Wilder, Thornton: Heaven's My Destination
(researched by Jessie Haury)

Assignment 1: Bibliographical Description
1 First edition publication information (publisher, place, date, etc.)
Thornton Niven Wilder. Heaven's My Destination. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935. Copyright: 1935 by Harper & Brothers First British Edition: Heaven's My Destination. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1934. Source: National Union Catolog
2 First edition published in cloth, paper, or both? If both, simultaneous or staggered?
The first edition is published in trade cloth binding and has a dust jacket.
3 JPEG image of cover art from first edition, if available
4 Pagination
161 leaves, pp. [4] [i-iv] v-vi [vii-viii] 1-304 [6]
5 Edited or Introduced? If so, by whom?
The first edition is neither edited nor introduced.
6 Illustrated? If so, by whom?
Heaven's My Destination has no illustrations save the cover art, designed by A.W. Rushmore, which is displayed on the dust jacket.
7 JPEG image of sample illustration, if available
8 General physical appearance of book (Is the physical presentation of the text attractive? Is the typography readable? Is the book well printed?)
Size of page: 20.5 cm x 13.5 cm Size of text: 14 cm x 9 cm Size of type: 113R Typography: Heaven's My Destination is set in Linotype Jamison, "an authentic revival of the famous 17th century book face of Anton Jamson, the punchcutter of Leipsic. . .." The style of type is Serif. Large Margins and about 3mm of space between each line of text provide for excellent readability. Chapter headings are larger than the text and capitalized. Each chapter is preceded by a small, italicized, matter-of-fact paragraph describing the events or subjects the chapter is to cover. Initial caps begin each chapter and add a bit of extra flourish. Further, at the top of each left hand page can be found the chapter number, and on the top of every opposite page is written "HEAVEN'S MY DESTINATION".
9 JPEG image of sample chapter page, if available
10 Paper (Assess the original quality of the paper used for the book. Is the paper in the copy or copies you examined holding up physically over time?)
The paper used in this edition is wove paper with an even, granulated texture. It has held up well over time, with perhaps slight yellowing, but no significant foxing, staining or tearing. The edges of each page are cut roughly, so that some pages are slightly shorter than others and softly jagged. Whereas at one time this jagged paper may have felt harsh, years of use and the touch of human hands have now softened it. The first and last leaves are of a thicker stock and grayish in color.
11 Description of binding(s)
The binding is in calico-texture cloth and is yellowish in color. The spine is decorated with orange semi-circles and triangles. On the front cover Thornton Wilder's signature is stamped in black. Transcription of spine: HEAVEN'S | MY | DESTI- | NATION | Thornton | Wilder | [short ruled line] | [semi-circle and triangle decorations] | [short ruled line] | HARPERS The rather dull binding is covered in a colorful dust jacket. The top half is white while the bottom half is blue, and gold and blue stars are scattered across the cover and spine of the jacket. On the bottom blue section of the cover, the outline of a man is portrayed, his head tipped back looking upward and his arms outstretched in quiet supplication. A gold puddle or cloud covers part of his body. The same picture that dons the cover is replicated on the spine, only in smaller form. Transcription of dust jacket cover (printed in black): The New Novel by the author of | THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY | Thornton Wilder | HEAVEN'S MY DESTINATION | Harper & Brothers Established 1817 For information on dust jacket flaps and back cover, see #15 ("other").
12 Transcription of title page
recto: Thornton Wilder | HEAVEN'S MY DESTINATION | George Brush is my name; | America's my nation; | Ludington's my dwelling-place | And Heaven's my destination | (Doggerel verse which children of the | Middle West were accustomed to | write in their schoolbooks). | Of all the forms of genius, | goodness has the longest awkward age. | --The Woman of Andros | HARPER & BROTHERS, Publishers | New York and London | 1935 verso: HEAVEN'S MY DESTINATION | Copyright, 1935, by Harper & Brothers | Printed in the United States of America | All rights in this book are reserved. It may not be used | for dramatic, motion - or talking - picture purposes with- | out written authorization from the holder of these | rights. Nor may the text or part thereof be reproduced | in any manner whatsoever without permission in writ- | ing. For more information address: Harper & Brothers, | 49 East 33rd Street, New York, N.Y. | First Edition | M1
13 JPEG image of title page, if available
14 Manuscript Holdings
Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has possession of the Thornton Wilder Papers, including manuscript notebooks, holograph manuscripts, typescripts, advertisements, and other material related to Heaven's My Destination. Source: Susan Brady, Assistant Head of Public Services, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
