A young American student spends a year in the exotic world of post-World War I Rome. While there, he experiences firsthand the waning days of a secret community (a “cabala”) of decaying royalty, a great cardinal of the Roman Church, and an assortment of memorable American ex-pats. The Cabala, a semiautobiographical novel of unforgettable characters and human passions, launched Wilder’s career as a celebrated storyteller and dramatist.
by Stephen Rojcewicz, MD
Thornton Wilder began The Cabala, his first novel, as a journal while residing at the American Academy in Rome in 1920-1921, where he studied Roman archaeology. Wilder continued working on the book during his years as a French teacher at the Lawrenceville School and a graduate student in French literature at Princeton, completing it in 1925. Albert & Charles Boni published the book in 1926.
Its first-person narrator, a well-read and classically educated young American of a Puritan mindset, goes to Rome with his friend, the scholar James Blair. Blair introduces him to a small influential group of Roman aristocrats, called the Cabala. The young American, whose name is never given, becomes their confidant. But the Cabala gives this American abroad the nickname of Samuele.
Following his first meeting with the Cabala, Blair takes Samuele to visit a mortally ill English poet. Multiple clues (e.g., the poet’s coughing up blood, and residence in a small apartment near the Spanish Steps as well as references to “Chapman’s Homer”) indicate that Samuele is in the presence of the dying John Keats, although the novel is set in 1921 and Keats died in 1821. The narrator tries to comfort the dying poet with the words of Greek and Latin poetry, while praising the world the dying man is leaving. This effort foreshadows that of Julius Caesar to console the dying poet Catullus in Wilder’s later novel, The Ides of March (1948), also set in Rome.
Her Highness the Duchess d’Aquilanera, one of the Cabala, asks Samuele to intervene with her adolescent son, Marcantonio, so that the boy might control his sexual escapades long enough to marry an aristocrat and continue their noble line. When Samuele discusses this mission with Cardinal Vaini, a former missionary to China and now an influential, scholarly churchman, Samuele is astonished to learn that the Cardinal agrees that the goal of moral reform is short-term only. Relying on both Puritanical and psychiatric language in his admonitions, “remorseless counsels … the wine of the Puritans and alternating the vocabulary of the Pentateuch with that of psychiatry,”1 Samuele manages to reform Marcantonio for a while. But Marcantonio relapses, attempts sexual relations with his half-sister, and then commits suicide. The Cabalists, however, accept this death philosophically.
The following episodes feature the Princess Alix d’Espoli, a woman of strong emotional sensibilities. She falls in love with James Blair, a totally unworthy object of her affections, who rejects her. Another member of the Cabala, Astrée-Luce, has her irrational faith challenged by Cardinal Vaini, whom she deeply admires. He reads Freud, Spengler, and Greek tragedians in the original, and employs his vast worldly knowledge, powerful intellect and rationalism to demolish Astrée-Luce’s naive beliefs. Devastated, she identifies the Cardinal as the Devil, and unsuccessfully tries to shoot him. The Cardinal decides to return to China, but dies on shipboard en route. Samuele decides to leave Rome for America.
In the concluding chapter, Samuele talks to an American member of the Cabala, Elizabeth Grier, who identifies the members of the Cabala as reincarnations of pagan gods. While waiting on the ship for departure from the Bay of Naples, Samuele repeats the verses of the Aeneid to himself. Virgil appears to him in a vision, and tells him that it is not true that Rome is eternal. “Nothing is eternal save Heaven. … Seek out some city that is young. The secret is to make a city, not to rest in it. When you have found one, drink in the illusion that she too is eternal.”2 Samuele bids farewell to Virgil, he hears the ship’s engines pound, and he heads for the new world.
Thornton Wilder published this, his first novel, to critical acclaim. Since its combination of realism and historical fantasy was astonishing for the times, critics viewed Wilder’s writing as a radical departure from the prominent naturalism of contemporary American fiction. The reviewer for the New York Times called the publication a literary event, and The Cabala “a work of art, both in form and design.”3
Edmund Wilson detected a Proustian sensibility in this novel, in its portrayal of Alix’s unrequited love for Blair, an “abject and agonizing love on the part of a superior for an inferior person,”4 as well as its Proustian turns of phrase throughout the narrative. Later critics have identified the powerful influences of Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton in the work’s theme of an innocent American abroad, and of James Cabell in its combination of realism and romance.
