Thornton Wilder Biography

Thornton Wilder’s biggest hit took place on an empty stage. Our Town, which remains one of the most frequently produced plays in America, revolutionized the way audiences thought about the theatrical event. In addition to its stripped-down aesthetic, the play is narrated by a stage manager who oversees the proceedings. Similarly, The Skin of Our Teeth plays with traditional notions of how time is represented theatrically. Wilder had a knack for balancing opposites in his work: simplicity and complexity, humor and pathos, and reality and fantasy. In addition to his playwriting, Wilder cemented his reputation as a novelist with the publication of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which remains a staple of literature curricula in the United States.

Facts and Trivia

  • Wilder came from an accomplished family. His brother was a poet and tennis player who taught at Harvard and competed in Wimbledon.
  • Wilder was actually born a twin. His brother, however, did not survive childhood.
  • Wilder was well-educated. He studied at both Yale and Princeton.
  • Wilder is one of the few playwrights to have won multiple Pulitzer Prizes. The first was for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
  • Wilder’s play The Merchant of Yankees was initially a flop. When he reworked it fifteen years later as The Matchmaker, it was enormously successful. The play was eventually adapted into an even more successful musical version, Hello, Dolly!

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960

Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897. He was a surviving twin, and all of his life he searched for the alter ego lost at birth. He had an older brother by two years, Amos Niven, a well-known theologian, professor, and writer. He also had three sisters: Charlotte, born in 1898; Isabel, born in 1900, a writer who devoted her life as confidant and secretary to Thornton; and Janet, born in 1910.

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Thornton was named for his mother, the talented Isabella Thornton Niven, daughter of a Presbyterian minister; his brother Amos was named for their father, Amos Parker Wilder. Their father, a handsome, robust individual, held a doctorate in political science and was editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. He was a strict Congregationalist whose moral rectitude and constant career moves placed hardships on his wife and family. These served as important influences on Wilder, infusing him with a sense of unworthiness that haunted him all of his life.

Amos Parker Wilder was an uncompromising man whose strong editorial opinions clashed with those of Wisconsin’s powerful senator, Robert M. La Follette. By 1906, Amos believed it was time to leave the state and accepted the appointment of American consul in Hong Kong. After living there six months, Isabella and Amos agreed to a temporary separation. She returned to the United States with the children, to live in Berkeley, California. Over the following eight years, Thornton attended various schools as he moved back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, finally completing his high school education at Berkeley High School in 1915. Amos forced Thornton to attend Oberlin College for two years and then transferred him to Yale University, his own alma mater.

Wilder began his writing career in college. Several of his pieces appeared in the Oberlin Literary Magazine and the Yale Literary Magazine. After he graduated from Yale in 1920, he traveled to Rome and attended the American Academy, where he worked on his first novel, “The Memoirs of a Roman Student.” Thornton returned to the States to teach French at Lawrenceville Academy during the early 1920’s. He also attended Princeton University and graduated with an M.A. degree in 1926.

The same year, Thornton saw the publication of his novel, now retitled The Cabala. In 1927, his first play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, was produced. Both creative efforts met with an indifferent reception. Not so his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), which was an immediate success and won for him his first Pulitzer Prize. A number of one-act plays, written over a twelve-year period, were published in 1928 under the title The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays. The sixteen brief plays offer a fascinating glimpse into Wilder’s outlook on philosophy, literature, and history, and into his concept of theatricality that found mature expression in his later works.

The 1930’s was a very busy decade for Wilder. In 1930, he wrote a novel, The Woman of Andros, based on Roman playwright Terence’s Andria (166 b.c.e.; English translation, 1598). In 1931 he published The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays in One Act, continuing his experiments in nontraditional theater. He adapted two works for the stage—André Obey’s Le Viol de Lucrèce (called Lucrece)in 1932 and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in 1937—as showcases for actresses Katherine and Ruth Gordon, respectively. He also found time to teach one semester each year from 1930 to 1936 at the University of Chicago and to publish the novel Heaven’s My Destination in late 1934, a work hailed by Gertrude Stein as the quintessential American novel.

Stein’s praise of Wilder initiated a correspondence between them that ripened into friendship. Her positive influence on Wilder’s further writings is inestimable. Wilder tired of his teaching responsibilities and in 1936 resigned his position at the University of Chicago. He was then free to concentrate on writing, traveling, and visiting with friends. Two years later, he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, arguably the United States’ favorite, most-produced, and most-read play. The production opened to indifferent reviews but soon won over the public.

In 1938, Wilder opened another Broadway production, titled The Merchant of Yonkers, based on Johann Nestroy’s Einen Jux will er sich machen (1842). Not an immediate hit, it was revised and retitled The Matchmaker in 1954. The play enjoyed successful revivals in London, Edinburgh, and New York. Later, the work was revised again and became the hit musical comedy Hello Dolly! The original Broadway production ran for only thirty-nine performances, compared with 486 for the 1955 New York production of The Matchmaker and almost three thousand for Hello, Dolly!

During World War II, Captain Wilder (later Lieutenant Colonel Wilder) of the Intelligence Corps of the United States Army Air Corps opened his play The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942, despite misgivings by some of the people involved in the production because of the play’s surreal structure. The public loved it, however, and the comedy earned for Wilder his third and final Pulitzer Prize. In 1947, he wrote a short dramatic burlesque called Our Century, which had limited distribution, followed by a novel based on the last days of Julius Caesar titled The Ides of March (1948), widely praised abroad but not in the United States.

During the last years of his life, Wilder received numerous awards, including the 1963 United States Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 1965 National Medal of Literature. He wrote two more novels, The Eighth Day (1967), a much-praised work that he believed was a disappointment, even though it earned the National Book Award, and his final fiction, Theophilus North, published in 1973, a novel more admired by his devoted readers than by critics. Two years later, on December 7, 1975, he died, suffering from the ravages of old age and a debilitating stroke that had partially blinded him.

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