The Eighth Day
By Thornton Wilder
Original Publisher: Harper & Row Publishers
Current Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Harold Augenbraum writes:
You have to hand it to a writer willing to attack the big questions head on, and to embed those questions in the story of small-town America, and then surround it all in the grandeur of the grandeur of America, and then abase some of its citizens for venality while others rise to existential heights. And so Thornton Wilder titles his novel The Eighth Day, with the quiet ululations of husbands and wives and children wondering just what the hell is going on in their lives, or, in some cases, having no clue to even ask those questions. With suggestions of Cain and Abel, or perhaps Joseph’s flight to Egypt (“Goshen held a peculiar fascination for children.”) but the corrupt achieves his goal of being murdered by the innocent, and the naïve wander haplessly. My favorite line is when Wilder writes about the petit-bourgeoise wife of the dead man Breckenridge Lansing that “(s)he had never said anything memorable or memorably,” the writer’s harsh dismissal based on content and style.
Without revealing too much, I will tell you—as Wilder does in the first chapter, with that wonderfully American literary structure of historifying in which the writer relates the most exciting event first and then fades back into the past and then rushes past the first event toward the narrative’s events that come afterwards—though everything, of course, is still in the past, you’re made to feel as if you are reading about the future—faceless riders from Coaltown, including a cloudy-faced minister, rescue the murderer, Ashley. Is he a murderer? Read it and you tell me. He ends up as a master builder in the wilderness of Latin America, his son, Trent, takes on a new identity as a well-known journalist, and his daughter, Lily, becomes an opera singer, so the American trust in re-formation is explored during its heyday just after the turn of the last century, Theodore Dreiser’s time. Memory plus desire equals imagination. Compare the Ashleys to the dead man Lansing, who, Wilder writes, had “the commonplace face of an Iowa druggist’s assistant.”
In the end, like all good novels, this one is about how every story is part of a grand tradition of stories in the world, from the Bible to histories to journalism, as if, on the eighth day, God created a story about the first seven.
Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.
Fiction Finalists that Year:
- Norman Mailer for Why Are We in Vietnam?
- Joyce Carol Oates for A Garden of Earthly Delights
- Chaim Potok for The Chosen
- William Styron for The Confessions of Nat Turner
Fiction Judges that Year: Josephine Herbst, Granville Hicks, John Updike
The Year in Literature:
- The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1962 and 1963, Thornton Wilder spent twenty months in seclusion, away from family and friends, in the Rio Grande border town of Douglas, Arizona. It was during this time that Wilder began writing The Eighth Day.
- The Thorton Wilder Society
- Thorton Wilder Wikipedia Entry
- The Eighth Day page on neglectedbooks.com
- The Eighth Day page on The Book You Never Read blog
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