15 Other (typograpical information from title page, etc.)
Back of dust jacket: The fact of first importance for the many thousands of readers of Thornton Wilder's books is that each novel has been an unexpected and original treatment of themes deeply embedded in human emotions and experiences of all of us. This new novel is no exception. The element of surprise will take the reader's breath away for its sheer novelty, but it will not diminish the shock of the electrical charge which Thornton Wilder turns upon the popular beliefs of our age. The reader of this disturbing book may as well make up his mind that he will be arguing with his friends about Heaven's My Destination for the next twelve months. It's that kind of book. [row of stars] Having voted to adopt Heaven's My Destination in England as the choice of the English Book Society, J.B. Priestly says of it; "In my opinion Thornton Wilder's best book. A modern American Don Quixote, filled with fine, tender irony, penetrating humor, and vivid pictures of the contemporary American Scene. What a surprising chap Wilder is!" Inside front left flap of dust jacket: Heaven's My Destination by Thornton Wilder, author of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," etc. The author of one of the most popular books of this generation has now written the story of a modern "Don Quixote." George Brush is a commercial traveler in textbooks, as he is fond of explaining-but a commercial traveler with a difference: he believes with all his heart and soul in God. The story of his struggles with an unfeeling world-in a bawdy house which he believes to be one of the finest homes in Kansas City; in a court of law, where he tries to explain to a cynical judge his thoughts on life and love of man; in a Chinese restaurant, where he tries to make one of the waitresses an honest woman against her will-is told with uproarious comedy, but also with the same profound understanding and compassion which endeared "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" to over a million readers. The novel is completely objective in treatment. But it is nevertheless a portrait of a mind and spirit at grips with the ultimate problems of life. Inside right flap of dust jacket: ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Thornton Wilder was born in 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin. When he was 9 he went to china with his father, who was the American consul-general. When they returned in 1914 Thornton Wilder went to school in California. He studied at Oberlin for two years and from there went to Yale, where he received his degree. "As an undergraduate at Yale," writes William Lyon Phelps, "he was unusually versatile, original and clever." He played and composed music, wrote much prose and verse, stood well in the studies of his course. He was a shining light in the Elizabethan Club and in the small group known as "The Pundits." For two years after graduation he studied at the American Academy in Rome. For seven years after that he was a house master in a school in New Jersey and during that time received an MA from Princeton. "The Cabala" was published in 1925, and in 1927 there followed "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," which sold over 400,000 copies and won for Thornton Wilder the Pulitzer Prize and an international reputation. In 1928 he gave up his teaching job and went abroad to work on "The Woman of Andros." Since then he has spent his time traveling and lecturing.
Assignment 2: Publication and Performance History
1 Did the original publisher issue the book in more than one edition? If so, briefly describe distinguishing features of each (illustrations, cover art, typography, etc.); if not, enter N/A
From the information available as of 1999, it appears that Harper & Brothers never released another edition of Heaven's My Destination, but reprinted at least twenty times from the original edition in 1935 (these are listed in WorldCat as separate "editions," but as I cannot find any evidence of physical discrepancies or differences in pagination I am assuming that these "edition" numbers are simply indicative of several reprints in 1935). Harper also reprinted at least once more in 1959. Sources: National Union Catalog, WorldCat, Eureka, www.barnesandnoble.com
2 JPEG image of cover art from one subsequent edition, if available
3 JPEG image of sample illustration from one subsequent edition, if available
4 How many printings or impressions of the first edition?
In the first printing of 1935, 11,750 hardcover copies and 103,219 Avon paperback copies were made. Source: http://www.thornton-wilder.com/novels/heaven_intro.html
5 Editions from other publishers? If so, list their dates and publishers; if not, enter N/A
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935, 1937 New York: New Avon Library, 1945 (bound in printed paper wrappers; all edges stained, decorations by George A Corrado). Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company Inc., 1950. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. New York: Popular Library, 1969. New York: Bard Books (published by Avon), 1975. Source: WorldCat
6 Last date in print?
Heaven's My Destination was in print in Russia as recently as 1996. The last date in print in the United States appears to be October 1984 by Avon books. Sources: Books in Print with Book Reviews, WorldCat
7 Total copies sold? (source and date of information?)
Complete sales figures are not available at this time, but through approximately 1964 55,470 hardback and 131,847 paperback copies were sold. Source: www.thornton-wilder.com/novels/heaven_intro.html
8 Sales figures by year? (source and date of information?)
Not available at of 1999.
