Sunday, August 28, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 5: Thornton Wilder as a Populist

There is another mode of American literary populism is not so much about making the ordinary person larger than life, as in Walt Whitman’s poetry. This other strain of American populist is concerned with finding the pathos in small, everyday moments. Maybe my favorite U.S. populist in this vein is Thornton Wilder, author of the play Our Town, and the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, among other works.


Thornton Wilder
In addition to Our Town, which beautifully celebrates meaningful moments in small-town American life, Wilder wrote a wonderful one-act play called The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden. How much more mundane can you get than a family road trip from one city in New Jersey to another? The family members are traveling to visit the eldest daughter, who lives with her husband in Camden. En route, the family talks about the most banal topics—billboards they see with ads for spaghetti and cigarettes. They debate whether to make a pit stop at a gas station, whether the son is old enough to take a paper route. The mother is the loudest, most uneducated, obnoxious character. When the family finally gets to the home of the fully grown daughter, it’s the usual small talk—how much the kids have grown, how nice her house looks. Can life get any more boring?

Then suddenly, Wilder has the mother send the other family members off on various errands. The mom is now alone with her grown, married daughter.

You can see a video of part of a production of the play here. The scene I’m going to discuss starts right after the 2:40 second mark and goes till about 4:07.


The married daughter unexpectedly breaks down and starts sobbing, and the mother folds her in her arms, so we see that the daughter is still her child, even if she is fully grown and living on her own. The audience finds out the real purpose of the car trip—the mother has come to console her daughter on her recent miscarriage. The mom had missed her chance to do this when the daughter was in the hospital right after she lost the baby—a gruff doctor had sent the mother away. This moment when the mother finally gets to soothe her daughter in Wilder’s play is so surprising, so poignant. We realize that all those mundane details are just the wrapper, the outside of life, and inside are the incredibly moving moments that sustain us.

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