Thornton Niven Wilder was born on April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin, into a family with a strong New England Protestant background: Congregationalist on his father Amos’s side, Presbyterian on his mother Isabella’s. An older brother, Amos, became a professor of theology and commentator on religious poetry, and among Wilder’s three younger sisters was Isabel, with whom he would later make his home and share the closest emotional attachment of his life. When their father was appointed consul general to Hong Kong and later to Shanghai in the first decade of the new century, the family lived with him for brief periods in each city, though the young Wilder was educated mostly in California. After he was graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915, Wilder went to Oberlin College in Ohio, later transferring to Yale, from which he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1920. While in college, he wrote numerous “three-minute plays,” some of which would be included among the sixteen somewhat precious and pretentious closet dramas that reached print as The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays, as well as his first full-length effort, The Trumpet Shall Sound. Somewhat similar to Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (pr. 1610) in its incidents and thematic emphasis on justice, this early play was finally produced by the American Laboratory Theatre in New York in 1927.
While studying archaeology at the American Academy in Rome after college, Wilder began writing fiction. After returning to the United States, he taught French at the Lawrenceville School for Boys in New Jersey for much of the 1920’s, staying there—with time out to attend Princeton for a master of arts degree and for a stint...
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