Thornton and Sammy

1. the stamp of the school

May the stamp of the school
be the stamp of our lives
whose honesty carries us on
to do the best work in the world that we can
’til the best we can do is all done!

– The Thacher School song

Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright, is the most famous alumnus of The Thacher School, my alma mater. There is some competition; we’ve had some very successful businessmen graduate, and Howard Hughes attended for a year, but in the humanities Wilder stands alone.
I’ve recently been thinking about him, and picturing him during his school years and what life must have been like for him because he popped up in a biography I’ve been reading, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade, by Justin Spring. That (pretty awesome) title shows the broad strokes, so to speak, of Spring’s life. He was from middle of nowhere, Ohio, and leveraged his social skills and high intelligence to lead a remarkably unique life. He was a professor of English and writer of both literary and pulp erotic fiction. He was a lover of celebrity culture, hooking up with his first celebrity, the film star Rudolph Valentino, at the tender age of 19. He also loved having sex on the street with scores of working men*, and the detailed notes that he took of his sexual history from age 14 formed some of Alfred Kinsey’s initial data sets for his academic investigation of homosexuality. As if that wasn’t enough, he loved tattoos and tattoo culture, ending up near the end of his life as the official tattoo artist of the Hell’s Angels.
*As a younger gay person, can I just say, shit was wack before AIDS.
He also had a many-years sexual affair with Thorton Wilder. The Spring book is filled with plenty of lurid detail:

Thornton went about sex almost as if he were looking the other way, doing something else, and nothing happened that could be prosecuted anywhere, unless frottage can be called a crime. There was never even any kissing. On top of me, and after ninety seconds and a dozen strokes against my belly he ejaculated. At this he sprang from our bed of roses and exclaimed in his rapid way: “Didntyoucome? Didntyoucome.”
No. I didn’t

There’s also an implication of a core sadness on the part of Wilder. Steward writes, “…he could never forthrightly discuss anything sexual; for him the act itself was quite literally unspeakable.” In a conversation with Gertrude Stein, a mutual friend of Wilder and Steward, Stein asked Steward whether Wilder had told him that Stein and Alice Toklas were lesbians. Steward responded that Wilder “said yes he supposed in the beginning but that it was all over now.” Stein responded, “How could he know. He doesn’t even know what love is. And that’s just like Thornie.”
It’s hard for me to think of the man without thinking of the boy he must have been. The Thacher School, through development and the simple passage of time, has become an excellent place to send your kids by any metric. But at the time that Wilder was in school, it was still very much a wild place, located in an out-of-the-way, dusty, small town. It was a rough place, with an emphasis on working with one’s hands. The photo to the left is the school roughhouse, where the (all male, at the time) students would play and horse around. All in all, it seems a very rough and tumble place for a sensitive and bookish kid like Wilder. His Wikipedia page coyly states that “he did not fit in and was teased by classmates as overly intellectual.” An anonymous quotation from a classmate remembers, “We left him alone, just left him alone. And he would retire at the library, his hideaway, learning to distance himself from humiliation and indifference.” He did not graduate from Thacher.
Knowing his sexual orientation, it’s hard for me to not read between the lines and speculate about other sorts of friction between Wilder and his classmates. Is “overly intellectual” code for something else? Of course, there is no way to know. Codes of silence bound both Wilder and his classmates. But when I’m in a reflective mood, I wonder what it means that I had such a good experience at a place that was perhaps so cruel to Wilder.
2. reading between the lines

Mrs. Soames: Well, naturally I didn’t want to say a word about it in front of those others (looks off rear L.), but now we’re alone–really, it’s the worst scandal that ever was in this town!
Mrs. Gibbs: What?
Mrs. Soames: Simon Stimson!
Dr. Gibbs: I guess I know more about Simon Stimson’s affairs than anybody in this town. Some people ain’t made for small town life.

Our Town

I once participated in a discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coate’s blog about homosexuality in literature, and how, because homosexuality was not written about in English until relatively recently, gay culture borrows a lot from works that were probably not written with gay subtext. I used my pet theory that the central relationship in The Sun Also Rises is actually about the relationship between a gay man (Jake) and his beard (Brett). This requires a bit of willful ignorance (we have to make the metaphorical language about impotence as a further metaphor for homosexuality), but really does add another level of menace and drama when considering Jake’s relationship with Cohn and Romero. Anyway, commenter k___bee responded:

That’s really instructive. I think I mostly thought of gay subtext in older literature as something one had to search for – like “there have always been queer people and same-sex romances, where are they hiding in literature?”
But of course it’s going to be an obvious interpretation of some works of art if you’re gay – whereas straight people like me might have to really squint in order to see what’s jumping out at some gay readers.

Another example of characters with a gay subtext that I pick up on is found in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. One of the characters that peoples the small town of Grover’s Corners is Simon Stimson, the organist and choir director of the town’s church. There’s an aura of tragedy around Stimson; townsfolk attend his choir rehearsals but speak about him in whispers, and finally the Stage Manager shows us to his grave, telling us that he died early of alcoholism. The character represents the dark side of small town living, the repression, the lack of opportunity, the smallness and the small mindedness. It’s clear that his alcoholism and frequent drunkenness is enough of a dark secret to scandalize the town, but again it’s hard for me not to read more into it.
The gay church organist is, within gay circles, a stock figure. He’s the person that is too bound by environment and family ties to move away, and has found the one place in that environment in which he can be most like himself. Wilder has a tremendous amount of compassion for this character, and I really see it as a reflection of himself, the Thornton Wilder that grew up in a small town, the Thornton Wilder that couldn’t get out. And maybe that’s all that Thacher was, a small pond with a fish that was too big, that didn’t fit, that didn’t fit in.

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