It’s the birthday of the writer who said, “My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.” Thornton Wilder (books by this author), born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897). His father was a diplomat, so Wilder and his four brothers and sisters moved back and forth between Asia and the United States. His parents were supportive, but sometimes overbearing. They dictated what Wilder did with his time, and made him work on farms in the summer so that he would be more well-rounded. They decided where he would go to college: to Oberlin, in Ohio, and then to Yale.
After some time in Rome, Wilder got a job teaching French at a boys’ boarding school. In 1926, Wilder spent the summer at MacDowell Colony, a writers’ retreat in New Hampshire, and he started work on his second novel. It was set in the Spanish colonial era of the 18th century — the story of a bridge that collapses in Lima, Peru, while five people are crossing it. The collapse is witnessed by a Franciscan friar, who becomes obsessed by the tragedy and tries to figure out why those five people had to die. Wilder finished it less than a year later and sent it off to his publisher, who almost turned it down, complaining that it was written “for a small over-cultivated circle of readers.” But when The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) was published, it was an immediate success. It won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize, and by that time, it had sold nearly 300,000 copies and been through 17 printings.
Wilder earned enough from The Bridge of San Luis Rey to quit his job and build a house for himself, his parents, and his sisters in Hamden, Connecticut. He called it “the house the bridge built.” That house was his official residence for the rest of his life.
In 1962, Wilder was 65 years old, a famous writer. He was best known for his plays, like his Pulitzer-winning Our Town (1938) and The Matchmaker (1955), which was adapted into the musicalHello, Dolly!. He had not written a novel for almost 20 years. He was tired of being in the limelight, and he wanted to escape his comfortable life in Connecticut, so Wilder got in his Thunderbird convertible and headed southwest. The car broke down just outside of Douglas, Arizona, a town on the Mexican border, and that’s where Wilder stayed for a year and a half. He was happy to be somewhere where nobody knew much about him or his writing. He rented an apartment with one bed for himself and one for all his papers. During the days he wrote, read, and took walks, and in the evenings he hung around the bar asking questions — so many questions that everyone called him “Doc” or “Professor.” When he left Douglas at the end of 1963, he had a good start on a novel. In 1967 he published it as The Eighth Day, and it won a National Book Award.
He said, “There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.”
And: “The test of an adventure is that when you’re in the middle of it, you say to yourself, ‘Oh, now I’ve got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.’ And the sign that something’s wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.”
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