3 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 1
On his way to be executed for Breckenridge Lansing’s murder, John Ashley is rescued by an unknown group. Ashley flees the country while his family – and Lansing’s – struggle to continue living in Coaltown, Illinois without their patriarchs.
As always with Wilder, none of my complaints are with the quality of writing. On a sentence-to-sentence level, I love with Wilder’s style. His problems come with plot; specifically, moving plot along.
In The Eighth Day, Wilder explores each character’s deepest emotions and motivations. He lives inside of each one. The problem for the reader is that this exploration doesn’t lead to plot. Very little happens in this book beyond the description I’ve already given you: Lansing is murdered and Ashley is rescued. We think more will happen; each chapter sets up more complications and characters which should come together or pay off in the end. But it just continues to sprawl, giving too much detail without enough overarching purpose.
My edition has a Notes section in the back which explains references in the text. I’ll be deferring to that (instead of my usual Wikipedia default) when possible. When I fill in a definition/reference from the Notes, the page number will be included.
For Isabel Wilder
Thornton’s sister Isabel Wilder (1900 – 1995) attended some thirteen schools by the time she was twenty. As a result she never attended college. She was, however, a member of the first graduating class of the Yale School of Drama (1928) and wrote three successful novels in the 1930s. She never married. Of all the Wilder family members, Isabel was closest to Thornton, remaining his personal agent, spokesperson, hostess and representative in this country and abroad. After 1930, Isabel made her permanent residence with her parents and, following their deaths, with her brother Thornton in the family home in Hamden, Connecticut.
Her obituary in the New York Times ends with a line I don’t think I’ve ever seen:
No immediate family members survive.
 Each chapter covers a year (or years) between 1880 and 1905, jumping backward and forward through time. The narrative voice is aware of all events at all times, though; in the Prologue and in some chapters, events beyond 1905 are eluded to.
Gossip had solidified into conviction as prejudice solidifies into self-evident truth.
Nothing is more interesting than the inquiry as to how creativity operates in anyone, in everyone.
 Wilder is one of the most beautiful and quotable writers I’ve ever encountered:
What stretches of time are required to complete the procession of a marsh to a forest. The professors have drawn up the time plan: so much for the grasses to furnish humus for the bushes; so much for the bushes to accommodate the trees; so much for the young of the oak family to take root under the grateful shade of the wild cherry and the maple, and to supplant them; so much for the white oak to replace the red; so much for the majestic entrance of the beech family, which has been waiting for its propitious hour – the war of the saplings, so to speak. The internecine warfare of the plants was joined by that of the animals. The blat of the deer struck terror in the forest as the great cats sank their teeth in the jugular vein; the hawk bore skyward the snake that held a fieldmouse in its jaws.
Then man came.
It doesn’t feel false in this tale of late-19th-century Illinois families. I don’t know why; if any other author drifted into these kinds of asides, I’d ding them for it. But I love Wilder’s rhythm and word choices and I’m willing to follow him wherever he goes. I just might not give him a good overall rating if he ultimately fails to go anywhere with a story.
One of the finest “turtle mounds” in all the Algonquin region is near Coaltown, in Goshen, and there are three superb “snake mounds” to the north.
“Turtle mounds” is a less familiar name for Indian middens, deposits of shells made by Native Americans. (Notes, p.767)
“Snake mounds,” usually referred to as “serpent mounds,” are mysterious constructions in serpentine shapes made by ancient Native Americans. (Notes, p.767)
The sachem seemed to descend into the furthest reaches of his body; he collected himself; he rose.
Joel Miller, George’s assistant sachem in the noble nation of the Mohicans.
noun – (among some American Indian peoples) a chief or leader.
(North American; informal) – a boss or leader.
Suddenly, they burst out singing, not “Auld Lang Syne,” but “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”
“Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” is a hymn by Isaac Watts and paraphrases the 90th Psalm of the Book of Psalms. In 1738, John Wesley in his hymnal, Psalms and Hymns, changed the first line of the text from “Our God” to “O God.” The hymn is often sung as part of the remembrance day service in Canada and festive occasions in England. It was sung at the funeral of Winston Churchill, (see Post 4, note  for another tune played at Churchill’s funeral).
“Nature never sleeps. The process of life never stands still. The creation has not come to an end. The Bible says that God created man on the sixth day and rested, but each of those days was many millions of years long. That day of rest must have been a short one. Man is not an end but a beginning. We are at the beginning of the second week. We are children of the eighth day.”
