Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An American Dreamer

Heaven's My DestinationHeaven's My Destination 
by Thornton Wilder

"George Brush is my name;
America's my nation;
Ludington's my dwelling place
And Heaven's my destination."
(Epigraph for the novel)

"Brush returned slowly to his room.  Before beginning to pack, he stood at the window and looked out into the rain.  "I talk too much," he said to himself in a whisper.  "I must watch that.  I talk to damn much."" (p 28)

An informed and realistic look at the struggles of the depression era, Heaven's My Destination is a comic picaresque tale that defies categorization. It was Wilder's fourth novel and second after the wildly popular The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The hero of the story, George Brush, is an other-worldly figure whose single-minded pursuit of a philosophy that seems like pure hokum, but through his earnest devotion to its strange principles somehow seems to make sense--in an odd way. He needs a certain strength of character to persevere in this earnest pursuit because almost all the people he meets are married to a common sense that either rejects his entreaties or runs away from him in fear and misunderstanding.

The events in this very episodic novel are the epitome of what has come to be called quixotic, named after the pursuits of Cervantes' Don Quixote and his humble partner Sancho Panza. They said that Quixote suffered from a sort of madness and that might be an apt explanation for the strange behavior of George Brush. It is likely that Wilder drew on his short stint teaching at the University of Chicago where he taught Cervantes among others. His lectures were popular and they apparently provided him with ideas for future writing. The picaresque hero he created was a wandering man in search of home and family. More than once he says that he believes he should put down roots and have "founded an American home". He says to an acquaintance, "You know what I think is the greatest thing in the world? It's when a man, I mean an American, sits down to Sunday dinner with his wife and six children around him" (pp 22-23) He aspires to "settle down and found an American home." When he tries to persuade a young woman to marry him and share "a fine American home", he enlists the help of his prospective sister-in-law to convince Roberta, the reluctant bride.  "Will you go and ask her to come here?" George pleads.  "And, Lottie, listen: we'll have a nice home somewhere and you can come in all the time for Sunday dinner, and the whole family can come in from the farm, too.  We'll have some fine times, you'll see."(p 170)

He values his home above his job, just one of his notions and one of those that is more understandable than most of them are. More often he is pursuing windmills with ideas like the notion in the opening episode of the novel that banks are built on fear and everyone should take their money out of banks. While in a small town selling books door-to-door he suddenly has an epiphany: he must remove his money from the local bank and he immediately goes to the bank to do this.  But he also lectures the Bank manager on the evils of banking and the fears upon which it is based.  By the end of the chapter he is being escorted out of town while people are lining up for a good old-fashioned run on the local bank. It is the first of several incidents that mix his strange philosophy with the realities of depression-era America. Often the humor is tinged with a sadness that makes you wonder how poor George can maintain his earnest and naive sincerity in the face of a real world that just does not get it.

The book is an anomaly in my reading experience and certainly an anomaly among American novels written during the Depression. Wilder's realism portrays the struggles of the era, but it is a portrayal that is colored by shadings of farce and high comedy that provide a depth of humor missing too often when considering this era. While George Brush is rigid and puritanical in his thinking he is also sincere and earnest. His straightforward approach upsets the powers that be including evangelists, priests, and local leaders; he finds himself seduced, persecuted, misunderstood, arrested, married, and converted. It is clear, however, that whatever else he may be, George Brush is a sincere man who believes that what he is doing is right, no matter what the cost. For him, he believes, things will work out in the end. The result is a delightful journey, both picaresque and picturesque, of an American dreamer searching for a home in his and our great country.

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Brian Joseph said...

Very insightful commentary on this book.

I have not read this yet.

With that said, I have, and I suspect that many of us know people with at least some characteristics of George Brush.

i agree that we do not have enough stories like this that include humor.

James said...

Thanks Brian. I agree with you regarding George's type of character. His attitude seems child-like at times, but that viewpoint is not one that we should completely forget.