First Sentences

The steamer, Sestri Levante, stood high above the dockside and the watery sleet, carried on the wind blustering down from the Black Sea, had drenched even the small shelter deck.” Eric Ambler, Journey into Fear.

“Ed Greenfield collected people the way other men collect comic books or old stamps or vintage cards.” Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

“Whatever Mum’s saying’s drowned out by the grimy roar of the bus pulling away, revealing a pub called The Fox and Hounds.” David Mitchell, Slade House.

“We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet.” Robert Macfarlane, Underworld: A Deep Time Journey.

“Emma sat on the shingle bank and watched the kids on the beach below build a bonfire.” Ann Cleves, Wild Fire.

“On the morning of October 1, 1907, the hotel bellmen and front desk staff were scurrying about the marble lobby, smoothing their uniforms and making final preparations.” Julie Satow, The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel.

“In the spring of 1926 I resigned from my job.” Thornton Wilder, Theophilus North.

“His upper jawbone was massive—a long, curved bone with nine tiny holes meant to hold his teeth.” Kate Winkler Dawson, American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI.

“Castle, ever since he had joined the firm as a young recruit more than thirty years ago, had taken his lunch in a public house behind St. James’s Street, not far from the office.” Graham Greene, The Human Factor.

“By the time Charity had heard about the young woman, it was too late to help.” Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

“He lay, flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.” Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (The last line of the novel: “He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”)

“John F. Kennedy was a man with a keenly developed sense of humor.” Bill Adler (ed.), The Kennedy Wit.

“The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.” Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing.

Where Have All the Writers Gone?

          Good writing is good writing is good writing. Or at least we might think that, but perhaps not really. I have enjoyed a certain writer at one stage of my life but not at another. Of course, sometimes a book was too hard when I was young, but I later saw greatness in it. Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter fall into that category. Assigned in high school, they were both dreary chores and probably unfinished ones. Decades later I tried again and realized why they were classics. They are great books.

          Sometimes my appreciation for a book has depended not on the quality or difficulty of a book or a writer, but on my own life cycles. Dickens is not hard to understand, but I hated and then avoided reading him when young. Then, because the spouse had to read it for a Victorian literature class she was taking, I picked up Pickwick Papers, and its laugh-out-loud funniness got me to go to his other books. Each summer for two decades when I had more time for novels, I eagerly read one of his books. I placed Dickens as the second greatest or most important writer in English after Shakespeare. Then, perhaps fifteen years later, I sought to reread Bleak House, a book I had regarded as marvelous. I couldn’t do it. This did not make me think that I had misjudged Dickens or the book but only convinced me that I was at a different stage in my reading life and Dickens did not now fit into it. I once read, for example, that you should read Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel, that Thomas Wolfe) in your youth or you won’t be able to read him at all. So far, I have not read him, and youth is far behind me.

          Sometimes I recognize that a book must be great but does not suit me. I have read War and Peace three times (you are entitled to think that I must be crazy) and I have never understood its touted excellence. I accept the world’s opinion that it is great, but not for me. Some books I have tried to reread and wondered why they were ever considered good. For example, I plunged into Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms recently and thought that it was amateurish and simply awful.

But what I have been thinking about recently are those writers who were considered good or important and clearly had an impact on “letters” but who fell out of favor while other comparable writers continue to be read. Sometimes such writers “disappear” for a while and then seem to reemerge. Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Wilkie Collins may fall into such a waxing and waning category. Others, perhaps George Gissing and John P. Marquand, just ebb.

