Saturday, June 20, 2015

Theophilus North

I am surprised to search and find I have never mentioned the book here.  It came out when I was in college, and as I had to read all of Thornton Wilder's previous work to do a presentation on him for a 20th C drama class, I thought I would complete the set. I loved it then, have reread it once, and still think of it from time to time. Rob Reiner intended to do the movie but never did.  Someone else did, calling it "Mr. North."  The description suggests the director missed Wilder's intents.  I imagine Reiner would have done better.

Most sources call the book autobiographical, or semi-autobiographical, which is not quite so, though the setting does draw on Wilder's own experiences. Much is also made of the main character's name and its significance.  It causes me to wonder how hard people work to do their research. Thornton was born a twin; his brother Theophilus lived only a half-hour.  All his life he contemplated the life that the other Thornton might have lived, and eventually wrote down what that life might have been.  All the wild conjectures that the various professors have about choosing the name might have some truth, of course, and requiring their students to discuss this on exams might have some value...

But not much.

It is set in Newport, RI in the summer of 1926. Theophilus, a Yale graduate who has just quit his job teaching at a prestigious preparatory school, drives in search of a new life until his car breaks down in Newport, where he had served in the Coast Guard during the war. He decides to stay, and rapidly observes that there are nine distinct cities in Newport which only sometimes touch each other.  There are the remnants of the 17th C colonial town and the continuing religiously tolerant 18th C seaport; there are the intersecting three cities of the very rich, their servants, and the journalists/fortune-hunters/ hangers-on; there is Ft Adams and its connections; the sailing, fishing, and yachting tribe; the artists; and the standard middle-class New England town.

North, who prefers to be called "Ted" or "Teddy," moves about semi-plausibly in all nine cities. He is barely and provisionally accepted by the rich because of his education and connections. That he is of modest means (he artfully hides from most that he lives in a quiet boardinghouse) and works tutoring French and giving tennis lessons to their children drops him beneath him on the scale in their eyes, but still admitted into their houses and conversation. His Coast Guard experience buys him entry into both the military and boating communities, his knowledge of history into the company of the preservers and restorers of the colonial city.  And so on through all the groups.  Semi-plausible, as I said.

Less plausibly, but entertainingly, he succeeds at everything he touches that summer (quite literally, see in a bit).  He convinces an elderly wealthy man whose relatives are all waiting for him to die that he has health in him yet, and gets him out of the house on his first jaunts in years.  He restores the reputation of a woman under a cloud, he gently redirects an insecure and insufferable young man, he helps engineer the matchmaking of friends. Quite by accident he develops a reputation for having "healing hands," of some vague electrical nature, and people come to him to be touched and healed.  He is embarrassed and disapproving, but cannot turn the implorers away.  They blow his cover about where he lives as well. All quite fun, gently humorous.

I saw at once that Wilder's last novel was the inverse of his first one, The Cabala.  I have never read that anyone else has made this connection, possibly because no one reads The Cabala anymore - nor should they. Its protagonist goes as a young man to Rome, where he becomes involved in the lives of diverse others there. However, everything goes sour, with only wry bits of philosophical comfort remaining in that work.  People commit suicide, die in mild discouragement, lose their faith, leave everything behind, all amidst classical allusions to the Aenid, which is somehow supposed to buck us all up. The young man has had some hand in all of it, all turned to dust.

I doubt Wilder wrote Theophilus North with conscious intention of reversal, though he was certainly aware of the deep change of his general cast of mind fifty years later.

Further extraneous notes: My oldest son and I did "The Skin of Our Teeth" as a read-aloud when he was ten or so, dividing up the parts.  Great rollicking fun. A lesser-known play is "The Servant's Name was Malchus," about a man who sneaks into heaven to ask God to erase him from the Bible, where he appears only once. (John 18:10 is the only named reference.  The versions in the other gospels probably refer to the same man.) God talks him out of it.  Not a stunningly great play, but interesting.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

I was thinking of ordering the movie, which I see is a Huston family production and looks interesting, but I've just ordered a copy of the book instead.