Sunday, April 5, 2009

Thornton Wilder's "The Woman of Andros" and a Digression on the Social Utilitarian Perspective of Literature

In the small rural towns of New England, the social life of the community still often centers around those peculiar institutions that were the bedrock of village life two-hundred years ago: the town hall, the church, the post office, the village store, and, of course, the town dump.

Nowadays the town dump usually goes by a more attractive, cleanly moniker; in our town of Leverett, Massachusetts it’s called the Transfer Station. The euphemism is not misplaced: Leverett has the highest per capita recycling rate in the Commonwealth. Not only does our dump have an active recycling program, but it is against the law to throw out something that can be recycled instead. We also have a line-up of sheds dedicated to the second of the three R's: reuse. There is a “Take-It or Leave-It” shed for household items, a clothing shed, and--you guessed it--a book shed.

Most of the volumes in this shed are cheap paperbacks or outdated popular works of nonfiction (cookbooks, business manuals, self-help books, etc.). Many are damaged, if not by previous owners than by the admittedly dismal storage conditions of the shed. Every other week, after taking care of the household garbage and recycling, I take a moment or two to browse through the free books to see if there’s anything worth saving. This week’s featured item came from the Leverett Transfer Station Book Shed.

The book is American novelist and dramatist Thornton Wilder’s third novel, The Woman of Andros, published in 1930 by Albert & Charles Boni of New York and, for a time, a national bestseller. My copy is a first American edition; it was printed in small octavo format, with 82 leaves and bright orange flyleaves and pastedowns at front and back (the front flyleaf in my copy has been torn out). The binding is tan cloth with gilt lettering and an embossed red figure of a classically-dressed woman reclining in a chair (which occurs again on the title page, p. [3]); the paper is a hefty stock with deeply pressed vertical chain-lines with 2cm gaps, 5 to a leaf, with no discernible watermark. The pages measure 12.5cm x 20.5cm. There is some slight foxing and water-staining both within the book and on the front board and spine; the spine also has worn at the top from being pulled from the shelf. 

The only annotation or markings in the book that suggest provenance is the red-purple inscription of an owner’s name on the first leaf; the name is not terribly legible and might read “Dianne”, “Diarune”, or some other permutation of “Dia-” followed by several squiggled minim strokes and a terminal “e”. I do not know who this person is (or was), but the book has a local provenance since Janet Wilder Dakin, the youngest sister of Thornton Wilder, once lived in the neighboring town of Amherst, Massachusetts, in the building that is now the home of the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies. As far as I know, however, this particular copy is not linked to her or the estate. The first edition is not exceptionally rare and is usually valued between $15 and $55 depending on the condition and whether the original dust-jacket is extant (which is very rare); Wilder autographed a number of the copies during the book’s initial promotion and these copies are, of course, worth considerably more (between $180 and $280).

The core of the novel, the first part of which is based upon Terence’s comedy Andria (which was, itself, based upon two lost plays by Menander), is a classical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean world, written in a purposefully heavy-handed and ornate style and centering on the philosophy (yes, philosophy--the story is short on plot) of pain and suffering made meaningful through the prophesied coming of Jesus Christ, along with issues of generational conflict, a love triangle, and familial discord. The book appeared only a few months after the stock market crash of 1929 (which is perhaps why I subconsciously chose it for this week’s book) and its message of patient sufferance did not go over well with critics, particularly Marxist critics such as Michael Gold of The New Republic, who charged that Wilder was an elitist out of touch with the suffering of the average American. Gold wrote a withering critique in which he excoriated the philosophical novel for failing to come to grips with the economic disaster burdening the country (as if the crisis were somehow Wilder’s fault and not the fault of the brainless, short-sighted robber baron speculators). 

The review, and the heated exchange that followed, led to a nationwide debate about whether literature has an obligation to maintain relevance to contemporary social and economic conditions. Then, as now, when financial clouds lour upon our house, the communal knee-jerk response is to relegate the arts and literature to “luxury” status, arguing from the strictly utilitarian perspective that their duty is either to be “useful” or not “to be” at all. The argument--then as now--is both strained and ignorant, missing the point of why these fields are called humanities in the first place. Besides, one could also make the argument that we do not need the institution of insurance, we do not need banks, we do not need the stock market. At its heart, though, Gold’s argument hinges on the same myopia that causes economic ruin, it neglects the issue of temporality: we create art and literature to persist beyond the contemporary, beyond the moment, beyond the finite life of the creator. It is the embodiment of that part of our spirit that is meant precisely to rise above the peculiar, particular, and ephemeral needs, wants, and problems of today and, instead, to survive as our embassage to all those future generations yet unborn and unimagined.

But I digress...  

Following the 1930 edition of Albert & Charles Boni, the firm of Longmans, Green & Company released a U.K. edition the same year. Subsequent editions appeared in 1931 in Leipzig (E. P. Tal & Co.), 1932 (Boni), 1934 (Longmans), and 1954 (Longmans), as well as in various collections of Wilder’s works. It was never the most popular of his works and, despite the brief surge in its sales occasioned by the intense public debate following the Gold review, its lack of literary merits long ago relegated The Woman of Andros to the lower echelons of Wilder's otherwise legendary oeuvre. 

A more detailed description of the book, covering both its history and bibliography, can be found on the website of Professor John M. Unsworth at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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