A Constellation Near and Wide: Thornton Wilder and Sigrid Undset

"Though their orbits may differ radically Christian authors are concentric. No one, for example, would confuse Flannery O’Conner with Marilynne Robinson, nor Graham Greene with either one of them. At first their differences (apart from—because of?—the denominational) can be unsettling. But later, when we’ve dwelt upon those differences, a sort of complementarity comes into focus. One’s intellect and imagination see this planet and that other held in orbit by the pull of the same Son.

Such is the case, I think, of Sigrid Undset (1892-1949) and Thornton Wilder (1898-1975). Near-contemporaries, both were prolific, prize-winning authors, he of three Pulitzers and a National Book Award, she of the Nobel, preponderantly for the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, coming one year after Wilder’s first Pulitzer in 1927, for The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Wilder was raised, and remained, a Protestant (his designation). In his Preface to the one-act collection, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, he wrote, “almost all the plays in this book are religious, but religious in that dilute fashion that is a believer’s concession to a contemporary standard of good manners.” He concludes, “the revival of religions is almost a matter of rhetoric. The work is difficult . . . but it at least reminds us that Our Lord asked us in His work to be not only as gentle as doves but as wise as serpents.” Undset, from whom I can find no such declaration, would have disagreed. She was a historian, and did not think tactically. No concessions for her! Raised in a Lutheranism so nominal that she would become an atheist, she converted to Catholicism in 1924, thoroughly and deeply."