I just returned from Newport, R.I., where I attended a conference about the life and work of Thornton Wilder, whose “Our Town” might be America’s most beloved play. Most high school students have read it, seen it or acted in it, and it has been performed all over the world since it first was produced in 1938.
The play holds a special place in American culture, not unlike the Saturday Evening Post covers of Norman Rockwell, Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” and the launch pads of Cape Canaveral.
Wilder was a brilliant writer and thinker, with varied interests and talents, who deserves to be remembered in other ways, but our country has decided that “Our Town” is “our play.” We, the people, decided some time ago that the Gibbs and Webb families are somehow related to us.
Even if Wilder were to tell us that he preferred “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” or “The Skin of Our Teeth,” we wouldn’t listen to him. Like the fate of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” Wilder’s version of life in a small New England town, actual and invented, has cast a shadow over his other work.
Grover’s Corner exists in our memory and imagination with as much reality as the Grand Canyon, Lincoln Memorial, Empire State Building, Disney World and a few other places that seem to stand for America’s image of itself. Most of us feel that we have seen it or even lived in it and must let our children have a similar experience. Why is this so?
It occurred to me when I returned to Buffalo that my street is not unlike Grover’s Corner in many ways. Its residents, so far as one can tell, lead decent and dignified lives. They work hard and raise their children in a safe and green environment. When called upon, during a blizzard or power failure, they tend to help out their neighbors.
It’s not the most glamorous or affluent street. Far from it. It’s quite an ordinary street for most people, but it’s precisely its “ordinary” and affordable quality that makes it so impressive. One doesn’t have to have an oversize mansion to fulfill the American Dream.
This isn’t to say that existence is always happy on “our street.” There have been tragedies. A child was run over. Some marriages have failed and some neighbors, out of work, have struggled to keep their homes. A few folks seem to lead overly isolated lives.
But when we chat over the fence, we wonder if there is anything we can do to ease these burdens, and we are grateful somehow that we live on a street where we know quite a few of one another. It is “our” street and, given the basic experiences that we share, a microcosm of a larger world.
Before I attended the conference in Newport, whose affluence makes it so unlike Grover’s Corner, I thought that the title of Wilder’s play applied mainly to the people in the play. When I returned home, I realized that most of us live in Wilder’s town.
I realized further that we should do as much as possible to help as many people as possible lead the kind of ordinary life that is the dream of so many for whom war, poverty, disease and natural disasters are daily realities.
Utopia begins at home, especially in the good old summertime in Buffalo, our city.