“Life! Why life! What for? To what end? Something came out of the ooze. Where was it going?”
This feels like an echo of Vonnegut’s Bokonist Last Rites (Cat’s Cradle, note ).
He had no doubt that the coming century would be too direful to contemplate – that is to say, like all the other centuries.
Twenty-three months ago his son had died in a sledding accident at Williams College in north-western Massachusetts.
Williams College is a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It was established in 1793.
Like the devil in the old story, you may lift the roofs in Coaltown or Vladivostok; you will hear the same phrases.
The demon Asmodeus hobbles on crutches across rooftops and lifts them up to see what goes on within people’s homes in Le Diable Boiteux (The Devil on Two Sticks, 1707), novel by the French writer Alain-Rene Lesage (1668-1747). (Notes, p.767)
Vladivostok (literally ruler of the east) is a city and the administrative center of Primorsky Krai, Russia, located around the Golden Horn Bay, not far from Russia’s borders with China and North Korea. The population of the city as of 2016 is 606,653.
There are no Golden Ages and no Dark Ages. There’s the oceanlike monotony of the generations of men under the alternations of fair and foul weather.
There are few things more dispiriting than half-hearted strikes.
CHAPTER 1: “The Elms” 1885 – 1905
In bad weather there would be taffy pulls in the kitchen, and clamorous games of slapjack and who’s-got-the-thimble in the living room. The rugs would be rolled back against the walls and there would be dancing – Virginia reels and “Melissa, make your bow.”
Who’s-got-the-thimble is a game in which one child goes round a circle of other children and secretly puts a thimble in one child’s hands; when he has finished going round the circle, “Who’s got the thimble?” is called out and all guess who is holding the object. (Notes, p.767-768)
The Virginia reel is a folk dance that dates from the 17th century. It is generally considered to be an English country dance. It was most popular in America from 1830-1890.
I can’t find a reference for “Melissa, make your bow.”
Mrs. Lansing forbade the children to play slapjack and muggins.
Muggins is a domino game. (Notes, p.768)
She was a vivid narrator and the company listened spellbound to the adventures of Pere-Pere Tortue and Dedenni Iguanou.
Pere-pere tortue is French for: Father-father turtle
I cannot find any translation or reference for Dedenni Iguanou. I assume both of these names are characters from French stories.
Beata Ashley came down these stairs like that Queen of Prussia who had been the lifelong admiration of her mother, geborene Clotilde von Diehlen of Hamburg and Hoboken, New Jersey.
 Wilder writes with the conversational, all-knowing, unhurried narration style of a fairy tale:
We shall see later how the supposedly dynamic young Lansing was gently shunted out of the important offices in Pittsburgh.
The Eighth Day is similar to The Bridge of San Luis Rey in giving us the main event of the novel right off (a murder and execution escape; several dead in a bridge collapse) then going back to humanize the one-line textbook description.
Memory is the servant of our interests and Lansing’s primary interest was the impression he made on others. Numerals, charts, carloads do not applaud.
 Typo? Should this read “single”?
The bulletin boards were Lansing’s signal contribution to the mines. He was soon signing them fifteen times a day.
They saw which seams were running into pan cobble or noggers.
Pieces of the square wooden logs piled together to support the roof of a mine. (Notes, p.768)
The prudent and self-righteous were in ecstasy: John Ashley, for seventeen years, had been breaking one of the most implacable laws of civilization. He had saved no money.
He had been pusillanimous – and miserable – throughout the whole trial.
adjective – showing a lack of courage or determination; timid.
Beata Ashley went upstairs to her room. She fell on her knees beside their bed and pressed her forehead against the coverlet. No words formed themselves in her mind. She did not weep. She was the doe that hears the huntsmen’s shots across the valley.
Looking at her, Dr. Gilles thought, as he had so often, of Milton’s words: “Fairest of her daughters, Eve.”
A quote from Paradise Lost, bk. 4, line 324. (Notes, p.768)
Mother and son seldom looked into each other’s eyes; each could hear the other think – a relationship that does not necessarily involve tenderness.
“You can’t ask someone to be breve without giving them something to be brave about.”
Sophia looked up at him with an expression on her face which he was to remember all his life. He was to call it her “Domremy look.”
Village in northeastern France where Joan of Arc was born in 1412. (Notes, p.768)
He gave her his greatest treasure – three Kangaheela arrowheads of green quartz, of chrysoprase.
I think Thornton Wilder may have invented the Kangaheela tribe for this story.
