Robert Gottleib reviews Penelope Niven’s Thornton Wilder: A Life in the January 7 issue of The New Yorker . The most interesting bits are selections from Wilder the epistolary literary and cultural critic.

There’s this from a 1937 letter talking about the Astaire-Rogers film Swing Time , which Wilder saw in Europe: “Watch the audience. Spell-bound at something terribly uneuropean - all that technical effortless precision; all that radiant youth bursting with sex but not sex-hunting, sex-collecting; and all that allusion to money, but money as fun, the American love of conspicuous waste, not money-to-sit-on, not money-to-frighten-with. And finally when the pair real leap into one of those radiant waltzes the Europeans know in their bones that their day is over.”

About Emerson:

“The very syntax breathes 3 meals a day with hardworking maids in the kitchen preparing them while the Seer entertains these messages and promptings from the Over-Soul.” On Thoreau: “Only a basically idle woodsman like Thoreau could indulge in lyrical states of gratitude to all-beneficent Mother Nature; and could despise his neighbors who wrestled with her.” On Eliot: “No, sir. T. S. Eliot does not like people; he is in some stung quivering revulsion against our human nature.”

And on Austen, a self-proclaimed “beast”: “How seldom readers seem to remark on all that contempt for the whole human scene that lies just under the surface. Her only resource and consolation is the pleasure of the mind in observing absurdities.” (I can’t agree this is her “only” resource, but it is certainly one of them, though one she finds disturbing.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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