The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Forgive me, Hamden; I goofed
I allowed myself to be swept off my feet a few years ago by Tappan Wilder, literary heir to noted author Thornton Wilder, who lived on Deepwood Drive in Hamden for 50 years where he died in 1975 at age 78.
Around 2016 I asked Tappy Wilder, Thornton’s nephew, what I should do with dozens of greeting cards, notes, and several letters which Miss Isabel Wilder had sent me from 1976-1995, in the years after her brother Thornton died.
Tappy replied rather grandly: “All things Wilder belong at the Beinecke,” meaning Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library where Thornton Wilder’s archives are housed. I admit to being wowed. After all, Tappy is literary executor of “all things Wilder” as he put it.
Wilder’s novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” (1927), his play “Our Town” (1938) and another play “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942) , all won Pulitzer Prizes. His play “The Matchmaker” became the musical “Hello, Dolly!” and his 1958 novel, “The Eighth Day” won the National Book Award, making him (with the three Pulitzers) America’s most honored writer.
Note: “The Matchmaker” didn’t win any prize; it only made him rich.
I confess to being intoxicated by Tappy Wilder’s authority in his declaration that all things Wilder belong at Beinecke. I have known Tappy since his famous uncle’s death in 1975. I’m a fan.
I have no excuse but weakness for what I did next. I quietly placed Thornton’s handwritten letter in among my donation of dozens of Miss Wilder’s cards to me, thinking it a kind of pearl in an oyster for Beinecke to recognize as such. It may have been one of the last letters Thornton penned by hand.
I reasoned that “All things Wilder” meant “all” so I rationalized giving it to Yale’s Wilder archive at Beinecke rather than to little old Miller library in Hamden, even though Miller has had Wilder’s desk and memorabilia on permanent display since 1985, a display I helped create. My bad. Forgive me Hamden, please.
Here is the complete text of Thornton Wilder’s hand written letter:
Edgartown, Mass., 02539 August 19, 1975
Dear Mr. Keane:
Many thanks for your letter. I have tried to reach you by the telephone Num. 203-288- **** four times during the day, hence my delay in replying.
Your request presents some difficulties.
I have recently approached a number of friends for donations to what I feel to be urgent and highly worthy causes. HOW CAN I APPEAL to them for money [ for] anything as vague and unnecessary as a MUSEUM for Hamden? Hamden is contiguous to New Haven, notable for museums, cultural, scientific and historical.
Until your Commission finds a more laudable project (also excluding a horse trough and birdbath) I do not wish to be represented on your fund-raising brochure.
Sorry to disappoint you.
As I shall probably spend part of September in a Boston Hospital, I shall be unable to reply promptly to correspondence. Sincerely yours, Thornton Wilder
Isn’t that Mt. Carmel-Dickerman House the seat of a historical society in Hamden? — and a good one —
Now in 2023, I’m sorry I was so easily swayed by Tappy Wilder’s authority as literary executor of “all things Wilder” as he put it. And I have an idea for making my mistake right:
Beinecke should offer to share Wilder’s classic letter with Miller Memorial Library in Hamden for three months every year. They can put it under glass on display for Hamden’s citizens as a kind of ritual every year on Wilder’s April 17 birthday.
Make it a friendly professional courtesy between big fry and small fry libraries. It will sooth my guilt at my own poor judgment in being wowed by Tappy’s fame. And it will be good for town/gown relations.
Wilder was known for driving editors wild (pun intended) by submitting his hundreds of pages of manuscripts in his own frenetic handwriting instead of having them typed.
That itself makes my wrongly donated Wilder letter even more interesting for literary historians. It’s in his own hand, the very honored hand which would stop writing forever four months later.
And my mistake has revealed an exception to Tappy Wilder’s axiom: Actually, all things Wilder do not belong at Beinecke. One of them belongs in “our town” of Hamden, at least on loan three months a year.