Friday, April 4, 2014

Course Suggestions for Thornton Wilder's THE EIGHTH DAY

The Eighth Day By Thornton WilderWinner of the 1968 National Book Award for Fiction, The Eight Day is a tale about two families in “everytown” USA blasted apart by the apparent murder of one father by the other. The miraculous escape of the accused killer, John Ashley, on the eve of his execution triggers a powerful story tracing the fate of his and the victim's wife and children.

Course Suggestions
Following the escalation of the Vietnam War and JFK’s assassination, Sixties culture exhibited a marked decline of Puritan ideals in America—especially the widespread notion that America was essentially a grander version of John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill.” Partially in response to this, Wilder began to write The Eighth Day, a novel that reaffirms the optimistic Puritan vision of America as a nation chosen by God, and the continued possibility of its citizens achieving the “American dream.”
Wilder was certainly not the first to promote American Exceptionalism in literature, with authors like James Fennimore Cooper (The PioneersThe Last of the Mohicans) and Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass) supporting his view. Increasingly, though, the 20th century saw an influx of literature refuting this national myth—from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, and O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. And while references to “the city upon a hill” have remained a perpetual part of our political discourse (especially by Republican candidates in the post-Reagan era [see Gingrich’s A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters]), Wilder’s unironic view of American privilege it is harder to find in the 60s and beyond, particularly post-9/11. In postmodern literature, the American dream seems either hopeless (McCarthy’s The Road) or unlikely at best (Vlautin’s The Free).
In your course, you may want to examine the ways in which American literature has increasingly rebelled against the idea of American Exceptionalism, with Wilder’s The Eighth Day serving as one of its last bulwarks. In doing so, it may be helpful to examine 20th century literary movements, particularly the shift from modernism to postmodernism. Is the ironic nature of postmodernism inherently at odds with American nationalism? And what does this say about the role of literature in society, when literary trends seem at odds with the majority of American’s continued thinking (see the Jones 2010 Gallup Poll, which reveals that 80% of Americans agree with the statement “the United States has a unique character because of its history and Constitution that sets it apart from other nations as the greatest in the world”)?

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