“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
Thornton Wilder captures the sublime in one tragic, yet undeniably significant moment in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The novel was first published in 1927, between the world wars, and it was Wilder’s first big breakthrough as a writer. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928.
Wilder’s short novella explores the lives of five individuals who tragically fall to their deaths while crossing an ancient Incan bridge (on the road between Lima and Cuzco) on July 20, 1774 in Peru. The story is told in five short parts, each telling the background of the five characters. Each story is a kind of eulogy to their five lives. Upon learning of the accident, all of Peru becomes obsessed. One man, in particular, Brother Juniper, a witness to the bridge’s collapse, spends the remainder of his life trying to discover the mystery of the accident. As a Franciscan friar, he hopes to unveil the deep interconnectedness of God’s purpose. What is God teaching about these five people who died together when the bridge snapped? How do we make sense of this tragedy? Is there any meaning at all? Though he is a man of the cloth, Brother Juniper proceeds empirically, like a social scientist, spending years interviewing people who knew the five victims. He compiles a huge book (in contrast to Wilder’s small novella) that professes to reveal God’s grand plan. Ironically, the Church finds Father Juniper’s book blasphemous. It confiscates the book (Father Juniper’s life work) and commits it to the flame, along with Father Juniper. However, one copy of the book is secretly preserved, though it sits collecting dust, unread at the Library of San Marco.
In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, there is an element of the ‘found text’ style of writing. We get the feeling that we are on the cusp of an exciting archaeological discovery in Wilder’s novel, and as readers of the book, we feel like explorers discovering something sacred and forgotten, like a sealed Egyptian tomb. Each of the five people who died on the bridge are now long forgotten, and Brother Juniper is also forgotten, as well. His death seems to have served no larger purpose, and his life’s work, a book of divine inspiration, lies wholly forgotten and unread. We tend to forget what we do not care to read. After all, there are no heroes or villains in the case of a simple bridge collapsing. There is no one to blame; just five lives lost, and the world continues onward. However, Wilder beckons us to pause from our busy lives and question the meaning of the moment. To what extent do we experience a sacred feeling in this novella? At first, we see the ways people spend their lives, how they lose their lives, and the way others try to make sense of life. Brother Juniper’s life, for example, runs parallel to the lives of the five victims. He was the next person to cross the bridge when it fell, sending those five ahead of him to their deaths. However, Brother Juniper later meets his own death as a result of the incident: he tries to discover its hidden meaning and he is martyred by the church for it. According to the church, the science of God is to remain mysterious, not to be verified or “proven” empirically (despite living in a post-Francis Bacon world). Nevertheless, as audience members to this unique tale, we feel like we are transgressing into some space that is rarefied, deep, mysterious, even holy; or in a word, sacred.
Like the fierce madness of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Brother Juniper imputes human reason and human values onto a cold and indifferent natural world. Perhaps a bridge simply snapped killing five people, and that is all the story is able to tell. While the bridge represents different things to different people in the novel, we are particularly called to consider the spiritual significance of death from the perspective of Brother Juniper.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a brilliant little novel. It is a visionary work that inquires into the nature of morality, spirituality, life, death, and meaning as alethea or logos. Notably, unlike other Pulitzer winners from the 1910s and 1920s, the setting of The Bridge of San Luis Rey takes place far away from the rolling prairies or the booming cities of the United States. Instead, it takes place in a remote part of Peru. The novella is a wholly unique story for this time period. It is a well-deserved award for a beautiful little novel.
Apparently, John Hersey used The Bridge of San Luis Rey as the inspiration for Hiroshima, his monumental work of journalism which explores the effects of the atomic bomb through the perspectives of five different survivors. The Bridge of San Luis Rey was quoted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in relation to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, as the novel deals with similar questions of random tragedy, and the nature of guilt and innocence in a harsh and unforgiving world.
The 1928 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1928 Pulitzer Novel Jury was composed of: Richard Burton (Chair), Jefferson Fletcher, Robert M. Lovett. It was the same Jury as in the prior year. They unanimously awarded the prize to Thornton Wilder, despite the fact that he was an unknown schoolteacher at the time. The award allowed him to continue his writing and it eventually led to two more Pulitzer Prizes in the drama category in the future: Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth.
- Richard Burton (1861-1940) studied at Trinity College and Johns Hopkins was a professor at Rollins College for many years. In addition to serving on several Pulitzer Juries in the Novel and Biography categories, he also served on the Book and Drama Leagues of America.
- Jefferson Butler Fletcher (1865-1946) was born in Chicago, served in the American Field Ambulance Services during World War I, and educated at Harvard and Bowdoin College. He was a long-serving professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University (from 1904-1939). He was considered a foremost expert on the Italian Renaissance and Dante, and in his obituary in The New York Times, it was noted that he served on the Pulitzer Novel Jury for “several years.” Sadly, his son died in an automobile accident in 1926, Fletcher also had a daughter.
- Robert Morss Lovett (1870-1956) was a Bostonian and studied at Harvard. He taught literature at the University of Chicago for many years, he was associate editor of The New Republic, served as governor secretary of the Virgin Islands, and was accused of being a communist by the Dies Committee which forced him out of his secretary position. He was often on the frontlines of left-leaning picket lines, and he helped to launch the careers of several young writers, including John Dos Passos. In later years, his wife became a close friend and associate of Jane Addams and the couple lived at Hull House for a spell.
Who Is Thornton Wilder?
Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) was born in Madison, WI in 1897. He was the son of a prominent newspaperman, who later became a U.S. diplomat and the family moved to Hong Kong. Thornton was a shy child who was frequently mocked in grade school. He attended the Thacher School in Ojai, CA where he started writing amateur plays. He later attended Oberlin College, then graduated from Yale, and received a Master’s Degree from Princeton University. Then, Wilder pursued a career as a teacher of French and literature before he started writing novels.
He was a shy, quiet man but nevertheless he maintained an incredible zest for life. He traveled widely and befriended many people all over the world, from truck drivers and bartenders to prominent intellectuals like Sigmund Freud and Robert Maynard Hutchins. In Europe, he rubbed shoulders with George Bernard Shaw, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and back in the States, he found himself in the ranks of William Faulkner. Wilder first received commercial success with his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1927, a book which reviewers praised as a “little masterpiece” and an extraordinary bestseller. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for Theatre for the brilliant and inspiring play Our Town in 1928 and then again for The Skin of Our Teeth in 1943 (in total, he won three Pulitzers). He also won the National Book Award for his entire body of work (which came with a $5,000 award). He led a storied life, serving in the army in Italy and North Africa, and later teaching at Harvard University. He dabbled in Hollywood by helping write the first draft of the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. He never married, always claiming he was too busy in his youth for marriage, however more recent speculation suggests Wilder may have been a private homosexual.
With the proceeds from The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder built a house for his family in Hamden, Connecticut (for his sisters and himself) though he was frequently abroad traveling. He died of heart failure at his home in 1975. Upon his death he was praised by fellow playwrights, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in a tribute in The New York Times. In its 1975 obituary of Thornton Wilder, The New York Times published the following: “Although Mr. Wilder was essentially a metaphysician, his novels (and his plays) were infused with a sense of wit and humor… Mr. Wilder believed that ‘literature is the orchestration of platitudes,’ and that its function was not to reveal new truths so much as to trigger those that lie with everyone.” Upon his death
Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, April 15, 2003.
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