The last of Wilder’s works published during his lifetime, this novel is part autobiographical and part the imagined adventure of his twin brother who died at birth. Setting out to see the world in the summer of 1926, Theophilus North gets as far as Newport, Rhode Island, before his car breaks down. Soon the young man finds himself playing the roles of tutor, spy, confidant, lover, friend, and enemy as he becomes entangled in the intrigues of both upstairs and downstairs in a glittering society dominated by leisure.
by Matthew Angelo
After a lifetime of achievement, at the age of 76, Thornton Wilder wrote his last novel, Theophilus North. The story of a restless schoolteacher who leaves his post in pursuit of more adventurous living strongly suggests autobiography. However, Wilder’s intention was really quite different; he was drawing not on his experience but fabricating someone else’s. In a letter to a Yale classmate Wilder explains, “I was born an identical twin; he lived an hour; if he had survived his name would have been Theophilus […] I wrote his memoirs.”1 Thus, Wilder imagined a life for his brother—and what a fantastic life he imagined!
The novel recounts Theophilus’s summer in the “nine cities” of Newport, but mostly in the fifth and sixth: the esoteric world of the very rich and the modest working middle-class of the present. Through Theophilus’s first-person narrative, Wilder offers a picaresque, a characterization of life in the summer cottages of the wealthy classes. Because of his rich education but lack of personal wealth, Theophilus finds himself among all class types throughout the novel—many days he shuffles from meetings with old-money aristocrat types to a nightcap at Ms. Cranston’s, a boarding house for the servile class. This broad access provides insights into class relations throughout the novel.
The story begins with Theophilus resigning from his position as a schoolteacher in New Jersey. As he is leaving his post—exhausted and bored—he explains, “I am recapturing a spirit of play […] the play of childhood which is all imagination, which improvises.”2 This newfound sense allows him to revisit the nine ambitions that have occupied his life: to become an anthropologist, archeologist, detective, actor, magician, lover, rascal, and free man. The most startling fact is not the variety of ambitions Theophilus possesses but that all nine are in some way satisfied in a single summer.
After leaving his post, Theophilus whimsically decides to revisit the coastal town where he had served during WWI. It is here that he advertises himself as a tutor of languages and a professional reader. In this capacity, Theophilus is invited into the homes of several prominent persons of the town. As his reputation in town grows, he is invited to mediate many intimate personal matters among families; this he does with both playfulness and a shrewd understanding of human behavior.
Given the heroic and sometimes fantastical nature of his escapades, the novel could have been titled The Adventures of Theophilus North, and run as a TV series. Each chapter offers an isolated incident in which the protagonist intervenes to help an individual in need—or rather, saves the day! From restoring the self-confidence in an elderly man by shattering doubt cast by familial avarice, to driving out counterfeiters; from stopping the elopement of a prominent daughter, to helping a handicapped genius find the courage to date, Theophilus leaves his clients with a new found sense of hope and a modest bill—$2 an hour for all time spent. Although he is intimately involved in the affairs of his clients, Theophilus remains at a distance from the real action of the Newport society people; his outside position allows him to greatly affect but never to enter the otherwise typical and stagnate action of the perennial city. This is characterized by his refusal to accept any invitation to dinner and his neglecting to attend the “Servant’s Ball,” an event he helped organize. In this way he achieves his ninth and overarching ambition: to remain a “free-man.”
As a result, the action does not reach a climactic point, yet resolves when, at summer’s end, Theophilus decides to leave Newport as unobtrusively as he entered it. On his first day in Newport, Theophilus sells his broken down car at Josiah’s Garage, and on his last, he purchases a new one. Here Wilder hints at the toll the summer has taken on the young Theophilus. Dexter, a mechanic, refers to a bit of playfulness Theophilus engaged in upon meeting him when he asks, “Did you want to say a few words to her [his old car]?” to which Theophilus replies, “No, I’m not so lighted headed as I was.”3 The philosophical conversation that follows suggests that perhaps his summer among the wealthy class has had a solemnizing effect; he leaves a much more serious man than he came.
Although his exploits in Newport sometimes hint at a deeper meaning, the episodes read like nostalgic fantasy; Theophilus becomes Wilder’s hero of a forgotten era: an audacious mid-westerner, surviving off of hard work and wit, believing only in his sense of personal enrichment and a duty to his fellow man. As to the purpose of such a character and such a story, Anatole Broyard explains: “Perhaps adults need fairy tales too.”4
The consensus opinion among Wilder scholars is that Theophilus North should not be considered one of his more serious novels. While the book was a commercial success—it remained a bestseller for twenty-one weeks—this last novel is held in much lower esteem than the rest of Wilder’s body of work. Although the reviews ranged from praising Theophilus North’s entertainment value to all but condemning it, much of the critical response is evasive with a patronizing reverence for Wilder and his influence. For example, Geoffrey Wagner wrote that he admired the novel’s “sunny disposition at the end of a long and distinguished career.”5 The Village Literary Supplement was a touch more blunt, describing the novel as “thoroughly amusing but as deeply unsatisfying as tickling an arthritic with a feather to take his mind off the pain.”6 The criticism Theophilus received can be attributed to three qualities uncharacteristic of Wilder’s other works: sentimentality, a flat main character, and thematic evasion.
