English professor takes top position in Wilder Society

Recently, the College has become home to high-profile literary events, like last semester’s Walt Whitman Symposium and Monday’s Thornton Wilder Society panel.

Formed in October 2000, the Thornton Wilder Society is dedicated to “preserving and expanding” the legacy of the novelist and playwright.

Wilder is the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in both fiction and drama.

The society also welcomes Lincoln Konkle (commonly known as “Linc”), associate professor of English, as its new executive director.

For the past three years, Konkle served as the society’s “Answer Man,” on their Web site, providing answers to other scholars’ queries about Wilder’s life and work.

Based on his work with the society and his book “Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition” forthcoming from the University of Missouri Press, Konkle was asked to take the post.

The purpose of holding this event at the College, Konkle said, was “to mark the beginning of the College becoming the home of the society,” to celebrate this new connection and call attention to both the Thornton Wilder Society and the College.

The panelists were chosen for their prestige and connections to Thornton Wilder. Konkle said he wanted to include a playwright, a novelist and an actor.

Edward Albee, who Konkle called the “greatest living American playwright,” has spoken previously about Wilder’s impact on him. Joyce Carol Oates, a prolific fiction writer and Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton, once reviewed one of Wilder’s novels.

Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter Theatre, directed a production of Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker.” Marian Seldes, who Konkle calls “probably the greatest American actress,” has appeared in plays by Wilder and Albee and directed by Mann.

Wilder’s life and work are also intricately tied to New Jersey. Wilder taught French at the Lawrenceville School in the 1920s while he earned his master’s degree at Princeton University, and the influence of the Garden State shows in his writing. “(Wilder) evidently became fond of New Jersey,” Konkle said, noting that New Jersey served as a setting in his novels and plays more than any other place.

Wilder used New Jersey locales in the 1931 one-act play, “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” the 1942 play “The Skin of Our Teeth,” and the first draft of the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.”

Konkle’s own scholarship looks at Wilder’s work in the context of early American literature. “(Wilder) is always discussed in terms of European influences,” Konkle said. “And no one really looked at his novels and plays in depth in an American cultural context.”

Konkle’s book examines how vestiges of New England Puritanism exist in Wilder’s works.

“America is very broad, and there’s all these different ideas about America and American literature,” Konkle said. “And I think someone could now look at Wilder and say, ‘well, apart from this Puritan context, he’s American in this sense too.'”

Konkle said becoming home to an author society brings a new level of prestige to the College. But the College is also an appropriate home for Wilder’s society because its mission is in keeping with the spirit of Wilder’s life and work.

“Before he published anything formally, (Wilder) was a teacher,” Konkle said. “He very much thought of himself as a teacher, and I think he would be delighted that the society honoring his works is at a college that trains teachers. (Wilder) believed in education, worked in education, so I think he would be very happy that (the College) is the home of the society.”