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The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town

The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town

by Thornton Wilder

It seems to me that my books are about: what is the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose it.


Thornton Wilder in the role of George Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Sam Waterston reads from The Bridge of San Luis Rey...

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below. [...] The bridge seemed to be among the things that last forever; it was unthinkable that it should break. [...] People wandered about in a trance-like state, muttering, they had the hallucination of seeing themselves falling into a gulf.

Reed: That was Sam Waterston reading from Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It's designed to unite communities through great literature. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. Today, we're talking about Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Novelist Russell Banks wrote that this book is as close to perfect a moral fable as we are ever likely to get in American literature.”

Banks: It has a kind of an antique quality to it. That is, it's long ago and far way.

J. D. McClatchy: It starts out as a book about the truth, and it ends up as a book about love. Although it's a book about love, it's not really a book about romantic love, but about the ways in which love attaches people to one another.

Wilder: And one of the pleasures that readers will get from The Bridge of San Luis Rey is reading a book which is sort of on the edge of both fiction and drama. It's so spare, it's so clean. It's like seeing people speak lines on an open stage.

Reed: Little wonder that The Bridge of San Luis Rey brings the stage to mind. We tend to think of Thornton Wilder as first and foremost a dramatist; winner of Pulitzer prizes for his plays The Skin of Our Teeth and the perennial favorite, Our Town. But Wilder was an equally accomplished novelist. Indeed, he's the only writer to be awarded Pulitzer prizes for both drama and fiction. And it was his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, that brought him his first Pulitzer in 1928. This elegant novel has a deceptively simple plot. A bridge collapses in Peru and five people die. But the collapsed bridge leads to larger questions that inform the human condition: Are we guided by fate or by chance? Are tragedies the will of god or something more random and more terrifying?

Actress Marian Seldes.

Marian Seldes: And it occurred to me that we all think when there's a- an unexplained death that we don't understand, a random shooting or something like that, we think why, why those people?

Reed: Sister Maureen Feidler.

Sister Maureen: But this is where we begin to look at it through the eyes of Brother Juniper who witnessed this bridge breaking. And he begins to think theologically.

Sam Waterston reads from The Bridge of San Luis Rey...

Anyone else would have said to himself with secret joy: “Within ten minutes myself ... !” But it was another thought that visited Brother Juniper: “Why did this happen to those five?” If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. And on that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off.

Reed: Brother Juniper busily spent the next six years compiling data about the five who fell from the Bridge, attempting to find scientific proof of god's intention. Here's Thornton Wilder himself reading from the beginning of The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Thornton Wilder: (historical recording) It seemed to Brother Juniper that it was high time for theology to take its place among the exact sciences, and he had long intended putting it there. What he lacked hitherto was a laboratory. But this collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey was a sheer act of God. It afforded a perfect laboratory. Here at last one could surprise his intentions in a pure state.

Reed: Novelist Russell Banks.

Russell Banks: The novel itself is... is essentially a quest by Brother Juniper, through the process of tracking these five lives backwards, to explain why this event happened to them and not to someone else who might have been crossing the bridge at that moment.

Reed: Poet and critic J.D. McClatchy.

McClatchy: In the course of his investigations, he goes, digs deeply into the lives of the five people who are killed, who are thrown from the bridge when it collapsed over a great gorge in Peru. He thinks that by looking closely into the lives of each of these five people, he can discover some reason why this horrible accident happened, and how it was or was not a part of a divine plan.

Reed: Russell Banks.

Banks: I think at its heart, it's about the conflict between faith and fact, and it attempts to look at the deaths of five people, one could call random deaths of five people, through both those lenses, fact and faith.

Reed: Actress Q'orianka Kilcher.

Q'orianka Kilcher: I felt in a way a little bit like a detective, and as a young person that's kind of fun sometimes when you're reading a book to really get drawn into it and feel like you're a part of the discovery.

Reed: The Bridge of San Luis Rey was Thornton Wilder's second novel. Published in 1927, when he was just 30 years old, it immediately established him as a major American writer, praised by critics and loved by the reading public. Tappan Wilder, Thornton's nephew and the literary executor of his estate.

Tappan Wilder: Blockbuster, unbelievable, staggering. Use whatever adjective you want. Off the charts. The Bridge of San Luis Rey in the first year and a half earned him over $100,000, which would translate to a million. So it was like turning the lights on in a room, a dark room. It did change everything for him.

Reed: He became that rare writer who could support himself through his work. Penelope Niven has written a new biography about Thornton Wilder.

Penelope Niven: His family had never owned their own house. Thornton Wilder was able to build a house for his family. So they built the house in Hamden, Connecticut, on the edge of New Haven. They, to this day, refer to it as the house The Bridge built.

Reed: Tappan Wilder.

