The New Yorker
Jan 13. 2020
Tabula Rasa – Personal History by John McPhee
Thornton Wilder at the Century
At Time: The Weekly Newsmagazine, my editor’s name was Alfred Thorton Baker, and he was related in some way to the playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder. Spontaneously, one morning at the office, Baker appeared at the edge of my cubicle, and said, “You need a little glamour in your life – come have lunch with Thornton Wilder.” We walked seven blocks south and one over to the Century Association, where Wilder had arrived before us. Baker may have been counting on me to be some sort of buffer. I was about thirty but I felt thirteen, and I was moon-, star-, and awestruck in the presence of the author of “Our Town,” “The Skin of our Teeth,” and “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” I had read and seen those and more, and had watched my older brother as Doc Gibs in a Princeton High School production of “Our Town.” I knew stories of Wilder as a young teacher at the Lawrenceville School, five miles from Princeton, pacing in the dead of night on the third floor of Davis House above students quartered below.
“What is that?”
“Mr. Wilder. He’s writing something.”
About halfway through the Century lunch, Baker asked Wilder the question writers hear four million times in a life span if they die young: “What are you working on?”
Wilder said he was not actually working on a new play or novel but was fully engaged in a related project. He was cataloguing the plays of Lopa de Vega.
Lopa de Vega wrote some eighteen hundred full-length plays. Four hundred and thirty-one survive. How long would it take to read four hundred and thirty-one plays? How long would it take to summarize each in descriptive detail and fulfill the additional requirements of cataloguing? So far having said nothing, I was thinking these things. How long would it take the Jet Propulsion Lab to get something crawling on a moon of Neptune? Wilder was sixty-six, but to me he appeared and sounded geriatric. He was an old man with a cataloguing project that would take him at least a dozen years. Callowly, I asked him, “Why would anyone want to do that?”
Wilder’s eyes seemed to condense. Burn. His face turned furious. He said, “Young man, do not ever question the purpose of scholarship.”
I went catatonic for the duration. To the end, Wilder remained cold. My blunder was as naive as it was irreparable. Nonetheless, at that time in my life I thought the question deserved an answer. And I couldn’t imagine what it might be.
I can now. I am eight-eight years old at this writing, and I know that those four hundred and thirty-one plays were serving to extend Thornton Wilder’s life. Reading them and cataloguing them was something to do, and do, and do. It beat dying. It was a project meant not to end.
I could use one of my own…..
At current velocities, it takes twelve years to get to the moons of Neptune. On that day at the Century Association, Thornton Wilder had twelve years to live.
Catalogue at Beinecke in Wilder papers?