Discussion Topics

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What is the symbolic import of the bridge in The Bridge of San Luis Rey?

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In what ways does the Stage Manager of Our Town resemble the traditional dramatic device of the chorus?

How does Thornton Wilder avoid sentimentality in Our Town?

Wilder does not make many overt classical allusions in his writing, but in fact he was steeped in the Greek and Roman classics. How does this background reveal itself in his works?

The Skin of Our Teeth was first produced in 1942. In what ways is it both a timely and a timeless play?

Is the title character of Theophilis North a plausible human being, or is he to be considered primarily a literary device?

Other literary forms

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Thornton Wilder is as well known for his plays as for his fiction. Our Town (pr., pb. 1938), The Merchant of Yonkers (pr. 1938; revised as The Matchmaker, 1954), and The Skin of Our Teeth (pr., pb. 1942) are some of his best-known plays. Collections of his short plays were published in The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays (1928) and The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays in One Act (1931). A Life in the Sun, commonly known as The Alcestiad, was published in 1955, and a collection of his essays, American Characteristics, and Other Essays, was published in 1979. A set of cullings from his diaries, The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961, was released in 1985.

Achievements

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Thornton Wilder began his career as a teacher and in a sense never gave up the practice of that profession. He attempted to persuade generations of readers of the power of love, the need for individual integrity, and the importance of maintaining faith in people’s essential goodness. His clear style and straightforwardnarrative earned for him a broad readership, transcending categories of age, class, or education. Though detractors have labeled him middle class and middlebrow, he received enthusiastic praise throughout his career from such critics as Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Edmund Fuller, Henry Seidel Canby, and John Updike. Wilder has been less a subject of scholarly research than some of his contemporaries—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, for example—yet he has remained widely read since his first novel was published in 1926, and his versatility as a writer—of two Pulitzer Prize-winning full-length plays and dozens of short plays—has brought him worldwide recognition.

Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928, the first National Medal for Literature in 1964, and a National Book Award in 1967. He also received several honorary doctorates.

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Thornton Wilder came to national prominence in 1927 with what has remained his best-known novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which won for him the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes. The year before, his first published fiction, The Cabala (1926), had appeared, and in 1930 came his third novel, The Woman of Andros. These works were followed in 1934 by Heaven’s My Destination—his first fictional work about the American experience—and, at lengthy intervals, by three additional novels. The Ides of March, the story of Caesar told from fictional diaries, letters, and records, and quite probably Wilder’s most significant novel, appeared in 1948; The Eighth Day, winner of the National Book Award, was published in 1967; and his last novel, the semiautobiographical Theophilus North, was published in 1973. In 1942, Wilder cowrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s motion picture Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Over the years, Wilder wrote a number of essays, including several that develop his theory of drama; some that introduce works by other writers as varied as Sophocles, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Emily Dickinson; and a few scholarly articles on the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega Carpio. These works have been collected posthumously in American Characteristics and Other Essays (1979).

Achievements

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Thornton Wilder was a true man of letters, equally accomplished and highly regarded at various points in his career as both a novelist and a dramatist. None of his works of fiction, however, seems likely to endure as a classic in the way that two of his plays, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, most assuredly will. Wilder admittedly has always been, as the foreword to The Angel That Troubled the Waters insists, a decidedly and deliberately religious playwright, not in any parochial sense of espousing a specific body of theological doctrine but in the larger sense of consistently posing moral and metaphysical questions. As he makes clear in that preface, however, if the religious artist today is to reach a sizable and responsive audience, that artist generally must couch his or her views “in that dilute fashion that is a believer’s concession to a contemporary standard of good manners.” By birth, Wilder was a Christian; by education and training, he was a humanist. By his own reading and intellectual inquiry later in life, he became an existentialist. Several of the playlets in his first volume reveal the intersection of pagan and Christian myth, showing how the former is implicit in and fulfilled by the latter. Continually, Wilder emphasizes the “presentness” of the past and how the best that has been thought and said throughout the ages continues to be of value. Always he asserts the importance of reason even in ages of faith.

Wilder was one of the most learned and erudite of all American dramatists. Throughout his life, he was a teacher as well as a writer, and his plays teach effortlessly, engagingly, and entertainingly. Much of American drama centers on the family, and Wilder’s plays are no exception. His family, though, is the Family of Man, the human community throughout history. Because of the allegorical and parabolic nature of his plays, Wilder’s works might appear at first to be lacking in subtlety and complexity, yet, through the simple means he employs, they touch on the most vital of ideas. The timeless rituals in which his families participate are the universal ones of birth and growth, love and marriage, sickness and death. If Wilder perhaps reflects Henri Bergson and Marcel Proust in his own philosophy of time as duration and memory as a simultaneous coexistence of all past experiences, he is a child of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman in his vague transcendentalism and almost religious belief in the value of democracy. Wilder insists that life has a purpose and a dignity, so it must be lived and cherished and nurtured. If this purpose and worth have become increasingly clouded, that simply makes artists all the more vital, for on them rests the task of revealing the divinity within human beings yet of showing them that they can become divine only by first being fully human.

He received numerous awards during his lifetime, beginning with the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1928 for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1938 for Our Town and in 1943 for The Skin of Our Teeth. He received the National Book Award for The Eighth Day in 1968. Among the many honors that came to Wilder late in life were the Gold Medal for Fiction of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Medal for Literature.

Bibliography

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Blank, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. A solid collection of criticism on Wilder. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Blank, Martin, Dalma Hunyadi Brunauer, and David Garrett Izzo, eds. Thornton Wilder: New Essays. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 1999. A contemporary look at Wilder and his oeuvre.

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. Conversations with Thornton Wilder. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. A collection of interviews with Wilder, presenting interesting perspectives on the man and his literary works. Index.

Burbank, Rex J. Thornton Wilder. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1978. In this updated version of the 1962 edition, Burbank traces the history of critical controversy surrounding Wilder’s work, offers insights into his methods of fictional and dramatic composition, and assesses his work’s relative merits. Chronology, bibliography.

Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Ungar, 1986. A useful introductory study of Wilder’s works, both novels and plays, including chronology, notes, and bibliography.

Goldstein, Malcolm. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. An early and still useful introduction to Wilder’s novels and plays. A short biographical sketch is followed by an in-depth look at his work through the one-act play Childhood (1962). Includes bibliographical notes and an index.

Goldstone, Richard H. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1975. An intimate portrait of Wilder by a close friend who had written previous studies on the subject, had access to personal documents, and interviewed family and friends. Includes notes, a selected bibliography, and an index.

Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983. A chatty biographical study of Wilder by a biographer who was provided access to Wilder’s notes, letters, and photographs. Harrison successfully recreates Wilder’s life and the influences, both good and bad, that shaped him.

Lifton, Paul. “Vast Encyclopedia”: The Theatre of Thornton Wilder. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing, 1995. A critical overview of Wilder’s drama.

Simon, Linda. Thornton Wilder: His World. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. A solid biographical study of Wilder that includes examinations of his published works and photographs, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Walsh, Claudette. Thornton Wilder: A Reference Guide, 1926-1990. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. A complete guide to Wilder and his works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Wilder, Amos Niven. Thornton Wilder and His Public. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980. A short critical study of Wilder by his older brother, who offers an inside family look at the writer. A supplement includes Wilder’s “Culture in a Democracy” address and a selected German bibliography.

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