However, there are a few critics who find hidden value in the exquisite nostalgia of the narrative. To some, it becomes a question of purpose. Lincoln Konkle explains the likely reason for Wilder’s lack of literary commitment to the novel; it was written “to indulge himself, to have fun, to write what Graham Greene called his less serious works—an entertainment.”7 And to that purpose, it would appear, to some critics at least, that the novel is successful. Granville Hicks called it, “extraordinarily entertaining,” while The New York Times contended, “you’d have to be a misanthrope to escape [the story’s] spell.”8
Despite its entertainment value, though, its lack of depth and ambiguous purpose could not be overlooked. Although the novel hints at class relations—notably when Theophilus lashes out at Persis, “Oh, I hate the cliquishness and the timidity of your so called privileged class”9 and when Edweena remarks, “Rich boys never really grow up—or seldom”10—it never seems to deliver a deeper lesson. Like an expert soloist who has missed his cue, Wilder leaves us anticipating a profound message or universal truth that never comes. Tappan Wilder notes the few themes that seem to garner substance: “the depiction of selfless service, or even love that seeks no reward,” and “expansion of the intellect and spirit.”11 However, these broad strokes do not meet the expectations most critics bring to Wilder’s work.
Perhaps these themes would have hit home were it not for the infallibility of the novel’s protagonist. Gilbert Harrison points out that while Wilder’s other traveling meddler, George Brush from Heaven’s My Destination, possessed “a touching innocence” and won our sympathies precisely because he did not “know it all,” Theophilus often appears “a smug manipulator.”12 His overconfidence and perfect execution make him more a caricature than character. Yet, the novel is not without opportunity to demonstrate a flaw. In fact, his zealous approach in any episode could have easily been undermined by the presence of an immovable force. This almost happens when Theophilus picks up an unhappy military wife named Alice, and plans a rendezvous. After Alice expresses reluctance, he convinces her with a comforting line about the infidelity: “you think that Jesus would send you to hell for a little sin that would make [your husband] happy.”13 The obvious way he manipulates her conscience is unforgivable.
The novel has also been admonished for its sentimentality. Wilder described the sentimentalist thus: “[he is] one whose desire that things be happy exceeds his desire and suppressed knowledge that things be truthful; he demands that he be lied to [but also] knows that it is a lie.”14 Perhaps Wilder himself, after many years diagramming the fatalistic nature of the human soul, invested in the lie, the result being a faultless character who reinvigorates and shakes up so easily the traditional mindsets and habits of an esoteric society. Maybe it was all just a fantasy, written by a man committed to the sentimental, for as Theophilus explains, “It’s so boring to tell the truth to people who’d rather hear the other thing.”15 After a lifetime of telling the truth, perhaps Wilder decided to try his hand at “the other thing.”
1Qtd. in Buckley, Christopher. Foreword. xv.
2Wilder, Thornton. Theophilus North. 6.
3Wilder, Thornton. Theophilus North. 370.
4Qtd. in Buckley, Christopher. Foreword. xiv.
6Qtd. in Buckley, Christopher. Foreword.
7Konkle, Lincoln. 229.
8Qtd. in Buckley, Christopher. Foreword.
9Wilder, Thornton. Theophilus North. 342.
10Wilder, Thornton. Theophilus North. 332.
11Wilder, Tappan. Afterward.
12Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields, 1983. 369.
13Wilder, Thornton. Theophilus North. 271.
14Qtd. in Gilbert, Harrison. The Enthusiast. 369.
15Wilder, Thornton. Theophilus North. 178.
Buckley, Christopher. Foreword. Theophilus North. By Thornton Wilder. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Wilder, Tappan. Afterword. Theophilus North. By Thornton Wilder. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Goldstone, Richard H. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Saturday Review Press/E. P. Dutton, 1975.
Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and The Puritan Narrative Tradition. University of Missouri Press, 2006.
Wheatley, Christopher. Thornton Wilder and Amos Wilder: Writing Religion in Twentieth-Century America. University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.
Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
For further discussions of Theophilus North, please visit the Bibliography.
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