Wilder: He was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on the second floor of a house, delivered by Dr. Shelton in 1897.

Reed: Penelope Niven.

Niven: He was born to an amazing set of parents, two very strong, brilliant, vibrant people. His father, Amos Parker Wilder was a well-known orator, a politician. His mother Isabella Niven Wilder was a musician, a lover of the arts.

Wilder: His father was a journalist, in fact the editor of the Wisconsin paper, still going, called the Wisconsin State Journal, but he got appointed the consul general in Hong Kong in 1906. And so the family of course went with him.

Reed: Tappan is the son of Amos Wilder, Thornton's older brother, who himself was a famous poet and theologian.

Wilder: My father used to call it a family of gypsies, but that's not quite accurate because gypsies move as a family. This family moved but not necessarily all together. I figured out that between 1906, when they are all together, if you will, in Madison, climbing on that boat to go to China, and 1917 when Thornton transfers to Yale College from Oberlin, that family was together, all of them under one roof, for about one year.

Niven: For a family of gypsies, a family so separated in time and space, they were intimately involved in each other's lives by letter.

Wilder: I mean, they're all over the place and they're writing letters all the time. I think that helped them all become writers. They had to write. What he was was a storyteller; what he was was a storyteller.

Reed: Marian Seldes.

Seldes: The Bridge of San Luis Rey was quite an early work and, and established his reputation as a novelist. But I can see the dramatist there too in that book. It's so vivid to me.

Reed: J.D. McClatchy.

McClatchy: We have sort of five, one-act plays in this. He likes characters in rooms and in situations in conversation with one another.

Reed: Q'orianka Kilcher.

Kilcher: In the book The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder is sharing with us a glimpse into the lives of five totally different people.

Reed: We examine the lives of Pepita, a teenaged orphan; Esteban, a mysterious twin who suffers an identity crisis; Uncle Pio, the worldly, theater-loving adventurer; Jaime, the young son of a famous actress Pio nurtures and guides to stardom; and the Marquesa, an overbearing mother and respected letter writer.

J.D. McClatchy.

McClatchy: The Marquesa de Montemayor, for example, perhaps the most extraordinary character in the book.

Reed: Penelope Niven.

Niven: Our letter writer in The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a mother who is desperately trying to communicate with her daughter who was geographically removed from her and to some extent emotionally estranged as well. So we see a mother writing these obsessive letters to a daughter who is getting as far away from the mother as she physically can.

Sam Waterston reads from The Bridge of San Luis Rey...

Left alone in Lima, the Marquesa's life grew more and more inward. She became increasingly negligent in her dress and like all lonely people she talked to herself audibly. All her existence lay in the burning center of her mind. On that stage were performed endless dialogues with her daughter, impossible reconciliations, scenes eternally recommenced of remorse and forgiveness.

Reed: Q'orianka Kilcher.

Kilcher: One thing that is very apparent with the Marquesa is that she, she longs and thrives to hear words of endearment come from her daughter, to see little rays of love come from her daughter.

Reed: Penelope Niven

Niven: She has come to the awful realization that she has loved her daughter not for her daughter's sake, but she's loved her daughter for her own sake.

Sam Waterston reads from The Bridge of San Luis Rey...

She had never brought courage to either life or love. Her eyes ransacked her heart. She thought of the amulets and of her beads, her drunkenness ... she thought of her daughter. She remembered the long relationship, crowded with the wreckage of exhumed conversations, of fancied slights, of inopportune confidences, of charges of neglect and exclusion (but she must have been mad that day; she remembered beating upon the table). “But it's not my fault,” she cried. “It's not my fault that I was so. It was circumstance. It was the way I was brought up. Tomorrow I begin a new life. Wait and see, oh my child .” At last she cleared away the table and sitting down wrote what she called her first letter, her first stumbling misspelled letter in courage. [...] It is the famous Letter LVI, known to the Encyclopedists as her Second Corinthians because of its immortal paragraph about love: “Of the thousands of persons we meet in a lifetime, my child ...” and so on. It was almost dawn when she finished the letter. She opened the door upon her balcony and looked at the great tiers of stars that glittered above the Andes.

Reed: J.D. McClatchy.

McClatchy: Simply by talking about how the letter of the Marquesa, the last letter she wrote before she died, revealed something that astounded the world, but never describe it, leaves it to your imagination to figure out what it was she said.

Reed: You're listening to The Big Read. We're discussing The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. ...Welcome back to the Big Read. Today, we're discussing Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Once again, here's Wilder biographer Penelope Niven.

Niven: And in the process of his investigation, Brother Juniper helps us to see the absence of love, the nature of love, the variations of love in the lives of the characters who have died on the Bridge of San Luis Rey. And we see, if we look closely enough into this book, we see romantic love. We see unrequited love. We see obsessive parental love. We see the esoteric love of a person who's endeavoring to serve humanity...