9 Advertising copy (transcribe significant excerpts, briefly identify where ads were placed)
Advertisement from Publishers Weekly, December 1934, vol. 126, pp. 128-129: "Ö1,500,000 PEOPLE, at a conservative estimate, read and enjoyed The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A large proportion will buy Thornton Wilder's new book, the story of a modern Don Quixote, as soon as they hear of its publication. We're planning a big national advertising campaign to inform them. You'll want to plan windows, counter displays, and personal recommendations to your customers. The book stands up. The merchandising set-up is right. The result will be sales. Rush your order. Coming January 2nd. $2.50 JANUARY SELECTION OF BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB HEAVEN'S MY DESTINATION is one of the few books by an American author to be selected by the English Book Society; it is also one of the few books to be selected by both American and English Book Clubs. The volume will be one of the most discussed works of the year. J.B. Priestly says: 'His best book!'"
10 JPEG image of sample advertisement, if available
A21019991011030104.jpg
11 Other promotion
Despite claims in the advertisment described above, I was unable to locate evidence of any other promotion, though there were scores of reviews following the release of the book. Heaven's My Destination entered the Publishers Weekly fiction bestsellers list at #2 on February 9, 1935, and peaked at #1 on March 16, 1935, (remaining there for 4 weeks) for a total of 16 weeks on the Publishers Weekly bestsellers list. Sources: Bestseller Index: All Books, Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Through 1990; Publisher's Weekly
12 Performances in other media? If so, list media, date, title, production information; if not, enter N/A
N/A (There were no indications of performances of Heaven's My Destination in other media formats.)
13 Translations? If translated, give standard bibliographic information for each translation. If none, enter N/A
[Norwegian] Thornton Wilder. Til himen vil jeg fare. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 1951. [Russian] Thornton Wilder. K nebu moi put?: roman. Nvyi mir Moskva: Izvestiia, 1996. [Russian] Thornton Wilder. The Cabala. Heaven's my destination. Our town. Moscow: Raduga, 1988. [Italian] Thornton Wilder. Il cielo Ë il mion destino. Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1949 (& 1959). [Italian] Thornton Wilder. Il cielo Ë il mio destino: romanzo. Milano: Garzanti, 1969. [German] Thornton Wilder. Dem Himmel bin Ich auserkoren: Roman. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1951, 1955. [German] Thornton Wilder. Die Cabala; Die Brucke von San Luis Rey; Dem Himmel bin ich auserkoren; Drei Romane. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1959 [Arabic] Thornton Wilder. al sa ma' wijahate. Cairo: Dar al katib al 'rabi Litiba' wa nashr, 1967. [French] Thornton Wilder. En voiture pour le ciel. Paris: Gallimard, 1949. [Dutch] Thornton Wilder. De hemel mijn beloning = Heaven's my destination. Amsterdam: Wereldbibliotheek N.V., 1936. [Danish] Thornton Wilder. Himlen er mit hjem. Kobenhavn: Aschehoug, 1947. [British] Thornton Wilder. Heaven's My Destination. London: Longmans & Green, 1934, 1946, and 1968. [Portuguese] Thornton Wilder. O cÈu È meu destino. Rio de Janeiro: EditÙra Globo, 1950. [Swedish] Thornton Wilder. Till Himlen gÂr min v?g: roman. Stockholm: Bokf?rlaget Natur och Kultur, 1935. [Hungarian] Thornton Wilder. Szent Lajos kir·ly hÌdja; Mennyei ¸gyekben utazom; Caesar. Budapest: EurÛpa, 1970. [Hungarian] Thornton Wilder. Mennyei ¸gyekben utazom. Budapest, Magveto Konyvdiado, 1959. Source: WorldCat
14 Serialization? If serialized, give standard bibliographic information for serial publication. If none, enter N/A
N/A
15 Sequels/Prequels? Give standard bibliographic information for each. If none, enter N/A
N/A
Assignment 3: Biographical Sketch of the Author
1 Paste your biographical sketch here (maximum 500 words)
