The hero of the week is Cheever biographer Blake Bailey for his roaring criticism of Penelope Niven's decision to degay her biography of Thornton Wilder. Although Bailey doesn't mention him, the disgraceful omission is also a stain on the distinguished, 50-year career of Niven's editor Hugh Van Dusen (Jacques Barzun, Howard Zinn) who ought to have had the moral strength to insist on an open and accurate portrayal of Wilder's life. To say nothing of Harper's gay publisher Jonathan Burnham. Great as Bailey's critique is, readers will notice the NYT Book Review buried his review two months after the book's release, when it might have had a more significant impact on how the mainstream received this whitewashed work. Bailey writes:
"The gorilla in the room, of course, is Wilder’s sexual orientation, around which Niven does some very fancy dancing. The first explicit mention of homosexuality occurs on Page 99, in reference to a “young ballet dancer” named Hubert whose letters “suggest an overt interest in the Thornton of the vivid blue eyes,” though Wilder “appeared to be innocently unaware.” Fifty-some pages later, an actor named Gareth Hughes piques a dawning awareness in Wilder, who considers Hughes “the divinest thing to look upon that I have ever seen.” Lest we leap to rash conclusions, however, Niven is keen to remind us — over and over, a veritable mantra — that Wilder was a very private man and this is a very private matter. Meanwhile, she concedes, in so many words, that the lives of Wilder’s siblings were also blighted by sexual repression. Charlotte was the most forthcoming on the subject: a promising poet before the onset of mental illness and an eventual lobotomy, she hinted at her predicament in five “Monologues of Repression,” while admitting elsewhere that she’d never managed a “homosexual consummation” because she was “too frigid” even to kiss. The bleakness of such a life — a bleakness her brother doubtless knew only too well — was perhaps “one significant root of her breakdown,” according to Niven.
"So why is Niven reluctant to discuss this root in Thornton’s case? Let her tell it: “Opinions diverge as to whether a writer’s sex life is a legitimate field for public examination unless it serves as subject matter and/or thematic matter for the artistic work, or unless it has, with the writer’s complicity, emerged into public view as a defining force in the life and work. A very private man. . . . ” — and so on. The occasion for this oracular windup is the only piece of real evidence we have that Thornton himself enjoyed a consummation or two (albeit fleeting and skittish) with one Samuel Steward, who wrote of the encounter in a 1981 memoir. Niven goes after Steward like a stern nun wielding a ruler with germproof gloves. First she impugns his credibility, pointing out that he got his facts “slightly askew,” to wit: 43 years after the fact, Steward claimed that he and Wilder had spent “six or seven” days together in Zurich, rather than the two and a half that both men claimed in contemporaneous accounts. Other hard things are said against Steward’s general character until, grimly, Niven allows that “a case can be made” in favor of Wilder’s bisexuality. That said — and never mind Niven’s previous assertion that sexual frustration may well have led to actual schizophrenia for poor Charlotte — Thornton Wilder was (wait for it) “a deeply private man,” and one should protect his privacy in the same spirit that he would have protected the privacy of his partners: “not out of hypocrisy but out of affection, out of courtesy, out of propriety, out of respect for others, and himself.”
"Where to begin? First of all, “a case can be made” that on a certain level Wilder was not an especially “private” man at all; he was a lonely man, and there’s a difference. To put a finer point on it: Wilder was a man with hundreds of friends but no real intimates, and to the former he was willing to tell pretty much all there was to tell about his life. What he was “private” about, very specifically, was his all but nonexistent sex life, perhaps because he couldn’t find words to convey the matter even to himself. Whom is Niven appeasing with all her cant about privacy? Wilder? Wilder’s dead, and you relinquish a certain degree of privacy by dying (or so thought Voltaire: “To the dead we owe only the truth”). She reminds me of nothing so much as the would-be biographer in Wilder’s “Bridge of San Luis Rey,” Brother Juniper, who despite an exhaustive investigation misses the “central passion” of his subjects’ lives. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?” the dead Emily wonders, plaintively, at the end of “Our Town.” In that line one hears something of Wilder’s personal tragedy, and (it was his genius to suggest) that of humanity at large."
Thanks to Stephen Motika for sending me this review on vacation. Buy his book Western Practice.