Though their orbits may differ radically Christian authors are concentric. No one, for example, would confuse Flannery O’Conner with Marilynne Robinson, nor Graham Greene with either one of them. At first their differences (apart from—because of?—the denominational) can be unsettling. But later, when we’ve dwelt upon those differences, a sort of complementarity comes into focus. One’s intellect and imagination see this planet and that other held in orbit by the pull of the same Son.
Such is the case, I think, of Sigrid Undset (1892-1949) and Thornton Wilder (1898-1975). Near-contemporaries, both were prolific, prize-winning authors, he of three Pulitzers and a National Book Award, she of the Nobel, preponderantly for the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, coming one year after Wilder’s first Pulitzer in 1927, for The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
Wilder was raised, and remained, a Protestant (his designation). In his Preface to the one-act collection, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, he wrote, “almost all the plays in this book are religious, but religious in that dilute fashion that is a believer’s concession to a contemporary standard of good manners.” He concludes, “the revival of religions is almost a matter of rhetoric. The work is difficult . . . but it at least reminds us that Our Lord asked us in His work to be not only as gentle as doves but as wise as serpents.” Undset, from whom I can find no such declaration, would have disagreed. She was a historian, and did not think tactically. No concessions for her! Raised in a Lutheranism so nominal that she would become an atheist, she converted to Catholicism in 1924, thoroughly and deeply.
But beyond these differences, their sensibilities make them virtually antithetical. For example, Wilder is the only person to win Pulitzers for both fiction and drama, but, no, for all her prizes in addition to the Nobel, Undset never wrote plays. Yet even that modal difference is not a matter of ‘sensibility’ in the deepest sense. That deeper differentia lies, I think, in their perspectives on hope.
Both come to terms with a fallen creation and its creatures; and their characters are often marked by resignation—not least to the demands of goodness and the vexations of mystery—but rarely despair. For this Wilder was criticized in The New Republic by Michael Gold, a Marxist, who, when reviewing Heaven’s My Destination, labeled Wilder “the Prophet of the Genteel Christ.” He may have had a point; after all the protagonist, George Brush, is a traveling Bible salesman during the depression whose objective is to live like a saint. Except chronologically (and for his close friendship with Gertrude Stein), Wilder certainly was not of the Lost Generation.
On the other hand, Undset’s first published novel, the contemporary and realistic Fru Marta Oulie, opens with “I have been unfaithful to my husband,” and the reading public was scandalized. As for despair: there is nothing in Wilder to match the end of the eponymous Jenny (1911), whose feelings, in the absence of conviction, run rampant. After cleaning her apartment and herself, “she placed her pillow on the edge of the nightstand, rested her left hand on it, and slashed the artery. . . . after a moment an odd, unfamiliar sensation over her arm – a fear that grew and grew . . . a feeling of terrifying fear in her heart.” Undset’s theme in The Burning Bush (1930) is that feelings are not to be confused with faithful conviction.
Both, however, understand agape and place it at the center of their lifelong work. One of them, though, takes us to be navigating within that love without us either knowing or appreciating it. Our sadness lies in that ignorance—a deeply pessimistic stance; but the irrelevance of that ignorance—for love is unconditionally present—indirectly (I would say, very indirectly) engenders hope. The other does see that love and knows it.
This difference emerges narratively, one working from without, the other from within. Wilder seems ten thousand feet up looking down to ground level—examining, exalting, but never quite entering in. Whether implicitly, as in The Ides of March (an epistolary exhumation of Caesar), or explicitly, as in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (five characters plunge to their deaths when a perfectly fine rope-and-slat bridge between two Andean peaks snaps), his subject is theodicy, his primary interest being in the presence (not the influence) of agape. Undset, on the other hand, works her way out, from an inner core of exultant love, by way of a contrarian character, into a hostile world that batters that love. Unvaryingly, but especially in her medieval novels, the psychic interior and its interaction with an awesome and haunted creation is her precinct.
In Wilder’s Our Town the Stage Manager—and just who is he?—tells us the geographical coordinates of Grover’s Corner and the exact date of the action. From high above he locates stores and houses by name, along with streets and features of landscape and people, zooming in on them and their pronouncedly, blessedly quotidian lives marked by routine and kindness but especially by a piety and love.
