Thornton Wilder

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Since the work of innovators such as Lytton Strachey, biographies have tended toward “telling all,” and not always in the most reverent, cautious ways; it has been the task of the modern literary biographer to get at not just the figure in the carpet but the one under it or behind it as well. In addition, insofar as a writer’s work reflects his life, his personality, his psyche, and his soul, modern literary biographers have gone far in pursuit of the mirror relationships between life and work, work and life. Thus Freud’s theories have been utilized by many modern biographers, as have novelistic techniques. Thus, not all modern biography is classifiable as nonfiction as one might at first assume; and a certain complexity has come to be expected of modern biography. In Thornton Wilder: His World, however, Linda Simon demonstrates that simplicity in approach and design still has its place in modern literary biography. Hers is a straightforward, chronological, birth-to-death rendering of Thornton Wilder and the world that he knew. Readers who seek to know more about the face behind the mask, relying on conjectures about Wilder’s deepest private and personal self, will have to wait until that kind of modern biography is written about him. Until then and in its own way, Simon’s life of Wilder has its own kind of distanced intimacy and offers its own kind of more traditional biographical rewards.

Thornton Wilder once described himself to playwright Samuel N. Behrman as “a schoolteacher who writes.” George S. Kaufman said of Wilder, after listening to him talk at a party, “That’s the best educated actor I ever met.” Teacher, writer, actor—these were three of the stances from which Wilder faced life. Moreover, as these roles suggest, he faced it in a rather humble, understated way for a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and Medal of Freedom, numerous honorary doctorates, and many other awards. Best-known as the author of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Our Town (1938), The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and The Matchmaker (1955), Wilder’s accomplishments went much beyond these to include more than twenty novels and plays and twice as many articles and short essays. Although he wrote mainly for the middle class and is regarded by many academic anthologists and critics as something of a popularizer (and thus neglected by them), Simon argues convincingly that Thornton Wilder is a major American author—one who as a writer, teacher, and man loved humanity, believed in it, and benefited it.

Wilder’s genealogy is traceable to the mid-1600’s when some of his ancestors from England settled in Massachusetts. Two centuries later his grandfather, Amos Lincoln Wilder, was born in Maine. He sent his son, Amos Parker, to Yale in Connecticut and thus began a family connection to a state and an institution that would endure throughout Thornton’s life. Thornton’s father earned his Ph.D. in Social Sciences from Yale in 1892, again initiating a scholarly link that would extend to his son Thornton. Marrying Isabel Thornton Niven in 1894, Amos Parker Wilder bought a quarter interest in a newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, and settled there to become active in political and civic issues. Five children were born to Amos and Isabel: a son, Amos Niven Wilder (1894), two twin boys, one stillborn, the other given the name Thornton Niven (1897), after his mother’s father; and two daughters, Charlotte Elizabeth (1898), and Isabel (1900). The two Isabels, mother and daughter, would come to play the major family roles in Thornton’s life—both of them caring for him and understanding his artistic talents much more than his father and brother. The education of young “Thorntie,” however, was of interest to both parents; his father instilled in him a moral sense, his mother, a sense of beauty. In 1910, another daughter, Janet Frances, was born.

In 1906, Thornton’s father left the newspaper business for a Taft/Roosevelt appointment as Hong Kong Consul General. The family went there only to find the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion so aggravating that Isabel, after a few months, took the children back to the United States (with the blessing of her husband) and settled in Berkeley, California. In a short time Thornton’s father assumed a post in Shanghai where, in 1910, the family joined him again. It was in China that Thornton first saw misery in the world and sensed the sadness and arbitrariness of life that would pervade writings such as The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In 1913, Thornton’s father resigned from the consular service, after ill health and some talk of ineptness on the job, and took up residence with his family in Berkeley.

For the next several years (actually into his forties), the relationship between Thornton and his father was that of yielding son and domineering father. Upon the death of Amos in 1936, Thornton, perhaps agreeing more than he knew with Gertrude Stein’s quip, “Fathers are depressing,” hoped that his father’s lifelong preaching about duty, his pedantic manner, and his seeming resistance to art would never be said about his son. Almost as if to spite the Wilder patriarch’s desire that none of his children become writers, each of the Wilder children turned to literature: the elder son, Amos, writing theological works as well as poems; Charlotte publishing two volumes of poems; Isabel writing at least one novel, Heart, Be Still (1934), about the ambivalent devotion of a daughter to a demanding father; and Janet coming closer to fulfilling her father’s dreams for careers in science for his daughters, but nevertheless writing poetry of her own against his wishes.

With such facts, Simon certainly had ample material for a probing, psychological approach to the story of Thornton Wilder’s family, but she refuses to follow such a course; instead, she describes more than she editorializes and might be faulted by some as being too hesitant in this regard. More conjecture about psychological cause and effect would admittedly make for more exciting reading, but Simon’s interest is plainly in objectivity and not in subjective or theoretical speculation.

About her subject’s homosexuality, for example, the author rather matter-of-factly (and by much of today’s biographical standards disarmingly) observes that Wilder’s sexual life was private and secret. His excuses for not marrying; some of his friends’ belief that he was more asexual than anything else; what Simon refers to as the exclusive and unbelievable heterosexual relationships in his writing—all of this and more Simon does not attempt to account for, justify, or condemn. She merely states. But enough is given for readers to fill in their own blanks with whatever theories of personality formation and behavior seems suitable and feasible. One facile Freudian guess might be that Thornton Wilder’s fondness for his mother was, in keeping with the family “romance” model, an indirect attempt by Thornton at rescuing her (and himself) from the dominance of Amos. Thornton wrote once that a mother you protect and a father you obey, at least until age...

(The entire section is 2939 words.)