Kirkus Reviews QR Code
AMERICAN CHARACTERISTICS by Thornton Wilder

AMERICAN CHARACTERISTICS

And Other Essays

By Thornton Wilder

Pub Date: Oct. 24th, 1979
ISBN: 158348387X
Publisher: Harper & Row

The three-part title essay here is Wilder's reworking of sections from his 1950 Norton lectures at Harvard -- and, though hardly profound, it shows Wilder at his most topsyturvy thoughtful and folksy-smart eloquent. His theme is the independent, "disconnected" American personality, how it changed literature's English English into American English. And, from his opening gambit ("When I think of those who founded this country I soon find myself thinking of those who did not come") through discussions of Thoreau, Whitman, and Moby Dick ("The first eleven pages . . . are the worst kind of English English"), he's endearingly provocative, at his very best on Emily Dickinson: she "enjoyed many a witches' sabbath with the language"; her forms of speech are those of "a winning child . . . the bright remarks that set the dinner table laughing"; and when she suddenly stops rhyming, "the effect is as of a ceiling being removed from above our heads." But the other 200+ pages here, alas, are on a much lover level: dated dramatic theory; an ode to Oedipus Rex and a so-so putdown of Shaw ("he could only think by ricochet"); mild toyings with Goethe and Joyee; pedantic glosses on the work of friend Gertrude Stein; eulogies and (!) research papers. A weak potpourri, then, not quite justified by that one grand essay.