It must be a common occurrence—having certain inanimate things make periodic appearances throughout a life, much like acquaintances who keep popping up in odd places—on the bus, in a crowd, across a room. They’re noticed, but barely so; the conscious mind remarks upon them—“There’s that thing again”—then moves on until they reappear, stepping out from the flood of experience with a gentle tug at the sleeve.
When I was a boy, a paperback copy of Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day would appear like this. I remember it on a table; I remember it in a box; the last time I recall seeing it, the book lay on the floor of a garage closet. It was a thick little text, with a cover that bore a sunrise in a yellowish cast and a title in Ten Commandment-size font. Still, I don’t remember ever thumbing through it. At some point, it must have been thrown away; it disappeared and has never resurfaced.
Not physically, at least; but later on, as though it had evanesced into the spiritual world in order to permeate the weightless atmosphere of the mind, someone mentioned the book to me. I was told that a novel I’d written (as yet unpublished) had put her in mind of it. Flattered, amused that the old paperback visitor had come to call once again, I began to use the comparison myself.
You have to brag shamelessly in query letters, alluding to “possible progenitors of the work” in hopes of placing it in some literary agent’s field of perception. Of course, few agents this side of the grave have heard of the book, so it probably amounts to very negligible artistic coinage.
But in an attempt to right the wrong of co-opting a work that I hadn’t read, I resolved to undertake it. High time, too. It was a great discovery, and one whose relative obscurity I now find baffling. A forward by John Updike, explaining why his committee bestowed it with the National Book Award of 1968, attempted to recover its proper place. As an Updikean foot soldier, I gave it a shot—as atonement, if nothing else.
The work relates the saga of two notable families in a coal-mining town in turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century Illinois. On the first page, the patriarch of one clan, John Avery, has been tried and convicted of murdering the patriarch of the other, Breckenridge Lansing. Using a stage device (like the storyteller in Our Town), Wilder has a narrating voice comment on the charge’s absurdity; Avery was the soul of propriety, and the two men’s families were as close as could be. Yet, as there was no other explanation—Avery and Lansing had been target shooting; they and no one else—the town begins to find motives. Avery is condemned to hang and placed on a train for transport.
Then, as inexplicable as the death that has disrupted the characters’ lives, a rescue occurs. Masked men, unknown to Avery, fall upon the train, free the prisoner, and loose him into the wilderness with a horse and provisions. The news dumbfounds everyone involved—the men’s wives, children, and friends no more so than Avery himself. As he rides towards the question of his future, the unfathomable grace of his release, as well as its enigmatic meaning, becomes the starting point not only for his life, but also for that of each member in the families he leaves behind.
This unfolding is told in parts, the story broken into particular locales: “The Elms,” which is the name of the Avery’s house, tells of the accused man’s beautiful, reclusive wife with whom he’d eloped years before; his only son, a boy of great empathetic powers, who leaves the town in order to win a living for his destitute mother and sisters; and his three daughters—one destined to be a singer, another to be a reformer, and a third—the most endearing—to be the savior of the family.
“St. Kitts” tells the story from the other side of town, in the house where the dead man’s family lives its own complicated tale. The town gossip has made Lansing’s widow—a Creole—into the reason for the alleged murder. It is supposed that Ashley killed the other man, coveting his wife. But the trials that the woman and her children bear inside the walls of their home, named after the island of her birth, provide a motivation for the death that no one could have foreseen.
“Illinois to Chile”—the great central part of the novel—follows John Ashley himself, as he is swept along a trail of escape leading from Illinois, to New Orleans, and finally to the copper mines of Chile. With his only thoughts being the reclamation of his name, and a reunion with his family, he comes to find a variety of roles in the lives of those he meets, ones that bring him to a larger understanding of what he’s fated to do.
Ashley is described by the narrator as a man of faith, though not particularly drawn to any particular Christian creed; instead, he comes to appreciate that he, his wife, his children, the lives of the dead man and his family, and all he encounters, are uniting in an organic chronicle, a teleological vine the goodness of which they may never know, but must believe in.
Wilder builds the narrative in such a natural way that the end is both sum and revelation—logical consequence and mystical descent. So iIt must be remembered that St. Augustine called the day after creation the “eighth day”—the day of resurrection—the day of reclaiming. Well, may it be so. And as a means to help that day along, I offer this pious hope: that Wilder’s novel is redeemed from the oblivion into which it has fallen, and becomes more than the infrequent visitor that time—and neglect—have relegated it to be.
A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled,won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.