR's New Deal legislation sparked hope in citizens whose futures had seemed inevitably disastrous. FDR, Teddy, and Wilder all shared one thing in common; they made people feel like they mattered as individuals. One critic described Wilder's intense blue eyes as asserting "I am listening to what you are saying" (Wilder with Goldstone, 349). In an era where many people felt lost and namelessly condemned to a fate of destruction and poverty, figures like the Roosevelts and Wilder were no doubt consoling, for they each in their own forum stressed the validity and meaning of day to day life. People are generally rather self-righteous, and like to feel important. The sensation that Wilder was a person who was listening quite possibly made readers all the more likely to listen back when Wilder offered Heaven's My Destination
Finally, Heaven's My Destination
may have simply been one of a barrage of bestsellers that swept the nation in the 1930's with titles indicative of a search for answers. Books such as James Hilton's We Are Not Alone
, Margaret Barnes' Years of Grace
, Ellen Glasgow's Forgive Us Our Trespasses
, Dorthea Brande's Wake Up and Live!
, Rachel Field's All This, and Heaven Too
, Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living
, Nora Waln's Reaching for the Stars
, J.B. Priestley's The Sheltered Life
, Charles Dickens' The Life of Our Lord
, Caroline Miller's Lamb in His Bosom
, and countless others along spiritual themes graced the bestseller lists during the decade. The 1930's proved to be a time of great unrest for not only the United States, but for the world. Following the stock market crash of 1929, the depression took a heavy toll, leaving over ten million American workers unemployed, countless factories closed, mortgages on homes and businesses foreclosed, and banks failed. Economic instability was an issue worldwide as well by the early 1930's. Under the lead of Italy's Benito Mussolini and later Germany's Adolf Hitler, fascism was spreading at a frightening rate worldwide, in part because more moderate parties were having difficulties deciding what to do about the depression. After a failed uprising in Munich against the postwar Weimer Republic in 1923, Hitler served some time in jail and then began to rebuild the Nazi Party, spreading messages of racial hatred and contempt of democracy. He used explanations of a Jewish-Communist plot to explain the Great Depression, which somehow many Germans believed. In 1933 Hitler secured the position of German Chancellor, subsequently established himself as dictator, and began his quest of aggression and world domination. So in more than one way, the world was on the brink of chaos. Back in America, the long list of spiritually based best sellers may have been the result of an effort by people either to hold on to some kind of faith in humanity and themselves or to understand why so many things were falling to pieces. In reference to Heaven's My Destination
, one critic described how George Brush "learns a little sense and loses a little of his naivete as time goes on without surrendering his essential ideals" (Christian Century, 232), a concept that may have proven useful in a time of loss and fear. And though the message may have ended up somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation, with "too many challenging and disturbing qualities for definite pleasure" (M.F.B., 2), by titling the book Heaven's My Destination
, Wilder implies a certainty of result that readers may have craved. The doggerel verse from whence the title came was indeed written on the inside of schoolbooks, but perhaps with a significant word change (Haberman, 18). The epigraph to the novel reads:
George Brush is my name;
America's my nation;
Ludington's my dwellingplace
And heaven's my destination.
The same verse appears in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce, who Wilder admired greatly, but instead reads:
Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation,
Clongowes is my dwellingplace
And heaven my expectation.
Though the change from expectation
is subtle, it implies a completely differently level of certainty about the end result of a spiritual journey. Americans likely wanted to know where they were going and how they could get there, and perhaps chose book titles that seemed to give a reliable clue for the difficult trek.
Heaven's My Destination
stayed on the bestseller list for only one year. Lured to Wilder's works by his reputation both as an author and as a personable, caring man who believed in the meaning of even the simplest acts, people may have bought the book because of its author, not its content, and found it not to their taste. But even if people did purchase the novel for its message, perhaps in hopes that it could provide some simple answers or relate to their struggles, their refuge couldn't be long. No matter how much they wanted to keep hiding in the idealism of literature, Americans of the 1930's had an economic crisis, volatile world relations, and an impending world war to deal with. Hence at some point they had to stop learning how
to live and instead get out there and do the best they could in an imperfect world.
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