Already famous as a novelist by the age of thirty, Thornton Wilder was clearly among the brighter lights in a literary generation noted by Malcolm Cowley and others for its uncommon brilliance. His career, however, remained strangely at odds with the rest of his generation, resisting comparison or assimilation with the careers of such illustrious contemporaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos. Emerging in his forties as a gifted playwright to boot, Wilder achieved with his dramatic efforts a degree of exposure and near-celebrity afforded few contemporary writers. By the time he reached his sixties, his name had become an international household word yet inevitably followed by a question mark. For all of his demonstrable successes, critics both amateur and professional remained somewhat uneasy in the presence of his work, unable either to dismiss it or to deal with it. Indeed, it was not until the 1960’s that critical studies of Wilder’s novels and plays began to appear, initially in Germany and only later in his native United States; of the latter studies, those of Malcolm Goldstein and Donald Haberman have proved most perceptive and most durable, although Haberman’s study deals exclusively with Wilder’s plays. Even at his death, however, Wilder remained a relatively obscure and somewhat misunderstood figure in contemporary American letters, his reputation further clouded by a premature biography prepared without his help and published against his wishes.
Implicitly assuming that Wilder’s works have by now been amply discussed, Gilbert Harrison confines most of his exposition and analysis to Wilder’s often enigmatic life, quoting extensively from the works but seldom attempting to discuss them. A journalist and sometime editor, Harrison appears wary of the academic establishment, favoring Wilder’s own erudite but resolutely extramural approach to the study of literature. To the degree that he lets his sentiments be known, Harrison emerges as a staunch supporter of Wilder’s published work, assuming the work as more than sufficient occasion and justification for his inquiries into Wilder’s life. The problem is that the facts, thus baldly stated, tend to disparage the work by implication. Harrison, meanwhile, does little or nothing to impede or alter the process, often conveying the disturbing impression that he has somehow lost control of the topic to which he has addressed himself, leaving the reader to supply or reconstruct the biography that might have been written. The conclusions appear to be in evidence, yet Harrison hesitates to draw them.
Beginning his account with a disconcerting assemblage of family letters dating from Wilder’s childhood, Harrison sketches a group portrait of the gifted, somewhat eccentric Wilders, a clan dominated and all but determined for life by the stiff, no doubt stuffy paterfamilias. Amos Parker Wilder, as Harrison later recounts, was a former New England schoolmaster with a doctorate in political science from Yale University. The degree appears to have overqualified him for most useful work, including a journalistic career which he sought through his purchase of part ownership in the Wisconsin State Journal. His much younger wife, Isabella, whom Amos married on the rebound from two prior engagements, appears to have been as lively and versatile as Amos himself was not. Dissuaded by her pastor father from pursuing a career in medicine, the New York-born Isabella Niven lost little time in developing compensatory interest and competence in music, literature, and art. The five surviving children born to their unlikely union were exposed from the start to curious tensions as well as a broad education. Thornton, the younger of two brothers and a surviving twin, showed an early interest in art and letters that increasingly aligned him with his mother. Indeed, the last letter that Harrison quotes by way of introduction shows Wilder as a preparatory school teacher in his middle twenties addressing his mother as “Dear Wun” and observing, “If the school knew I spent so much time writing to my mother, I should be fired.” Here as elsewhere, it is left to the reader to draw the evident conclusions.
Responding to shifts in Amos Wilder’s career, the family moved frequently during Thornton’s childhood, providing a wide range of experiences upon which to draw during his career as a novelist and playwright. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, he was reared partially in Berkeley, California, educated partially at the elite Thacher School in Ojai, California, as well as in China, where his father had obtained a diplomatic post. During the summers, Harrison recounts, Wilder proved monumentally inept at farm work and other jobs arranged in advance by his father. Entering Oberlin College in 1915, Wilder for the first time in his life took an active interest in academic subjects; it was also at this time that he began writing plays, initially brief one-act plays of the sort which he would never really abandon. Before long, Wilder’s writing took precedence over his course work, a condition that persisted even after he transferred to Yale University in accordance with his father’s wishes in 1917—having lost a year of class standing because of low grades. Enlisting in the army during the summer of 1918, Wilder served several months of Stateside duty before and after the armistice; returning thereafter to Yale, he was graduated in the class of 1920 with future plans unclear.
After a year of archaeological study in Rome (an experience that later would serve as the basis for his first novel, The Cabala, 1926), Wilder returned to the United States, teaching French at the Lawrenceville School in a position found for him by his father. Although only marginally prepared in French pending study toward a master of arts degree, Wilder displayed a distinct flair for teaching; he did not, however, aspire toward an academic career as his father might have hoped. Although Wilder, later in life, became deeply immersed in scholarship, finding odd recreation, for example, in attempting to date the many plays of Lope de Vega, he preferred creative to scholarly writing and always remained an outsider to the academic community. Indeed, the strong implication is that Wilder was temperamentally ill-suited to any form of regular employment and was fortunately able to derive, from the age of thirty onward, a sufficient and at times substantial income from his writings.
Later in life, Wilder would recall that his happiest years were those spent on the faculty of the University of Chicago where he was hired in 1930 at the behest of its president, his friend and Yale classmate Robert Maynard Hutchins. It was Wilder himself, however, who terminated the association after six years, no doubt responding to a restlessness that lay deep within his temperament. Both before and during his tenure at Chicago, he had traveled widely; in 1928, he had made a much-publicized hiking tour of the Swiss Alps with heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and had often revisited Europe. In addition, Wilder had seen much of the United States as a lecturer on the Lee Keedick circuit and came to enjoy living, as it were, in transit. The immediate cause of his departure from Chicago was to join the burgeoning group of novelists hired to write scripts in Hollywood; Wilder’s sojourn in Hollywood was, however, uncommonly brief, and he was soon back in Europe working on the play that would become Our...
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