(For a complete biographical overview, please see Katrina Vickerman's entry on The Woman of Andros or Ruth Collins' entry on The Bridge of San Luis Rey) Filled with a deep sense of religious and moral tradition by both his parents and his highly classical education, Thornton Niven Wilder tended from his earliest works to focus on spiritual themes. Thornton was born to Amos P. Wilder, a devout Congregationalist and newspaper editor, and Isabel Niven Wilder, the daughter of a Presbyterian Pastor. Growing up in a home where Walter Scott, Dickens, and Thackery were often read aloud, Thornton was taught to respect cultural tradition and developed a universal system of values. In Wilder's family, literature was to be viewed in light of its moral function. Thornton spent several years of High School studying at a missionary school in Chefoo, China while his father served as consul general to Shanghai and Hong Kong, and began his undergraduate education at Oberlin "at a time when the classrooms and student life carried a good deal of pious didacticism which would now be called narrow Protestantism" (Burbank 21). He finished his undergraduate studies at Yale alongside his brother Amos who ended up as a professor of theology at Harvard. Thornton taught at Lawrenceville School until 1928 when the success of The Bridge of San Luis Rey enabled him to resign and write full time. Wilder's literary focus on faith, love, humility, and sacrifice can at least in part be traced to his religious family life and traditional, morally formative educational experiences (Burbank 22). Wilder told Ross Parmenter in 1938 that "For Years I shrank from describing the modern world. . . I was alarmed at finding a way of casting into generalization the world of doorbells and telephones. And now. . .I like to feel that I accept the twentieth century, not only as a fascinating age to live in but as assimilable stuff to think with" (Haberman 18). Writing in the wake of a barrage of negative criticism following The Woman of Andros, Wilder handed the public his first novel set in America. Led by Marxist critic Michael Gold, reviewers had attacked Wilder for using his skills to write unrealistic, romantic, historical novels rather than ones that addressed the immense social issues brought on by the Great Depression (Haberman 18). Hence it may seem that Wilder was aiming Heaven's My Destination directly at disgruntled critics. While the novel was in part an attempt to confront the negative criticism, Wilder's creation of the well-intentioned yet closed-minded protagonist George Brush, who he admitted is highly autobiographical, was even more a personal attempt to face the "pious didacticism of his upbringing" (Harrison, 45-148) and his views on human nature. The intellectual climate at the University of Chicago, where he lectured from 1931-1936, seems to have helped Wilder meet head on the task of Heaven's My Destination. More important influentially, however, was the beginning of a deep friendship and correspondence with Gertrude Stein, who he met on her American lecture tour in 1934. Stein not only encouraged Thornton to ignore critics, but also helped him bring together and apply his ideas on humanism (Harrison, 145-148). One of the epigraphs of Heaven's My Destination reads "Of all the forms of genius, goodness has the longest awkward age" (from The Woman of Andros). While we see this statement proven through George Brush's clashes with the world, it is also quite evident in Wilder's development as an author in his increasingly successful attempts to share his knowledge of the world as "undeliberately" as possible. Heaven's My Destination marks an important transition into more fully developed ideas about human nature, which Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) were able to further solidify, including a quest to recognize a sense of dignity in the small tasks of daily life and find validity in each individual's emotions (Burbank 83). Sources: Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961. Canby, Henry Seidel. "A Baptist Don Quixote." Saturday Review of Literature 5 Jan. 1935: 402 Haberman, Donald. "The Americanization of Thornton Wilder." Four Quarters May 1967: 18. Harrison, Gilbert. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983. Papajewski, Helmut. Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1965. The Gale Group. Contemporary Authors On-line. 1999 [http://www.galenet.com] Wilder, Amos Niven. Thornton Wilder and his Public. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980. Wilder, Amos Tappan. Thornton Wilder: The Centennial. 1997 [http://www.thornton-wilder.com/novels/heaven]
Assignment 4: Reception History
1 Paste contemporary reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
