“Our Tears”: Thornton Wilder’s Reception and Americanization of the Latin and Greek Classics
Rojcewicz, Stephen J.
Hallett, Judith P.
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I argue in this dissertation that Thornton Wilder is a poeta doctus, a learned playwright and novelist, who consciously places himself within the classical tradition, creating works that assimilate Greek and Latin literature, transforming our understanding of the classics through the intertextual aspects of his writings. Never slavishly following his ancient models, Wilder grapples with classical literature not only through his fiction set in ancient times but also throughout his literary output, integrating classical influences with biblical, medieval, Renaissance, early modern, and modern sources. In particular, Wilder dramatizes the Americanization of these influences, fulfilling what he describes in an early newspaper interview as the mission of the American writer: merging classical works with the American spirit. Through close reading; examination of manuscript drafts, journal entries, and correspondence; and philological analysis, I explore Wilder’s development of classical motifs, including the female sage, the torch race of literature, the Homeric hero, and the spread of manure. Wilder’s first published novel, The Cabala, demonstrates his identification with Vergil as the Latin poet’s American successor. Drawing on feminist scholarship, I investigate the role of female sages in Wilder’s novels and plays, including the example of Emily Dickinson. The Skin of Our Teeth exemplifies Wilder’s metaphor of literature as a “Torch Race,” based on Lucretius and Plato: literature is a relay race involving the cooperation of numerous peoples and cultures, rather than a purely competitive endeavor. Vergil’s expression, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt [Here are the tears of the world, and human matters touch the heart] (Vergil: Aeneid 1.462), haunts much of Wilder’s oeuvre. The phrase lacrimae rerum is multivocal, so that the reader must interpret it. Understanding lacrimae rerum as “tears for the beauty of the world,” Wilder utilizes scenes depicting the wonder of the world and the resulting sorrow when individuals recognize this too late. Saturating his works with the spirit of antiquity, Wilder exhorts us to observe lovingly and to live life fully while on earth. Through characters such as Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker and Emily Webb in Our Town, Wilder transforms Vergil’s lacrimae rerum into “Our Tears.”