Wilder in 1948
|Born||Thornton Niven Wilder|
April 17, 1897
Madison, Wisconsin, United States
|Died||December 7, 1975 (aged 78)|
Hamden, Connecticut, United States
|Notable works||The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)|
Our Town (1938)
The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)
|Notable awards||Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (1927), Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1938, 1942), National Book Award for Fiction (1968)|
Thornton Niven Wilder (April 17, 1897 - December 7, 1975) was an American playwright and novelist. He won three Pulitzer Prizes--for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and for the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth -- and a U.S. National Book Award for the novel The Eighth Day.
He had five siblings. Thornton, himself, had a twin who was stillborn. All of the surviving Wilder children spent part of their childhood in China when his father was stationed in Hong Kong and Shanghai as US Consul General. His older brother, Amos Niven Wilder, became Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School. Amos Wilder was a noted poet and was instrumental in developing the field of theopoetics. Thornton's sister, Isabel Wilder, was an accomplished writer. He had two more sisters, Charlotte Wilder, a poet, and Janet Wilder Dakin, a zoologist.
Wilder began writing plays while at The Thacher School in Ojai, California, where he did not fit in and was teased by classmates as overly intellectual. According to a classmate, "We left him alone, just left him alone. And he would retire at the library, his hideaway, learning to distance himself from humiliation and indifference." His family lived for a time in China, where his sister Janet was born in 1910. He attended the English China Inland Mission Chefoo School at Yantai but returned with his mother and siblings to California in 1912 because of the unstable political conditions in China at the time. Thornton graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915.
After having served a three-month enlistment in the Army's Coast Artillery Corps at Fort Adams, Rhode Island, in World War I (rising to the rank of corporal), he attended Oberlin College before earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1920 at Yale University, where he refined his writing skills as a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, a literary society. He earned his Master of Arts degree in French literature from Princeton University in 1926.
After graduating, Wilder went to Italy and studied archaeology and Italian (1920-21) as part of an eight-month residency at The American Academy in Rome, and then taught French at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey beginning in 1921. His first novel, The Cabala, was published in 1926. In 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey brought him commercial success, and his first Pulitzer Prize (1928). He resigned from the Lawrenceville School in 1928. From 1930 to 1937 he taught at the University of Chicago, during which time he published his translation of André Obey's own adaptation of the tale, "Le Viol de Lucrece" (1931) under the title "Lucrece" (Longmans Green, 1933). In Chicago, he became famous as a lecturer and he was chronicled on the celebrity pages. In 1938 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Our Town, and he won the prize again in 1943 for his play The Skin of Our Teeth.
World War II saw him rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Air Force Intelligence, first in Africa, then in Italy until 1945. He received several awards for his military service.[fn 1] He went on to be a visiting professor at Harvard University, where he served for a year as the Charles Eliot Norton professor. Though he considered himself a teacher first and a writer second, he continued to write all his life, receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1957 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In 1968 he won the National Book Award for his novel The Eighth Day.
Being proficient in four languages, Wilder translated plays by André Obey and Jean-Paul Sartre, and wrote the libretti to two operas, The Long Christmas Dinner, composed by Paul Hindemith, and ''The Alcestiad'', composed by Louise Talma and based on his own play. Also, Alfred Hitchcock, whom he admired, asked him to write the screenplay to his thriller, Shadow of a Doubt. He completed the first draft of the screenplay for Hitchcock.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) tells the story of several unrelated people who happen to be on a bridge in Peru when it collapses, killing them. Philosophically, the book explores the question of why unfortunate events occur to people who seem "innocent" or "undeserving". It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, and in 1998 it was selected by the editorial board of the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century. The book was quoted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the memorial service for victims of the September 11 attacks in 2001. Since then its popularity has grown enormously. The book is the progenitor of the modern disaster epic in literature and film-making, where a single disaster intertwines the victims, whose lives are then explored by means of flashbacks to events before the disaster.
