Odd Nansen, Thornton Wilder, and Bridges


“[But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.]  But love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Those are the thoughts of Madre María del Pilar, the Abbess of the Convent of Santa María Rosa de las Rosas, a character in the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, written by Thornton Wilder. In fact, they are the closing words of the novel.

Original Cover

The unbracketed language also appears in the original, 1947 Norwegian version of Odd Nansen’s WWII diary, From Day to Day.  The words are strategically placed, in English, after the dedication page, after the title page, after the Foreword, after the name index, after the frontispiece, and immediately prior to the start of the diary, on their own page.  Nansen clearly thought those words were important, although, interestingly, he does not mention the title of the book the words came from, only Thornton Wilder’s name. Perhaps Nansen felt in 1947 that so few of his fellow Norwegians would (or could) read English that the book’s title was irrelevant.

In the 1949 British translation the quote again appears immediately preceding the first diary entry, and again only with Wilder’s name.  In the 1949 American version (which is slightly different from its British cousin—more pictures and less text) the quote stands before the title page.  It does not appear at all in the 1949 German translation, which is considerably more abridged, with none of Nansen’s many sketches.

Epigraph as it appears in the 1947 Norwegian edition of From Day to Day

When I worked with Vanderbilt University Press in 2016 to republish Nansen’s diary, they expressed concern about including Wilder’s quote without the explicit permission from the holders of his copyright, which they felt would be too difficult, and too time-consuming, to obtain.  Accordingly, nothing was done, and the 2016 reprint merely mentions in the Author’s Note (pg. 54) that “The 1949 edition began with an epigraph from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey that described love as the ‘bridge’ between the living and the dead.”

I now regret that I did not try harder to include this text in the reprint as well, given Nansen’s clear attachment to it.

Throughout all this, and in the intervening years, I never thought much more about how Nansen came by this quote.  After all, he was highly literate—his diary is replete with literary, biblical, and classical allusions.

Recently I gave a virtual (Zoom) lecture about Nansen’s diary to members of the Hamden, Connecticut Public Library.  Hamden is a suburb of New Haven, not far from where I was raised.  (My high school alma mater, Notre Dame High, plays Hamden High in football every Thanksgiving Day in the Green Bowl; we lead the series 47-23-2).

In preparing for my talk, I was surprised to learn, for the first time, that Thornton Wilder owned a home in Hamden, where he lived, on and off, with his sister, for many years, until his death in 1975.

Thornton Wilder in 1920

It was the outstanding success of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder’s second novel, that allowed him to build a home in Hamden, not far from Yale University, where he had been a student (class of 1920).  The fictional story relates the lives of five people who, in 1714, were crossing an Incan rope bridge on the road connecting Lima and Cuzco, Peru, when the bridge collapsed, sending them to their deaths.  A Franciscan friar, Brother Juniper, witnesses the scene, and thereafter attempts to find meaning, or some cosmic purpose, in their random deaths.  Wilder’s novel was not only the bestselling work of fiction in 1928, it was a literary success, earning him a Pulitzer Prize.  (Wilder is the only writer to have earned a Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and drama—the play Our Town).  Wilder accordingly called his Hamden home “the house that the bridge built.”*

I learned all of this from Elisabeth Angele, Head of Information and Patron Services at the Library.  I pride myself in finding connections—across dates (here); locales (here); and people (here).  But it was Elisabeth who pointed out to me—based on my very own lecture—that Odd Nansen was living and working in New York City in 1928, the same year Wilder’s novel was the talk of the town.  No wonder he knew of the book!  And undoubtedly that is when he read those final words.  Certainly Wilder’s words must have made a great impression on Nansen, and perhaps consoled him during his three and a half year confinement, that he would choose to include them so prominently in his own all-important diary almost two decades later.

Thank you Elisabeth!

The Hamden Public Library has re-created, and displays in its main lobby, Wilder’s writing studio down to the last detail.

Here’s where serendipity comes in (once again).  As I was preparing this blog, I happened to take down from my bookshelf a book titled Noah Adams on All Things Considered: A Radio Journal. The book “captures a year in the life of ‘All Things Considered,’” the NPR radio program.  And the book just opened to page 152, describing Adams’s broadcast for Wednesday, October 18, 1989.  The Loma Prieta earthquake had just struck the previous evening.  Centered northeast of Santa Cruz, California on the San Andreas Fault, the quake killed 63 and injured another 3,757.  One of the more enduring images of the event was the collapsed upper deck of the Bay Bridge.

Here is part of the transcript for Adams’s broadcast for that day:

“Someone said this morning about the Bay Bridge in San Francisco that every time you go across the bridge in a car, you always have a moment’s thought—could this be the day for an earthquake?  And it brings to mind an expression from a novel by Thornton Wilder, the saying, ‘I may see you on Tuesday, unless the bridge falls.’”

Adams then describes Wilder’s novel, and how a certain

“Franciscan monk set out to determine why those five people died.  He thought ‘Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.’ He resolved to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, and therein lies the novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

In the end though, even Brother Juniper was unhappy with what he could find out.  Wilder writes: ‘He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction, and the good called early to Heaven.’”

Noah Adams concludes his broadcast by reciting the novel’s famous last lines, as above.

Before I could even post this newest blog, another senseless bridge tragedy has struck, this time in the Baltimore Harbor.  Two road workers are dead, and another four are still missing and presumed dead.  How could they possibly have imagined what would befall them, before their shift was over, when they reported for work?

And we are no closer to understanding the meaning of this event than Brother Juniper.  All we have left to fall back on is Thornton Wilder’s, and Odd Nansen’s, words of almost a century ago.

Francis Scott Key Bridge


* The Bridge of San Luis Rey remains popular to this day.  In 1998 it was selected by the editorial board of The Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century.

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