Meet George Marvin Brush — Don Quixote come to Main Street in the Great Depression, and one of Wilder’s most memorable characters. George Brush, a traveling textbook salesman, is a fervent religious convert who is determined to lead a good life. With sad and sometimes hilarious consequences, his travels take him through smoking cars, bawdy houses, banks, and campgrounds from Texas to Illinois — and into the soul of America itself.
by Matthew Angelo
In 1930, after the publication of his third novel, The Woman of Andros, Wilder had established himself as a prominent American author. However, Michael Gold, critic with The New Republic, published a scathing review of the content and themes of Wilder’s first three novels: “Wilder has concocted a synthesis of all the chambermaid literature, Sunday-school tracts and boulevard piety there ever were.” These charges culminated in a literary call to arms: “Let Mr. Wilder write a book about modern America. We predict it will reveal all his fundamental silliness and superficiality.”1 Whether Heaven’s My Destination is a direct response to this challenge is unknown. However, with the intention of demonstrating the struggle of the American mind, “forever alternating between ethical puritan aspiration and the busy realist vainglory,”2 Wilder offered his first complete survey of modern American society.
Published in 1935, the novel tells the story of the born-again evangelist, George Marvin Brush, who works as a traveling salesman with a textbook manufacturer, Caulkins and Company, assigned to a Midwest territory. The novel is presented as a picaresque, satirically following the exploits of its young religious hero. Presenting one year of the protagonist’s life—it begins just before Brush’s 23rd and ends on his 24th birthday—the novel gives a comic account of his confrontations with a more secular society in the midst of the Great Depression. On his quest to “found an American home,” George is accosted by a host of people and circumstances that chip away at his unabashed, traditional religious outlook.
We meet the novel’s hero, whom Wilder describes as “an earnest, humorless, moralizing, preachifying, interfering product of bible-belt evangelism,”3 on a train to Wellington, Oklahoma. The opening scene appears to dramatize Wilder’s own description. George attempts to “save” an amiable man in the smoking car of the train. To Brush’s question, “Can I talk to you about the most important thing in life?” the man remarks, “I’m saved […] from making a goddam fool of myself in public places. I’m saved, you little peahen, from putting my head into other people’s business. So shut your damn face and get out of here or I’ll rip your tongue out of your throat.”4 This is the typical sequence of George’s interactions: friendly at first, the interfering of Brush in the life of the stranger, followed by a hostile episode when the stranger does not embrace Brush’s uncompromising idealism.
The novel proceeds as an account of Brush’s pilgrimage through the mid- and southwest, where he is called upon to save a depressed realtor from suicide, is offered $35,000 dollars to take the hand of the daughter of a prominent Judge, is arrested twice for what are later discovered to be gross “misunderstandings,” all the while, receiving raises for his uncanny ability to sell Caulkins and Company textbooks to school officials.
The novel’s climactic episode is when George succeeds in his quest to find and marry a young woman with whom he had intimate relations. Although George is able to talk his way out of misunderstandings and is able to dismiss the hostile treatment he receives from others, his interaction with Roberta Weyerhauser proves a more fatal blow to his faith. Although Roberta is reluctant and even repelled by George, she agrees to marry him. Finally, George thinks, he will found his “American home.”
The marriage inevitably fails, Roberta returns to her family, winning back the affection of her father—such was her proclaimed goal—and George is left questioning, “Isn’t the principle of a thing more important than the people living under that principle?” to which Lottie, Roberta’s sister, makes the point George has refused to acknowledge throughout the novel: “Nobody’s strong enough to live up to the rules.”5
After this, Brush embarks on a three-month trip through the Midwest, devastated. He slowly becomes less observant, and finds himself praying less and less and then not at all. Then, “one day he arose to discover, quite simply, that he had lost his faith.”6 This casual delivery implies perhaps the groundlessness of his religious convictions; they could not withstand the weathering of life experience. George explains how his worldly outcomes forced him to forfeit his beliefs: “The more I asked the worse I got. Everything I did was wrong. Everybody I knew got to hate me.”7 Eventually, his lack of faith brings on an illness that the doctors describe as “a touch of everything”; it is as if he has given up.
However, the ending is not cynical and George is not just another example of loss of innocence. The receiving of a spoon from Father Pasziewski, a Catholic parallel to George, on his deathbed, proves inexplicably revitalizing to Brush. In the end, he returns to his evangelical ways, living in voluntary poverty, thinking out life theories, and imposing himself on his fellow man, only this time with more realistic expectations. His pledge to put a woman who reads Darwin’s The Cruise of the Beagle through college demonstrates his ability to change, to adapt his faith to embrace modern realities, proving perhaps the resiliency of the “ethical puritan aspiration” in modern American society.