Wilder wrote Our Town, a popular play (and later film) set in fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. It was inspired in part by Dante's Purgatorio, and in part by his friend Gertrude Stein's novel The Making of Americans. Wilder suffered from writer's block while writing the final act. Our Town employs a choric narrator called the Stage Manager and a minimalist set to underscore the human experience. Wilder played the Stage Manager on Broadway for two weeks and later in summer stock productions. Following the daily lives of the Gibbs and Webb families, as well as the other inhabitants of Grover's Corners, the play illustrates the importance of the universality of the simple, yet meaningful lives of all people in the world in order to demonstrate the value of appreciating life. The play won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize.
In 1938, Max Reinhardt directed a Broadway production of The Merchant of Yonkers, which Wilder had adapted from Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy's Einen Jux will er sich machen (1842). It was a failure, closing after 39 performances.
His play The Skin of Our Teeth opened in New York on November 18, 1942, featuring Fredric March and Tallulah Bankhead. Again, the themes are familiar - the timeless human condition; history as progressive, cyclical, or entropic; literature, philosophy, and religion as the touchstones of civilization. Three acts dramatize the travails of the Antrobus family, allegorizing the alternate history of mankind. It was claimed by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, authors of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, that much of the play was the result of unacknowledged borrowing from James Joyce's last work.[fn 2]
In his novel, The Ides of March (1948), Wilder reconstructs the characters and events leading to, and culminating in, the assassination of Julius Caesar. He had met Jean-Paul Sartre on a U.S. lecture tour after the war, and was under the influence of existentialism, although rejecting its atheist implications.
In 1954, Tyrone Guthrie encouraged Wilder to rework The Merchant of Yonkers into The Matchmaker. This time the play opened in 1955 and enjoyed a healthy Broadway run of 486 performances with Ruth Gordon in the title role, winning a Tony Award for Guthrie, its director. It became the basis for the hit 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!, with a book by Michael Stewart and score by Jerry Herman.
In 1962 and 1963, Wilder lived twenty months in the small town of Douglas, Arizona, apart from family and friends. There he started his longest novel, The Eighth Day, which went on to win the National Book Award. According to Harold Augenbraum in 2009, it "attack[ed] the big questions head on, ... [embedded] in the story of small-town America".
The Library of America republished all of Wilder's plays in 2007, together with some of his writings on the theater and the screenplay of Shadow of a Doubt. In 2009, a second volume was released, containing his first five novels, six early stories, and four essays on fiction. Finally, the third and final volume in the Library of America series on Wilder was released in 2011, containing his last two novels The Eighth Day and Theophilus North, as well as four autobiographical sketches.
Although Wilder never discussed being homosexual publicly or in his writings, the pornographer Samuel Steward wrote in his autobiography, six years after Wilder's death that he had sexual relations with him. Wilder was introduced to Steward by Gertrude Stein, who at the time regularly corresponded with both of them. The third act of Our Town was allegedly drafted after a long walk, during a brief affair with Steward in Zürich, Switzerland.
In Penelope Niven's biography Thornton Wilder: A Life, she provides considerable epistolary evidence that the third act of Our Town was not written in response to any walk, conversation or affair with Samuel Steward but was begun before Wilder met Steward and was not finished until several months afterward. Niven also raises doubts about Steward's uncorroborated and unsubstantiated claims of having been Wilder's lover.
Wilder had a wide circle of friends, including writers Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and Gertrude Stein, pianist and harpsichordist Gavin Williamson, actors Ruth Gordon, Montgomery Clift, Mia Farrow, industrialist Russel Wright and decorator and socialite Sibyl, Lady Colefax.
From the earnings of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in 1930 Wilder built a house for his family in Hamden, Connecticut. His sister Isabel lived there for the rest of her life. This became his home base, although he traveled extensively and lived away for significant periods. He died in this house on December 7, 1975 of heart failure. He was interred at Mount Carmel Cemetery, Hamden, Connecticut.