Chrysoprase is a gemstone variety of chalcedony (a cryptocrystalline form of silica) that contains small quantities of nickel. Its color is normally apple-green, but varies to deep green.
We are enchained and we enchain one another. To go to Goshen meant that your life, your one life, had been a failure.
It was Sophia’s smile that had long offended and disconcerted. The child of shame and crime had the effrontery to smile. A spectacle of great misfortune, of happiness overthrown, of a desperate struggle for existence aroused conflicting emotions. Even those who are moved to sympathy find that their sympathy is touched with relief, even triumph; with fear or awe or repulsion. Often such reversals are called “judgments.”
Chicago was very big; he didn’t know what all those people were doing on earth.
All mothers love their children. We know that. But maternal love is like the weather. It is always there and we are most aware of it when it is undergoing change.
The greatest griefs are those accompanied by self-reproach.
Sophia remembered reading a book called Mrs. Whittimore’s Ark. It told of how a widow with a large family of boys and girls opened a boardinghouse by the sea.
Invention of Wilder’s.
The lives of the hopeful abound in happy coincidences.
It is doubtful whether hope – or any of the other manifestations of creativity – can sustain itself without an impulse injected by love.
Because it is irrational, hope rejoices in evidence of the marvelous.
“Everybody isn’t awful.”
She was a foreigner, so foreign that her idiosyncrasies were tolerated as being outside the town’s ability to judge them.
In winter she wore a tall fur hat and a dragoon’s redingote, faced with frogs and brave with epaulettes.
noun – a woman’s long coat with a cutaway or contrasting front.
a man’s double-breasted topcoat with a full skirt.
Her hat and tippet.
noun – a woman’s long fur scarf or shawl worn around the neck and shoulders.
a long ceremonial scarf worn especially by the clergy.
(historical) – a long, narrow strip of cloth forming part of or attached to a hood or sleeve.
Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous; it is nothing if it is not ridiculous.
She sent to Chicago (…) for copies of Madame Albanese’s Method of Bel Canto, Volumes I and II. She showed her how Madame Carvalho advanced to the footlights to acknowledge applause and how La Piccolomini, in recital, stood in silence, in recueillement, until she had gathered all the audience’s attention.
I think Madame Albanese is an invented character for this book but a nod to Licia Albanese (1909-2014), an Italian-born American operatic soprano.
Madame Carvalho (1827-1895) was a French soprano. (Notes, p.768)
La Piccolomini was Italian soprano Marietta Piccolomini (1834-1899). (Notes, p.768)
French: a contemplative mood (Notes, p.768)
The books the girls read were filled with heroes like Lochinvar and Henry the Fifth.
Lochinvar is a character in Walter Scott’s poem, Marmion (1808), dramatized in the 1924 film Young Lochinvar.
Blue eyes looked into blue eyes, astonished; they hardened.
The shells on the whatnot trembled.
noun – (informal) – 1. used to refer to an item or items that are not identified but are felt to have something in common with items already named.
2. a stand with shelves for small objects.
“And the reading aloud in the evening: The Shakespeare and Jane Eyre and The Mill on the Floss and Eugenie Grandet.”
The Mill on the Floss (1860) is a novel by George Eliot (1819-1880). (Notes, p.769)
Eugenie Grandet (1833) is a novel by Honore de Balzac (1799-1850). (Notes, p.769)
“I’m going to be big. Did you ever hear of Elmore Darcy? Or Terry McCool? He’s great. He was in The Sultan of Swat. That’s where I’m going. And your daughter! Did you ever hear of Mitzi Karsch in Bijou? Where have you been? Well, you’ve heard of Bella Myerson? Who have you heard of?”
“Don’t raise your voice, Mr. Malcolm.”
Mr. Malcolm raised his voice and stood up. He shouted “You’ve heard of Madame Modjeska in Maria Stuart, haven’t you? She’s Polish, like me.”
I can’t find a historical Elmore Darcy, Terry McCool, Mitzi Karsch, play titled Bijou, or Bella Myerson.
“The Sultan of Swat” was a nickname for Babe Ruth (1895-1948), but Ruth would have been less than ten years old when this scene takes place.
I don’t know if (1) Malcolm is making these names up (2) they did exist but they were figures/plays limitedly known at the turn of the 20th century and virtually forgotten today (3) Wilder is making them up, but they exist in the reality of the book.
Helena Modjeska (1840-1909) was a Polish actor famous for her portrayals of Shakespearean heroines. She often starred in Maria Stuart (1800), a play by the German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). (Notes, p.769)