The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
In the conclusion of Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a character mediates on the meaning uniting the five victims of an apparently meaningless accident and finds it to be love.
“. . . There is a land of the living and a land of the dead (she thought) and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
It was the kind of message that won thirty-one-year-old Wilder his first of three Pulitzer Prizes and catapulted him to popular success in 1928 (not always a given for modern Pulitzer winners).
Wilder movingly celebrates the love of siblings, of friends, of parents and children (whether biological or not). Could I possibly have been as old as high school age when I read the book without wondering why, of all the kinds of love that united the disparate victim’s of that mythical bridge’s fall, Thornton Wilder didn’t include sexual love?
Not until I reread it recently did the omission startle me. Perhaps the slight to physical love occurred because Wilder’s own experience, in the shadowy erotic world he inhabited, was too like that of another character, the Svengali-like Uncle Pio whose love for his protégé Camila can never be realized.
“(Uncle Pio) 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.”
Would The Bridge of San Luis Rey have been the same, I wonder, if Wilder had written it after he met Samuel Steward, aka Phil Sparrow and Phil Andros, through their mutual friend Gertrude Stein? (For more about Steward’s career as a writer, tattoo artist and
“sexual outlaw,” see, among other sites,
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/26/books/26secret.html/) Steward died in 1993 at age 84 after outliving, among other lovers, Rock Hudson, Rudolph Valentino and Wilder.
Wilder’s older brother, divinity professor Amos Niven Wilder, wrote a brief (but almost impenetrable) memoir titled Thornton Wilder and his Public, which, tellingly, avoids any mention of his private life.
Its most poignant section includes a quotation from the most famously gay of foundational American writers, Walt Whitman. “Of the great poems received from abroad and from the ages. . . Is there one whose underlying basis is not a denial and insult to democracy?”
And Thornton Wilder concludes, “Democracy is not only an effort to establish a social equality among men; it is an effort to assure them that they are (neither) subjects nor low -- that they should be equal in God’s grace.”
Even, he dared not yet add, if they are gay.
(Next Friday -- G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown comments on society and spirituality in a story whose title makes modern readers do a double take, “The Queer Feet.”)