The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Getting Away With Happiness

April 13, 2009
Washington, DC

For one of the three possibly lifelong celibates in the Big Read library -- along with Emily Dickinson and Henry James -- Thornton Wilder sure spent a lot of time thinking about happiness and heartbreak.

Researching meetings between Big Read authors for a talk I'm giving at orientation this year, I was prowling the index of Wilder's journals last night. No face-to-face encounters with his fellow Big Read luminaries yet, but I did turn up some fascinating discussions of unhappiness with regard to both Steinbeck and especially Poe -- with whom Wilder may have been slightly obsessed.

Artwork by John Sherffius.


Steinbeck, who would coincidentally work with Alfred Hitchcock on Lifeboat immediately after Wilder did on Shadow of a Doubt, comes up in a discussion of movie sentimentality. Wilder is grousing benignly about the liberties taken in distilling The Grapes of Wrath into a film. He's not alone in finding its presentation of a government workers' camp just a little too "happy" to be true: "The kindliness of the camp-director and the appearances of its inhabitants were stated in cliché 'nice' terms without the degree of realism -- warts, wrinkles, off bony structures, imperfections -- which had been adopted for the rest of the picture."

Wilder's right, I guess, though I like the scene anyway. (My tolerance for squishy liberal pieties has always been rather on the high side.) It's all part of a larger point about when a happy plot turn is, or isn't, a cheat. As Wilder writes, "A sentimentalist (and here the pessimist is included as identical) is one whose desire that things be happy [(or sad)] exceeds his desire that (and suppressed knowledge) that things be truthful; he demands that he be lied to."

Compare this to Wilder on Poe, whose notorious "unhappiness" he regards with more skepticism than most. "A life filled with unhappy moments," Wilder cautions, "is not necessarily an unhappy life."

There's something charmingly youthful about Wilder's preoccupation with happiness and its lack. Too many writers dismiss bliss as a phenomenon unfit for fiction, maybe even inimical to creativity. Wilder, on the contrary, knew that no theme as universally pursued as happiness can ever, in the right hands, stay boring. To invoke yet another Big Read author, Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina with the observation that all happy families are alike - -but are the Webbs and the Gibbses in Our Town, each moderately happy in their own way, alike? Don't you believe it.