"His new novel will be read for its entertainment and discussed for its ambiguity," reads the subtitle to J. Donald Adams' article in The New York Times Book Review. Such seemed to be the general consensus of critics, some of whom hailed Heaven's My Destination as Wilder's best novel yet, following its 1935 release. Reviewers were quick to praise Wilder's rather humorous transition into American fiction, but also surprised at the disparity in style and content of Heaven's My Destination as compared to earlier works. Also, critics could not seem to agree on whether George Brush's "innocently and aggressively determined" attempts to spread holiness in an unresponsive world was intended to be satirical or to make a serious statement about life. Wilder expressed frustration on more than one occasion soon after publishing the novel about having written something that he felt was so widely misunderstood. In a letter to a friend he commented that "you're supposed to look through the humor-you're supposed to look through it at a fella who not only had the impulse to think out an ethic and plan a life-but actually does it." Confusion about Wilder's purpose, however, did not impede critics from relating to George's shunned efforts at morality; one critic even described his efforts almost universally, saying, "Heaven's My Destination is an apologue of American life. It is the prudish, ignorant, humorless goodness of the American strain in its awkward age, growing up very slowly, and making a conspicuous ass of itself. And yet there is something impressive in moral goodness, even when dumb"(Canby, 411). Critics found George's awkwardness of goodness somewhat annoying, but could not help but be won over by his "gusto for living" despite his almost laughable naivete. Most reviewers were astute enough to note that though one could interpret Heaven's My Destination through purely ironical or comedic eyes, this was surely not Wilder's intention due to his tendency to highlight the moral aspects of human nature in even the darkest situations. Hence critics generally concluded that the reader is not supposed to mock Brush for his narrow, somewhat uninformed didacticism, but instead be refreshed by his simple goodness and sincerity and sympathize with him as a universal character facing a complex world. G.N. Shuster of Commonweal commented that, "The reader may rightly expect to be discomfited rather than to be pleased. But if he is a mature reader, the acid will be good for his soul." Beyond the outward humor of Heaven's My Destination, critics urged patience in order to recognize that "our spiritual and moral welfare is laid naked, starkly and pitilessly, before our eyes" (M.F.B., 2) Most criticism of the novel revolved around the presence of what Edmund Wilson called "divine intervention" and around what some felt was an unresolved ending. Following Brush's complete loss of faith in himself and all he has come to know, a few critics found it hard to swallow that he is suddenly able to return to his old beliefs, all thanks to the well-timed arrival of a silver spoon. The spoon comes from Father Pasziewski, who has just died and who George discovers had been praying regularly for him. He is deeply moved and sets back out into life once more. Wilson simply wonders what will stop George from continuing to develop his seeds of doubt and feels that Wilder leaves his beliefs unresolved. The fact that George Brush can so readily spring from a complete a sense of emptiness and failure back into his simple-minded faith seemed to Wilson unrealistic at best, but is the very reason Heaven's My Destination was to most critics a simple triumph of spirit against the potent foe of the world. SOURCES Adams, J. Donald. "Mr. Wider's Comedy of Virtue." The New York Times Book Review 6 Jan. 1935: 6. B., M.F.. "Heaven's My Destination." Books 6 Jan. 1935: 1 Brickell, Herschel. "Mr. Wilder Goes Native." The North American Review March 1935: 281-282 Canby, Henry Seidel. "A Baptist Don Quixote." Saturday Review of Literature 5 Jan. 1935: 402. Phelps, William Lyon. "A Note About Wilder." Book-of-the Month Club News Jan. 1935 Shuster, G.N.. "Heaven's My Destination." Commonweal (Commonweal Foundation, New York) 22 Mar. 1935: 604-605 Van Allen, Eleanor L.. "Heaven's My Destination." The North American Review June 1935: 180-182 Wilson, Edmund. "Mr. Wilder in the Middle West." The New Republic 16 Jan. 1935: 282-283.