Young Rebecca thinks the moon is getting closer and wonders if it’s shining on South America, while Emily gazes at it rhapsodically: “I just can’t sleep yet, Papa. The moonlight’s so won-derful.” She mentions a letter finally addressed to “the Continent of North America . . . the universe”; Professor Willard tells us that some of the land is the oldest in the world, with Pleistocene granite, a shelf of Devonian basalt, and vestiges of Mesozoic shale (suggesting the eons-long action that will occupy the characters of Wilder’s next play, The Skin of Our Teeth, his third Pulitzer). Details of daily life matter, but no more than their provenance. The Stage Manager interrupts with “that’s the end of the First Act, friends.”
That much higher managerial consciousness is always invitingly at work in Wilder, occasionally using the first person singular pronoun (without ever saying who “I” is). No matter: just know he’s there and that we are all part of the same, great design (a belief compellingly re-emerging forty years later at the end of The Eighth Day).
Undset will have none of such cosmic narrative distance. As early as 1902 in a letter to her friend Beata, Undset declares that she wants to write in a way no one any longer does, not so much pondering the design but from within it, at ground level:
in a painterly way. . . . Oh, if only I could master the language in such a way that I could simply and naturally . . . make the reader see the springtime. . . . The whole time, you see, the reader should know where he is, how the land looked . . . and you should quite naturally enter into the life, see and understand why these people are this way, how they feel and why they behave as they do . . . without pedantic lectures.
—no vertiginous perspective for her narrators, whose limited omniscience is always wed to a brittle, variegated, effulgent, trying landscape that always speaks to (and sometimes for) the characters. Undset’s symbolism, for example, is that of anointed mountains and forests and farms, or food, clothing, and animals.
The fog hovered as white as milk . . . and then the sun seeped through. Dripping with dew and green with the second crop of hay, the pastures shimmered in the white haze, along with . . . yellow trees and mountain ash with glittering red berries.
This glory is the correlative of the child Kristin’s admiration and love for her father, her settled sense of security—all of which she will betray.
Later, after Kristin’s catastrophic act of lustful disobedience both grievously damages her soul and impoverishes her, the world—rendered so meticulously, with its mountains and mountain passes, towering trees, hidden grottos, and scree—this world will become penitential (a world absent in the here and now from Wilder), an emblem of the Purgatory awaiting the dying woman when she is grown old and ill and at the brink of death.
Wilder’s world is not assertively God-inhabited, as is Undset’s, but figures are almost allegorical and his symbols, though not ubiquitous, are adroit and telling. In Bridge there is much about miscommunication, for example, in the letters of the Marquesa, and about mysterious communication, as in the secret language shared by the twin brothers, and about sympathy for those who cannot communicate. At the very end of his great book he tells us, “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.” Then he delivers the final stroke: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” That broken bridge bears much freight. Maintaining it is our hope.
But . . . not so fast. What kind of land is that “land of the dead”? Glorious? Penitential? Or is it the sort of Hades—shadowy, dull, inert—that a classicist like Wilder would conjure? In the last act of Our Town, Emily is given a chance to return to the world of the living, an excruciatingly tender and painful visit—so painful, in fact, that (as she had been warned) she realizes she does not belong there and returns to the land of the dead, saddened by the inattentiveness of the living.
In that cemetery she and the other dead will . . . wait. Mrs. Gibbs tells her, “when you’ve been here longer you’ll see that our life here is to forget all that [even memory is not necessary for love] and think only of what’s ahead, and be ready for what’s ahead. When you’ve been here longer you’ll understand.” Forgetfulness as purgation—for the sin of insufficient appreciation in life? What may lie farther ahead we are never told; nor are we given the slightest hint.
So in working out his concept of Providence, Wilder remains an onlooker, gazing and wondering but rarely—never?—probing the elemental throes of his characters, let alone providing any hopeful image of the there-and-then (as opposed to the here-and-now; in this he is the anti-C.S. Lewis.) Rarely, but not never. Near the end of The Eighth Day we learn that “it is doubtful whether hope . . . can sustain itself without an impulse injected by love. That’s what destiny is. Our lives are a seamless robe.” This penultimate book is a novel the nineteenth-century would have recognized.