Reed: Maureen Fiedler is a Sister of Loretto, and host of the public radio show, Interfaith Voices.

Sister Maureen: Well, one of the people I was most drawn to, and this might not be surprising, was the abbess, Madre Maria del Pilar. Now, she was not on the bridge, she's not one of the ones who died, but she is connected with everyone. She's connected with all five people who did die on the bridge.

Reed: J.D. McClatchy.

McClatchy: The abbess seems removed with a kind of inner strength and sense of duty that none of the other characters in the novel has. She wants to help people, but she... she will do it on her own terms, in her own ways.

Reed: Sister Maureen Fiedler.

Sister Maureen: Wilder calls her “the strange genius of Lima.” She clearly is somebody on whom the people of Lima depend; first of all the very poor, the sick, the orphans.

Sam Waterston reads from The Bridge of San Luis Rey...

She was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance the history of civilization. She hurled herself against the obstinacy of her time in her desire to attach a little dignity to women. At midnight when she had finished adding up the accounts of the House she would fall into insane vision of an age when women could be organized to protect women, women travelling, women as servants, women when they are old or ill, the women she had discovered in the mines of Potosí, or in the workrooms of the cloth-merchants, the girls she had collected out of doorways on rainy nights.

Reed: Among those who came under the abbess' wing are the twins Manuel and Esteban.

Sister Maureen: She found them on her doorstep because someone had left them there and abandoned them as babies.

Reed: Thanks to the Abbess the twins are literate in an age when most people are not. The great stage actress, Camila Perichole knows this and recruits Manuel to draft several private letters for her. Manuel falls in love with the older beautiful woman.

Penelope Niven.

Niven: And for the first time in the history of this twinship, there is a triangular relationship. The twin who's on the outside looking in at what he perceives to be a threatening relationship, discovers his loneliness is perhaps permanent and irreparable.

Sam Waterston reads from The Bridge of San Luis Rey...

But the life that Esteban was leading had been full enough for him; there was no room in his imagination for a new loyalty, not because his heart was less large than Manuel's but because it was of a simpler texture. Now he discovered that secret from which on never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love, one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well. So Esteban sat up in their room by a guttering candle, his knuckles between his teeth and wondered why Manuel was so changed and why the whole meaning had gone out of their life.

Reed: Thornton Wilder never married, but he hardly lived in isolation. He was close to his family and a generous loving friend to many. Curious, vibrant, and charming, he was always on the go. Known as the Enthusiast, his energy was contagious.

Wilder: I mean, when that man came into a room it was like a wind coming in, you know.

Reed: Thornton's nephew, Tappan Wilder.

Wilder: And he loved to be out there traveling and talking to people. "Your uncle," he once wrote me, "likes to listen; it's very rare!" And he got a lot of material and he tested his ideas by being out on the road.

Reed: Penelope Niven

Niven: I've read accounts of people who've said even though I only met him once he made them feel as if I were the most important person he'd ever spoken to.

Reed: Wilder was quite literally a man of letters, for in addition to writing dozens of pitch-perfect plays, novels, and essays, Wilder wrote an estimated 10,000 letters to friends, family, and fans.

Marian Seldes reads one of these letters that Thornton wrote to their mutual friend, actress Ruth Gordon, at a time when Gordon had doubts about her creativity.

Seldes: "Dear Bella, here are four empty sheets of paper, enough to write the Gettysburg Address, enough to write 'To be or not to be,' enough to write the Twenty-Third Psalm. What will you write? The same with your day. What will you do with your day? Make it memorable, regretful, wasted, fulfilled? Think it over."

Reed: Uncle Pio is another unique victim of the bridge collapse. A man with a shadowy past, he travelled the globe, inventing and reinventing himself as he went along. Now, he's the consummate man about town, and he's developed his own world-weary philosophy about love.

Sam Waterston reads from The Bridge of San Luis Rey...

He divided the inhabitants of this world into two groups, into those who had loved and those who had not. It was a horrible aristocracy, apparently, for those who had no capacity for love (or rather for suffering in love) could not be said to be alive and certainly would not live again after their death. They were a kind of straw population, filling the world with their meaningless laughter and tears and chatter and disappearing still loveable and vain into thin air. For this distinction he cultivated his own definition of love that was like no other and that had gathered all its bitterness and pride from his odd life. He regarded love as a sort of cruel malady through which the elect are required to pass in their late youth and from which they emerge pale and wrung but ready for the business of living.

Reed: Pio's passionate love is reserved for the theater. One day, he finds a young singer in a café and sees that she has a great, if unformed, talent.

Q'orianka Kilcher.

