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These journals are in no way a substitute for the autobiography Wilder never wrote but, on the 10th anniversary of his death, they provide an engrossing journey through the landscapes of one of America's most wide-ranging literary minds of the mid-20th century. In these leisure-time jottings Wilder recorded his observations on America's cultural heritage, on concepts for future projects (all too frequently works later abandoned, but which sometimes sprouted as brief segments of others), on his evaluation of contemporary writers, on the basics of a novel, and so on. What these journals lack is the usual stuff of diaries: the I, the who I met, the where I was. We never learn what Wilder is doing from day to day, only what he is thinking. He pops up in mundane and exotic locales: Saratoga Springs, Daytona Beach, Quebec, St. Moritz, Spain. He doesn't tell us the purpose of these travels, nor his impressions of the places he visited and the people he met. (Vivian Leigh gives him a fresh insight on Anna Karenina. So much for Vivian Leigh.) But if they lack anecdotes, gossip or local color, the journals are mentally evocative and wonderously readable. While working on The Skin of Our Teeth, he mulls over the age-old convention of regarding the actress as "courtesan," a phenomenon he attributes to the fact that, by appearing on stage, the actress violates society's taboos against women presenting themselves as "accessible" and "inviting." The actress "is delivered into the hands, into the thought-impulse life of the audience by the fact that she is on stage. . .as Woman, as prey, victim, partner, and connivance. . ." He concludes this entry with: "The above written while mildly drunk on a quart of Bordeaux." Following WW II service, Wilder devoted considerable thought to the series of lectures on American literature he had agreed to present at Harvard. Here we see Wilder as literary historian, evaluating and re-evaluating Melville, Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, et al.--gnawing over his concepts, reworking them, worrying. After completing the text of his Thoreau lecture, he writes: "I reap now the whole harvest of my presumption in embarking on such a large subject. . . Are those ideas (in my hands) not ideas but little grabby maulings of notions that completely elude me?" Opining that "most of the time Melville is an atrocious writer," he adds: "At the bottom of it all is an extremely disordered man, living in an age and environment which offered him nothing he could understand except the vastness of its life-engagement--and that he misunderstood." Many of these entries involve Wilder's struggles with works he never completed, most notably his metaphysical drama The Emporium. He writes, rewrites, exalts, criticizes and despairs. It is not likely that Wilder's journals will stir much interest among the rank-and-file of readers. For the Wilder specialist, however, they will provide a rich lode of new information to mine and assay. And for those readers who have enjoyed his writings, the sound of his clear, literate voice speaking once again from the page should be a welcome reunion.
Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 1985
ISBN: 0300040547
Page count: 380pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1985


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