That book, but not The Bridge of San Luis Rey: a virtually plotless novel of character portraits, an inquiry into a question worthy of Kierkegaard (whom Wilder loved dearly), irony upon layered irony, the fates of the main characters known to the reader on the first page and no real resolution, unless you count the burning alive of (not the narrator—one “I”—but) the main point-of-view, Brother Juniper, in a single throw-away paragraph, as he invokes Saint Francis and with a smile “leaned into the flames.” There is no apparent salvation, or Heaven, or Grover’s Corners graveyard, or Jesus. We are told, “do not try to understand, just forgive.” And near the end we get a symbol both fleeting and loaded. An abbess has particular sympathy for her deaf orphans, hoping that one day someone will invent a way of communicating with them, some bridge: hoping, and waiting.
Here, now, is what you need to know of Kristin, who is in such close touch with the super- and preternatural world that as a child she—in effect—sees her future:
she discerned a face among the leaves—there was a woman over there, with a pale face and flowing, flaxen hair. Her big light-gray eyes and her flaring, pale-pink nostrils reminded Kristin of Guldsvein’s [her father’s horse]. She was wearing something shiny and leaf-green, and branches and twigs hid her figure up to her full breasts, which were covered with brooches and gleaming necklaces. . . .Then the woman raised her hand and showed her a wreath of golden flowers and beckoned to her.
—a pagan allure with which Kristin and the new Christian world—new in Kristin’s Norway, that is—will do battle.
After being The Mistress of Husaby (the second, soul-wrenching, book), Kristin enters a convent and takes up The Cross (the third book), ministering to the dying, facing down a violent man who, swearing by the name of Satan, would sacrifice a child for his own safety, and finally dying of the plague that would kill half the population of Europe.
Kristin no longer had her full wits about her, but she sensed that she was being carried. . . . Then the glow of light appeared outward to a large space; she was once again under a dark open sky. . . . Someone was carrying her. . . . When she put her arms around his neck . . . she felt like a child again. . . . there were red lights, and they seemed to be shining from the fire that nourishes all love. . . . She had more a sense of contentment, the way she felt lying in bed back home at Jorundgaard, weary from a day’s work well done. . . . Suddenly the dying woman grew uneasy; her hands fumbled . . . around her neck. ‘What is it?’ asked Ulf. ‘The cross,’ she whispered, and pulled out her father’s gilded cross. . . . She owned nothing more than this and her wedding ring.
After giving the ring away for Masses to be said, and seeing on her finger an M from the center of the ring where it had been etched in gold for the Virgin Mary, Kristin realizes that she will die before the mark has time to fade, “and it made her happy.”
She had been a servant of God—a stubborn, defiant maid, most often an eye-servant in her prayers and unfaithful in her heart, indolent an neglectful . . . and yet He held her firmly in His service, and under the glittering gold ring a mark had been secretly impressed upon her, showing that she was His servant. . . . and the red fog became thinner and lighter, and at last it was like a fine morning mist before the dawn breaks through, and there was not a sound and she knew that now she was dying.
To paraphrase Walker Percy, Kristin has participated / in a rich / mystery, not contemplated / a clear / problem, as Brother Juniper had attempted. She has followed the signs both internal and external, and inhabited a world rooted in a period and a place filled with exquisite, abundant, particular detail charged with wonder, a world she would indeed connaître rather than merely savoir—which is why she does not stop at the brink but, we are given to understand, will rest with Him, her own praeparatio complete.
Personally the two shared a congruence; both were patriots. In his early forties, Wilder volunteered for service in World War Two. He went through basic training with teenagers, became an intelligence officer, served in North Africa and Italy, was decorated, and was discharged with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He apparently had an eye for patterns and could select, and sometimes predict, both artillery and bombing targets. Undset fled Norway when the Nazis invaded. In 1942, while living in Brooklyn, she wrote Happy Times, a vivid, beguiling memoir of Norwegian life. She ends that book this way: “But we Norwegians know we will have our country back again, free and swept clean of the forces of evil. . . . On that day we will finally know that Happy Times in Norway have returned to the land of our forefathers and our children.” From the land and its life springs hope. Her home, owned by the Norwegian government, has become something of a shrine for her admirers, with people traveling thousands of miles just to see it.
I’ve mentioned ‘complementarity.’ Read Wilder and you will learn to “love and do what you will”: love especially the world, its creatures, and, above all, your daily bread. You will find reverence and gratitude, and you will know that you are part of a great design and, even if remotely, not alone. There is our hope. Read Undset and see that you must struggle within that design but not rend it, for you are free either to sink out of it or, one day, to rise from it, ever hopeful into promised redemption. In other words, you are loved, now act like it.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.