Kilcher: She was a young girl, singing in coffeeshops, and Uncle Pio comes into her life and somewhat molds her into this amazing performer in the theater.

Reed: Marian Seldes .

Seldes: This actress is not a cliché actress, and she's a human being who was an actress.

Reed: J.D. McClatchy.

McClatchy: Uncle Pio is much more like the Shakespeare, like the playwright, trying to manipulate things to get the ends he wants to get a good performance. He is the power behind her particular throne. He's made her into the greatest actress in ah, in Peru.

Reed: But Camila contracts smallpox, which totally disfigures her. She then leaves the theatre and abandons Lima for the countryside, where she lives with her young son in total isolation.

Sister Maureen Fiedler.

Sister Maureen: And Uncle Pio who had run in high society as she had up till then, offered a good deed. He wanted to take the boy into Lima and give him an education. And that's when they found themselves on that bridge. So each of those people was on the verge of something new, something good, something that was the result of love. And yet they plunged to their deaths and you're left totally perplexed as to why.

Reed: J.D. McClatchy.

McClatchy: But the book ends not there, not with one tragedy following on the heels of another, but going back into some of the characters who were left alive, but had known the five people who had died.

Reed: Russell Banks.

Banks: I admired the quality of attention and honesty that Brother Juniper brings to these lives. I mean he's not a man who's trying to defend the church. He's trying to justify the deaths of these people, and he brings to their deaths, their lives I should say, he brings to their lives, the history of their lives a quality of attention that and a freedom from judgment, a refusal to judge that can only be called love.

Reed: J.D. McClatchy.

McClatchy: Although there is no divine plan, there is something in the extraordinary love that human beings have for one another that holds them together, that allows them to die, but somehow keeps them close to us.

Reed: Marian Seldes.

Seldes: I think in a way Thornton Wilder is like a religious figure in my life although I have no religion, but he expresses what I would like to say could be in a bible for all of us. How to live life in a way that enriches other people's lives, which is exactly what Thornton Wilder did.

Reed: Penelope Niven

Niven: He was active and busy and deeply engaged in life and in art, right up to the December day, December 7, 1975, when he died in his sleep in his room in the house the Bridge built.

Seldes I think he really treasured every moment of his life. I really do. And we should learn from that.

Reed: At the end of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, we are left with the abbess as she consoles the sick and the dying.

Sister Maureen Fiedler.

Sister: I think Wilder chose the abbess to give us the final thoughts in the book because, first of all, she's the link to all of the characters in the book, and she's a loving link.

Sam Waterston reads from The Bridge of San Luis Rey...

Madre María stood with her back against a post; the sick lay in rows gazing at the ceiling and trying to hold their breaths. [...] But even while she was talking, other thoughts were passing in the back of her mind. “Even now,” she thought, “almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Reed: Here's Thornton Wilder himself reading from the beginning of The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Thornton Wilder: (historical recording) Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.

Banks: For me one of the beauties of the book and its reason perhaps that it lasts so and is so universal, is that it doesn't really answer that question. It pursues that question. It tries to penetrate that question to the bottom of the mystery that it raises and ultimately despairs of an answer, I think.

McClatchy: If you pick up this book and read it carefully, it will change your life. You will not be the same person. You will not think about yourself and you will not think about other people the same way.

Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Adam Kampe. The assistant producers were Pepper Smith and Liz Mehaffey. Readings from The Bridge of San Luis Rey were by Sam Waterston, used courtesy of the HighBridge audio.

“On Awakening” composed and performed by Jeffrey Roden, used courtesy of Jeffrey Roden and New Albion Records.

“Oh Sister” written by Bob Dylan and performed by Andrew Bird, used courtesy of Wegawam Music.

Religious masses by Tomas Luis de Victoria, performed by The Tallis Scholars and directed by Peter Phillips, used courtesy of Gimell Records.

Excerpts from the following used courtesy of Naxos of America, Inc:

  • Masses by Victoria performed by Oxford Camerata, conducted by Jeremy Summerly.
  • Religious masses sung in Spanish by The Choral Arts Society of Washington, conducted by Joseph Holt.
  • Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Opus 132 and String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Opus 59, performed by the Kodály Quartet.
  • And Bach's Cello Suite, No. 1 in G major and Cello Suite, No. 3 in C major, performed by Alexander Rudin.

Readings by Thornton Wilder used by permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Thanks to Ted Libbey, Foster Reed, Louise Bernard, Nancy Wilson Wagner, Kay Weiss, Barbara Hogenson, and to our contributors: Russell Banks, Maureen Fiedler, Q'orianka Kilcher, J.D. McClatchy, Penelope Niven, Marian Seldes, and a special thanks to Tappan Wilder.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm your host and executive producer Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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