2 Paste subsequent reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
"His new novel will be read for its entertainment and discussed for its ambiguity," reads the subtitle to J. Donald Adams' article in The New York Times Book Review. Such seemed to be the general consensus of critics, some of whom hailed Heaven's My Destination as Wilder's best novel yet, following its 1935 release. Reviewers were quick to praise Wilder's rather humorous transition into American fiction, but also surprised at the disparity in style and content of Heaven's My Destination as compared to earlier works. Also, critics could not seem to agree on whether George Brush's "innocently and aggressively determined" attempts to spread holiness in an unresponsive world was intended to be satirical or to make a serious statement about life. Wilder expressed frustration on more than one occasion soon after publishing the novel about having written something that he felt was so widely misunderstood. In a letter to a friend he commented that "you're supposed to look through the humor-you're supposed to look through it at a fella who not only had the impulse to think out an ethic and plan a life-but actually does it." Confusion about Wilder's purpose, however, did not impede critics from relating to George's shunned efforts at morality; one critic even described his efforts almost universally, saying, "Heaven's My Destination is an apologue of American life. It is the prudish, ignorant, humorless goodness of the American strain in its awkward age, growing up very slowly, and making a conspicuous ass of itself. And yet there is something impressive in moral goodness, even when dumb"(Canby, 411). Critics found George's awkwardness of goodness somewhat annoying, but could not help but be won over by his "gusto for living" despite his almost laughable naivete. Most reviewers were astute enough to note that though one could interpret Heaven's My Destination through purely ironical or comedic eyes, this was surely not Wilder's intention due to his tendency to highlight the moral aspects of human nature in even the darkest situations. Hence critics generally concluded that the reader is not supposed to mock Brush for his narrow, somewhat uninformed didacticism, but instead be refreshed by his simple goodness and sincerity and sympathize with him as a universal character facing a complex world. G.N. Shuster of Commonweal commented that, "The reader may rightly expect to be discomfited rather than to be pleased. But if he is a mature reader, the acid will be good for his soul." Beyond the outward humor of Heaven's My Destination, critics urged patience in order to recognize that "our spiritual and moral welfare is laid naked, starkly and pitilessly, before our eyes" (M.F.B., 2) Most criticism of the novel revolved around the presence of what Edmund Wilson called "divine intervention" and around what some felt was an unresolved ending. Following Brush's complete loss of faith in himself and all he has come to know, a few critics found it hard to swallow that he is suddenly able to return to his old beliefs, all thanks to the well-timed arrival of a silver spoon. The spoon comes from Father Pasziewski, who has just died and who George discovers had been praying regularly for him. He is deeply moved and sets back out into life once more. Wilson simply wonders what will stop George from continuing to develop his seeds of doubt and feels that Wilder leaves his beliefs unresolved. The fact that George Brush can so readily spring from a complete a sense of emptiness and failure back into his simple-minded faith seemed to Wilson unrealistic at best, but is the very reason Heaven's My Destination was to most critics a simple triumph of spirit against the potent foe of the world. SOURCES Adams, J. Donald. "Mr. Wider's Comedy of Virtue." The New York Times Book Review 6 Jan. 1935: 6. B., M.F.. "Heaven's My Destination." Books 6 Jan. 1935: 1 Brickell, Herschel. "Mr. Wilder Goes Native." The North American Review March 1935: 281-282 Canby, Henry Seidel. "A Baptist Don Quixote." Saturday Review of Literature 5 Jan. 1935: 402. Phelps, William Lyon. "A Note About Wilder." Book-of-the Month Club News Jan. 1935 Shuster, G.N.. "Heaven's My Destination." Commonweal (Commonweal Foundation, New York) 22 Mar. 1935: 604-605 Van Allen, Eleanor L.. "Heaven's My Destination." The North American Review June 1935: 180-182 Wilson, Edmund. "Mr. Wilder in the Middle West." The New Republic 16 Jan. 1935: 282-283.
Assignment 5: Critical Analysis
1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)
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 to them. 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 to destination 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. SOURCES B., M.F.. "Heaven's My Destination." Books 6 Jan. 1935: 1 Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961. Haberman, Donald. "The Americanization of Thornton Wilder." Four Quarters, May 1967, pg. 18. Harrison, Gilbert. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983. "Heaven's My Destination." Christian Century, 20 Feb. 1935: 232. Papajewski, Helmut. Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1965. Raleigh, John Henry. "Heaven's My Destination: The American Quixote." From introduction to Doubleday Anchor edition of Heaven's My Destination. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company Inc., 1950. Rascoe, Burton. "Heaven's My Destination." Books 1 Jan. 1935: 1. "Thornton Wilder with R.H. Goldstone." Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 82: 348-354. Wilder, Amos Niven. Thornton Wilder and his Public. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980. Wilder, Amos Tappan. Thornton Wilder: The Centennial. 1997 Wilder, Thornton Niven. Heaven's My Destination. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1934. Wilson, Edmund. "Mr. Wilder in the Middle West." The New Republic16 Jan. 1935: 282-283. Ziemke, Earl F. "World War II." Microsoft Encarta '97 Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Microsoft Inc. 1993-1996.
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