Monday, July 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 83: Thornton Wilder, “Spiritus Valet” (#29)

Thornton Wilder, “Spiritus Valet” (1918) from Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948:

I really liked Thornton Wilder's autobiographical sketch, "Chefoo, China," which wasn't so much a story but much more a character- and environment-study. Did you expect anything else from the author of Our Town? "Spiritus Valet" is the odd man out in this series: it tells a story with a distinct beginning, middle, end structure; and pays very little attention to the environment. It is, also, not as interesting to me.

"Spiritus Valet" tells the story of Mrs. Manners, a widow who once knew the poet Sebastian Torr in a period of great mystery; the only artifacts from that time are his poems about some golden-haired woman. And Torr-scholar Frederick Burton thinks that Manners might be that golden-haired woman and that she might have letters from him--and now that her husband is dead, why not give over this evidence. This is section one, pages 1-4, where Burton demands the letters and Mrs. Manners thinks it would be romantic to be the dead poet's muse/object, so maybe she should just write them herself...

The second section, pages 4-8, tells about how she wrote the letters, though she often felt a strange force trying to prevent her. That's the poet's ghost, we're lead to believe; and the story takes that so seriously that this story could fit in with the LoA's anthology of American fantasy. But she goes on with the project.

And we get the results in the third section, pages 8-11: she got some attention for the faked letters, but then she was socially ostracized, which would seem bad if we ever got any hint of society in this story. Just about the whole piece takes place in her house, with a quick jaunt in her carriage. At the end, the real golden-haired woman comes to say that she knows Manners lied and will expose her by printing the real letters--after the real golden-haired woman dies. But the spirit of Torr took revenge by spreading rumor. Which is again, one of those moments that left me scratching my head.

Which brings me to my real problem with the story. It proposes to discuss certain interesting issues like public/private life and the artists' constant double-step between "this is fiction"/"this is autobiography"; there's issues about legacy (the real golden-haired woman not only has Torr's letters but, presumably, Torr's son) and ownership and sincerity and romance. But it boils down to the strangely banal idea of a ghost spreading rumors about a widow.

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