Monday, October 31, 2016

Thornton Wilder on His Journals

Thornton Wilder kept a journal for more than twenty years.[1] He started it to attain "better control of his interests, of 'harnessing [his] notions into written paragraphs'" (xvi) But it was not a diary in which he recorded his daily experiences, but rather a record of what he thought. In an early entry, dated February 21, 1940 which he wrote in New York, he says:
I began this Journal in order to discipline my thinking ... [but] I soon came to see that the practice of reflection alone ... would, for me, be fruitless.
He needed a more exacting method in writing to obtain
(1) for precision (2) to prevent mere word-mosaic and self-deception, (3) to collect notions into system, (4) to create a habit and a relation between thinking and writing, and (5) to collect from these records a reservoir of more codified ideas on which to base the judgements, I am so often called upon for in conversation" (xviii).
He hoped that this would lead to "the ability to reflect without writing and build up the power of 'unflurried thinking' in the thousand occasions in the daily life" (xviii).

I consider Wilder's fourth function of a journal, "to create a habit and a relation between [reading,] thinking and writing," as its most essential function. I don't think Wilder would have disagreed, for he wrote on May 21, 1940 that he has the "habit-formed impulse" to reach for a book to read and wishes that he also had such an habit-formed impulse to write. Wilder's Journal is, among other things, an attempt at such re-education or re-habituation, to make writing just as likely as reading.

He used the journal also to make his ideas more precise and develop what he calls "the accumulation of an interrelated grammar of 'reflections'". It's something I also aim for.

I came to Wilder's journals through Doderer's Commentarii, and I tried to read Wilder's journals in their entirety. But I found them rather disappointing. This must be my fault, as others have found that Wilder's journals contain "some of his most important creative work." And:
It is in the journals and letters that we can follow his most interesting thinking as he distills and reports his literary reactions and tastes. Here is the Wilder who reveres Molière and Cervantes, Gogol and Kafka, Nietzsche and Lady Murasaki. And Jane Austen: “How seldom readers seem to remark on all that contempt for the whole human scene that lies just under the surface”; her “only resource and consolation is the pleasure of the mind in observing absurdities” (Robert Gottlieb).

1. Wilder, Thornton (1985) The Journals of Thornton Wilder. 1939-1961. Selected and edited by Donald Gallup. Foreword Isabel Wilder. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

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