The Pulitzer Project: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder (1928)

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Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey was the 1928 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This book took me by surprise and was such a breath of fresh air as I’ve been trudging through the 1920s. First, this book isn’t set in the United States at all. While we went to Europe for half of Willa Cather’s One of Ours, Cather’s story was still firmly rooted in the canon of American WWI stories. Second, the story also has a surprisingly modern and unconventional structure. The Bridge of San Luis Rey starts on July 20, 1714 with a freak accident on a bridge in “San Luis Rey,” Peru. This bridge was inspired by the great Inca suspension bridges built over the Apurimac River in the 1350s. Five people die in this freak accident, and a Brother Juniper witnesses the accident and thinks it’s the perfect opportunity to investigate the moral character of these people in order to prove God’s Divine Providence. He wants to show bad things happen to bad people and everything is part of God’s plan. The book is divided into five parts, with each part exploring the life of one of the victims of the accident, and each chapter ends with the character walking across the bridge to their death.

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Photo Credit: TCS World Travel

At first, I was thrown off by the setting of the story, since I was so used to reading about 1890s-1910s in the US. In exploring the stories of these people, Wilder says he was trying to answer the question: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?” While the US isn’t mentioned at all in this book (technically, since it’s set in 1714, the US isn’t even a country yet), the themes the book struggles with – faith, love, and destiny – seem very American to me. The book tackles all the same questions that any Great American Novel wrestles with, and it does this concisely and lyrically in 138 short pages. I almost wished more people died in this fictional accident so that the book could be longer. I later discovered the last passage of this book is famous and oft-quoted in the wake of tragedies. I think the entire book is quotable and I wanted to reread the book as soon as I finished it.

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

I spent some time wondering if I should be concerned about the authenticity of this book. Thorton Wilder, after all, never set foot in Peru — I’m not even sure if he spoke Spanish. Would this book be considered inauthentic or appropriative if it was published today? (In fact, this is a question that I think I’ll have for the next few Pulitzer winners as well.) Ultimately, I don’t think Wilder necessarily chose Peru because it is exotic and “other” (although those both help create a lush and vivid setting for this story). I think he wanted the story to take place in an older time, before the industrialization and automobiles that his peers were obsessed with (see Ernest Poole and Booth Tarkington) and away from American high society (see Edith Wharton). 1700 Peru makes a more compelling setting than 1700 Europe, wouldn’t you say? Please let me know if you disagree and find Wilder’s setting problematic. I’d love to think more about this.

The Pulitzer Jury unanimously decided on The Bridge of San Luis Rey, writing “this piece of fiction is not only an admirable example of literary skill in the art of fiction, but also possesses a philosophical import and a spiritual elevation which greatly increases its literary value.” In the aftermath of a book set in Peru winning the Pulitzer, there was an additional change in the wording of the terms of the award. Do you remember the original wording? 

“for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”

We saw in 1926 that “wholesome” was changed for “whole” after Sinclair Lewis scathingly declined the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith. The term “the highest standard of American manners and manhood” was dropped, and the new criteria became:

“for the American novel published during the year, preferably one which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life.

This change in criteria gives the jury much more room for interpretation in selecting a winner. In fact, I believe this is criteria that still exists to this day.

***

I would recommend this book to anyone, really.

Additional Reading:

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9 thoughts on “The Pulitzer Project: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder (1928)

  1. Pingback: The Pulitzer Project | Like Bears to Honey

    • I think it is helpful that this book is set over 300 years ago! If it were set in modern Peru, I think there would be many more issues around authenticity and appropriation (although, I’m sure Peruvian historians may disagree with me.)

    • So I wouldn’t say this book has any hints of magical realism, but the characters that Wilder created seem just outrageous enough to fit perfectly into a Marquez story (for example there are orphaned twins who speak in a secret language that no one else understands). I think you’ll really like this book, so you’ll have to let me know when you read it!

  2. Pingback: Pulitzer Project: Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge (1930) | Like Bears to Honey

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