Soon after the publication of Heaven’s My Destination, Wilder noted the public reaction to his novel in a letter to Rosemary Ames: “My book’s selling like pancakes but almost everybody misunderstands it. I should worry.”8 Indeed. The public reaction to George Brush’s escapades won Wilder “many letters from writers of the George Brush mentality, angrily denouncing [him] for making fun of sacred things,” as well as “a letter from the Mother Superior of a convent in Ohio saying that she regarded the book as an allegory of the stages in the spiritual life.”9 John Chamberlain asks the question that seems to elicit such an array of responses: “what is [Wilder’s] intention?”10
Much of the confusion appears to stem from the critical interpretation of George Brush’s temperament, his inner growth while on his journey, and his ultimate fate. Critics often point out that “George himself is representative of America.”11 However, which America is being represented is a constant point of contention. While Malcolm Goldstein describes Brush as commonly narrow-minded, “he has the middle-class virtues of gregariousness, fastidiousness, […] and a tendency to mistake his prejudices for reasoned opinions,”12 Rex Burbank sees him as saint-like, a model of human progress toward the “Greek arête,” or human perfection. While some critics see him as “one of us,” others see him as only a part of us, a poor, neglected part starving for attention—the spiritual ideal.13
These interpretations raise questions about the meaning of Brush’s journey. Christopher Wheatley suggests that Wilder uses Brush and his encounters to “criticize America and assert the need for piety (loyalty to those things to which one should be loyal).”14 It is George’s tribulations in a “nation that has lost its spiritual heritage and sense of purpose”15 that expose his tragedy, and the tragedy of an American society without faith. This would be true if George represented only the best aspects of the spiritual life. However, George is not without fault, and his own obstinacy is often the source of the comic action. After Brush allows a gunman to flee with all of a storeowner’s money he explains, “Mrs. Efrim, don’t be mad at me. I had to act that way to live up to my ideals.”16 It is clear that George is not simply a saint-like victim of a spiritually depraved America.
The confusion over Brush’s trajectory through the plot becomes a question of form: is the novel representative of a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story in which the character emerges at an enlightened adulthood, or a picaresque, a mere catalogue of modern American society in light of the depression and corrupted Christian ideals? David Castronovo makes a strong case for a picaresque. He argues that Wilder depicts a “fallen world” where his hero cannot reconcile his idealistic concept of the world with the larger context of the world’s evils.17
Were the novel to end three pages earlier than it does, there might be a consensus around this interpretation. On his deathbed, as his body mirrors the broken, dejected state of his faith, George appears to have given up on life altogether; his best efforts to lead a good life have led only to rejection and disappointment. However, before the novel ends we are informed that George has once again taken up his itinerary, making vows of silence, performing random acts of kindness, and getting arrested as a result of his compulsion to brandish unconventional life theories. This revitalization suggests a different end entirely; by reconciling his faith with a secular society, his resurgence represents hope.
An intertextual analysis between Heaven’s My Destination and The Pilgrim’s Progress makes a strong case for the work as representative of progress. In The Pilgrim’s Progress Christian, like George, endures episodes of temptation and despair to eventually enter the “Celestial City.” Just as Hopeful’s encouragement helps Christian wade through the river of death, Father Pasziewski’s gift to George helps him regain his faith. The similarities between George’s and Christian’s journeys suggest Wilder’s intended effect: George is capable of adapting his faith to exist in an increasingly secular society.18 This is present in George’s pledge to pay for the college education of a girl whom he sees reading a book by Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory. Thus, his embracing of evolution—an intolerable idea to him earlier in the novel—represents growth.
Unlike his previous novels, in Heaven’s My Destination Wilder achieves his intended themes by displaying concrete action rather than “imposing philosophical observations upon [that action].”19 This technique appears to foreshadow his work on Our Town, which is so minimalistic that only the simplest action is used to achieve its themes.
While the novel earned seventh place on the list of the ten best-selling novels in 1935,20 critical acclaim was far from unanimous. Critics Herschell Bricknell and Edmund Wilson seem to epitomize the critical reception of Heaven’s My Destination: while Bricknell dismissed it as “lacking blood and bones,” declaring it a novel of no “particular importance,”21 Wilson counters that it is Wilder’s “finest [work] to date.”22 Perhaps both are right.
1Gold, Michael. “Wilder: Prophet of the Genteel Christ.” The New Republic 22 October 1930: 267.
2Thornton Wilder qtd. in Wilder, Tappan. Afterward. Heaven’s My Destination. By Thornton Wilder. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.
3Wilder, Thornton. Qtd. in McClatchy, J.D. Foreword. Heaven’s My Destination. HarperCollins, 2003. x. Print.
4Wilder, Thornton. Heaven’s My Destination. HarperCollins, 2003. 4. Print.
5Wilder, Thornton. 178.
6Wilder, Thornton. 180.
7Wilder, Thornton. 184.
8Thornton Wilder qtd. in. Wilder, Tappan. Afterward. Heaven’s My Destination. By Thornton Wilder. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. 196. Print.
9McClatchy, J.D. Foreword. Heaven’s My Destination. By Thornton Wilder. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.
10Wilder, Tappan. 194.
11Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and The Puritan Narrative Tradition. University of Missouri Press, 2006. 122. Print.
12Goldstein, Malcolm. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 85. Print.
13Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1978. Print.
14Wheatley, Christopher. Interview. 4 Nov. 2011.
16Wilder, Thornton. Heaven’s My Destination. Harper Collins, 2003. 128. Print.
17Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: F. Ungar, 1986.
20Wilder, Tappan. 193.
21Qtd. in Wilder, Tappan. 195.
22Blank, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996. 7. Print.
Blank, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996.
Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1978.
Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: F. Ungar, 1986.
Conversations with Thornton Wilder. Jackson R. Bryer ed. Jackson & London: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Gold, Michael. “Wilder: Prophet of the Genteel Christ.” The New Republic 22 October 1930: 266-267.
Goldstein, Malcolm. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1965.
Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and The Puritan Narrative Tradition. University of Missouri Press, 2006.
McClatchy, J.D. Foreword. Heaven’s My Destination. By Thornton Wilder. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.
Stresau, Hermann. Thornton Wilder. Trans. Frieda Schutze. New York: F. Ungar, 1971.
Wheatley, Christopher. Interview. 4 Nov. 2011.
Wilder, Tappan. Afterward. Heaven’s My Destination. By Thornton Wilder. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.
For further discussions of Heaven’s My Destination, please visit the Bibliography.
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