          So my game for you: Name the ten, or twenty-five, or even fifty best or most important American writers of the twentieth century. Did your list include the writers who won all of these: a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a National Book Award for a different novel, and two Pulitzers for drama? It’s a trick question. There is only one who won them all, but your list probably did not include him: Thornton Wilder. We overlook him even though many of my generation read the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey, an innovative, powerful work. And many of us have seen or read or even acted in his innovative, powerful play that won a Pulitzer: Our Town. On the other hand, I have never seen his other Pulitzer-Prize winning play, The Skin of our Teeth, although I would have liked to have seen the original Broadway cast of it, which starred Frederic March and Tallulah Bankhead. Some years back, I found that the Barrett Friendly Library had a copy Wilder’s The Eighth Day, which won the National Book Award four decades after Bridge won the Pulitzer. It is very good, and that made me wonder why he wasn’t read more these days. Even so, I did not seek out more of his output or reread Bridge, and perhaps it is telling that I could not recently remember the title of The Eighth Day nor could I tell you a lick about it other than I remember it is a good book. These thoughts came back when I plucked Theophilus North, Wilder’s last novel, published when he was 76, out of a leave-one-take-one book kiosk. I enjoyed reading it and read more about Wilder, an astonishing man. In addition to the Pulitzers and the National Book Award, he was awarded the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Letters and the Presidential Medal for Freedom. He knew many languages and his translation of Ibsen’s A Doll House was running on Broadway when Our Town opened. He wrote The Matchmaker, which had a long Broadway run, and its adapted version, Hello, Dolly, played even longer. He wrote a famous screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock, and his friends included both Sigmund Freud and Gertrude Stein. And with all of these accomplishments few of us would think to place him on our list of great American writers.

          Theophilus North is set in 1926 and reads as if it is a slightly fictionalized segment of the author’s life. In the summer of 1926, Theophilus, our narrator, a graduate of Yale, has left his teaching job at a prestigious prep school in New Jersey (Wilder had taught at Lawrenceville and graduated from Yale) and heads off to Newport, Rhode Island, near where Theophilus (and Wilder) had been stationed in World War I. Importing archeological ideas from ancient Troy, North tells us his theory of nine cities of Newport—early settlers, seaport, playground for the rich, local workers, and so on. North spends the summer teaching tennis to and tutoring youngsters and reading to the elderly. Each chapter is a short story, with some of the same characters popping up in many of them. Each story has a similar structure. A problem or a mystery crops up, which Theophilus resolves. Although those helped are grateful, he always rejects pay or any hint of future consideration. The book explores the various posited Newport cities but does not have any central plot or moral or theme. Each chapter could stand on its own. This made for satisfactory, episodic reading. A chapter a day is the way I approached it.

          As I was reading, I kept thinking that Theophilus North reminded me of something else that I read, but at first could not place it. It was not the dissection of a time or place as in Updike’s Rabbit novels. It was not the intertwined short stories of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. It was not his contemporary or semi-contemporary authors writing about American themes, like O’Hara, Bellow, or DeLillo. Instead I realized it reminded me of another episodic book that I am currently reading: The Second Rumpole Omnibus by John Mortimer, a collection containing three Rumpole books that had been separately published. Each Rumpole book consists of short stories, but, as with Theophilus North, characters recur and incidents from one story are referred to in another. The Rumpole stories are similar to Theohilus not only because of the first-person narration, butalso because at the beginning of each story a problem or mystery is presented and by the end the situation is neatly resolved by the narrator. Both North and Rumpole, the well-worn barrister, have pockets of erudition;­­ North has a vast knowledge of literature and languages and Rumpole knows bloodstains, Wordsworth, and judges. But given the choice, I would take Rumpole over North. Wilder has created a character that seems too good to be true, while one can imagine Rumpole existing because, although an idealist, he is flawed. North is a prig; Horace Rumpole has self-deprecatory humor and a wife who at least slightly terrifies him. I would like to have a glass or three of Chateau Fleet Street at Pomeroy’s with Rumpole because I might not only enjoy the conversation, but I also might learn something more about human nature. I can’t imagine having a drink with North unless I wanted to learn more about him.

          And while I am in awe of all that Thornton Wilder accomplished, I am also in awe of all that John Mortimer has done.