Samuele, the name for Thornton Wilder’s alter ego in this novel, evokes not only the nickname for America in Wilder’s time, Uncle Sam, but also, as Lincoln Konkle has observed, the Biblical prophet Samuel.6 Konkle persuasively argues as well that Samuele is the novels’ representative of Puritanism, a major theme throughout Wilder’s work.7
Samuele tries to make sense of his new experiences in Rome in terms of his American Puritan beliefs. He is astonished by the Cardinal’s precept: “Never try to do anything against the bent of human nature. I came from a colony guided by exactly the opposite principle.”8 With his use of the anachronistic term “colony” rather than “state,” he further emphasizes his Puritan background.
The novel’s profound mystical and religious associations are among its most striking features. While the Italian word cabala does mean a “cabal” (a secret conspiratorial group), it can also mean an “imbroglio” (a complicated or confused situation or disagreement), and refer to the Jewish mystical Kabbalah, an occult and often numerological interpretation of Hebrew scriptures, a significant detail, since the name Samuele also alludes to a Hebrew prophet. The members of the Cabala have been identified with various pagan gods: Jupiter (Cardinal Vaini), Demeter (Elizabeth Grier), Pan (Marcantonio), Venus and Adonis (Alix and Blair), and Mercury (Samuele himself),9 and Artemis (Astrée-Luce).10 The demolition of Astrée-Luce’s faith by the Cardinal has been has been interpreted as an allegory of the clash of Puritan beliefs with Roman Catholicism,11 but also as the destruction of paganism and the replacement of irrational religion with enlightened faith and love.12
The classical world suffuses this work. References to Virgil (“it was Virgil’s country”) and (“the shimmering ghost [of Virgil] faded before the stars”) bookend the novel. Wilder had been fascinated by Greek myth since early boyhood. Research on Wilder has only recently begun to explore his relationship to classical antiquity. In the first monograph devoted to Wilder and the Greek and Latin classics, published in 1992, a Greek scholar, Mary Koutsoudaki, treats some, but by no means all, of his classical allusions and themes.13 An article written a decade later by a German, Raimund Borgmeier,14 calls Wilder a poeta doctus, a “learned poet,” a term traditionally applied to Catullus, the Latin poet who figures prominently in The Ides of March.
More recently, the distinguished American classicist Michael Putnam15 has carefully examined the allusions to Virgil and the Aeneid in this novel prior to the concluding scene, among them an early thought about the place of Virgil’s death and burial; a reference to the story that Virgil never dies; and several mentions of Virgil in the narrator’s words. Putnam maintains that Wilder has evoked Virgil, for the general reader and for the classical scholar, in order to underscore the importance of Virgil’s message for him and for Americans, “the last of the barbarians.”
Wilder’s narrator, like Wilder himself, accepts Virgil’s message, and sails on to the new world. He will become an American writer, but one always attuned to the classical tradition.
1Wilder, Thornton. The Cabala; and, The Woman of Andros: Two Novels. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007, 55. The Cabala originally published 1926.
3“First Novel of an American Stylist.” New York Times Book Review, 9 May 1926, 9.
4Edmund Wilson. “Thornton Wilder: The Influence of Proust.” The New Republic, 8 August 1928, 303-305.
5Rex Burbank. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961, 35-36; Dennis Lloyd. “Inventing the American: Thornton Wilder’s Use of Myth,” in Martin Blank et al., eds. Thornton Wilder: New Essays. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1999, 150.
6Lincoln Konkle. Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006, 79.
8Thornton Wilder. The Cabala (1926), 42. Italics in the original.
Anonymous. “First Novel of an American Stylist.” New York Times Book Review, 9 May 1926.
Borgmeier, Raimund. “The Gods’ Messenger and Secretary? – Thornton Wilder and the Classical Tradition.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 7, 2001: 344-365.
Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961
Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006
Koutsoudaki, Mary. Thornton Wilder: A Nostalgia for the Antique. Parousia Monographs 18. Athens: University of Athens, 1992.
Lloyd, Dennis. “Inventing the American: Thornton Wilder’s Use of Myth,” in Martin Blank et al., eds. Thornton Wilder: New Essays. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1999.
Putnam, Michael. “Virgil and Wilder’s The Cabala.” New England Classical Journal 37, 2010: 113-119.
Wilson, Edmund. “Thornton Wilder: The Influence of Proust.” The New Republic, 8 August 1928: 303-305.
For further discussions of The Cabala, please visit the Bibliography.
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