Wilder Quieries: The Bridge Historical Allusion

Q: I am writing an article about Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, for the Peruvian magazine Caretas and need some information I can’t get here in Peru. I hope you can help me. I want to know if the novel alludes to a particular historical event, if Mr. Wilder was inspired chiefly by historical fact, and if he had ever visited Peru.

A: Here, to the best of my knowledge, is the information you have asked for, about the historical accuracy of the bridge’s collapse, the influences on the novel, and Wilder’s personal experience with Peru.

The Bridge: Apparently there was such a bridge in Peru that did, at one point, break. I found reference to a bridge being built across the Apurimac River in Peru about 1350; in the novel Wilder cites 1714 as the year of its collapse.

The Sources: The Bridge of San Luis Rey was influenced by a variety of sources: a passage from the Gospel of Luke (13:4), which mentions the fall of a tower that killed 18 people; a one-act play , by French author Prosper Merimee, entitled “Le Carosse du Saint Sacrement” and set in South America; and the life and works of the French writer, Mme. de Sevigne, who was the model for the Marquesa. And there were still others; Wilder was a great synthesizer of ideas, in both his novels and his plays.

Peru: Wilder had not been to Peru before he wrote the novel. In fact, he did not visit Peru until 1941 when he participated in a cultural mission to South America sponsored by the State Department. His experiences on the 1941 tour inspired parts of his 1967 novel, The Eighth Day.

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