Thornton Niven Wilder

Novelist and playwright Thornton Niven Wilder (1897-1975) won two Pulitzer Prizes for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, written in 1938 and 1942 respectively. His most renowned novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, also accorded him a Pulitzer Prize in 1927.

Born April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin, Thornton Niven Wilder lived in China as a teenager where his father was a United States Consul-General in Hong Kong. He attended the English China Inland Mission School at Cheefoo but returned to California in 1912. Graduating in 1915, he attended Oberlin College before transferring to Yale University in 1917. He served with the First Coast Artillery in Rhode Island in 1918 during World War I, returning to Yale after the war. In 1920 he received his bachelor's and saw the first publication of his play The Trumpet Shall Sound in Yale Literary Magazine.

Wilder began his novel The Cabala at the American Academy in Rome in 1921. In New Jersey he taught at the Lawrenceville School while earning a master's at Princeton University. He received his degree in 1926, the publication year of The Cabala. Its publication coincided with the first professional production of The Trumpet Shall Sound by the American Laboratory Theater. But his breakthrough work was The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) that thrust him to the forefront of American literature.

A cosmopolitan lifelong traveler, he later taught at the University of Chicago (1930-1936) and the University of Hawaii (1935). He volunteered in World War II and served in Africa, Italy, and the United States. A lecturer at Harvard in the early 1950s, he received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1952. In 1962 he retired to Arizona for almost two years, then renewed his travels. Wilder was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and the National Book Committee's National Medal for Literature (first time presented) in 1965.


Career as a Playwright

Wilder's first successful dramatic work, which he started at Oberlin, was The Angel That Troubled the Waters (1928). A four-act play, The Trumpet Shall Sound (1919-1920), was produced unsuccessfully off-Broadway in 1926. The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One-Act, published in 1931, contained three plays that gained popularity with amateur groups: The Long Christmas Dinner, Pullman Car Hiawatha, and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. This last series marked Wilder's trademark use of a bare stage for the actors.

Wilder's first Broadway shows were translations: André Obey's Lucrece (1932) and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (1937). His dramatic reputation soared with Our Town (1938). Written for a bare stage, guided throughout by a narrator, his script examines a small town for the "something way down deep that's eternal about every human being."

His subsequent dramatic work, The Merchant of Yonkers, failed initially in 1938. When produced with slight revisions as The Matchmaker in 1954, it proved a fascinating farce. (It later re-emerged as the musical play Hello, Dolly! in 1963, then an overwhelming success.) Wilder intermingled style and forms even more daringly in The Skin of Our Teeth. Here, Wilder described the human race as flawed but worth preserving. A complex and difficult play with an indebtedness to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, it became the work cited for his final Pulitzer Prize in 1943.

The essentially conservative thematic material staged in radical styles made Wilder's plays unique. His later work included an unsuccessful tragedy, A Life in the Sun (or The Alcestiad, 1955) and three short plays of an intended 14-play cycle: Someone from Assisi, Infancy, and Childhood (produced as Plays for Bleecker Street in 1962).


Career as a Novelist

Wilder established his reputation as a novelist with The Cabala, a minor work that showed Wilder's moral concerns. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, set in 18th-century Peru, proved immensely popular and led to the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. The Woman of Andros (1930), based on Terence's play Andria and set in a pagan and Christian epoch, was not well received. Although Wilder's view of life elicited a strong communist attack, Heaven's My Destination (1934), set in the American Midwest, grew in favor over the years. In The Ides of March (1948) Wilder tried a novel approach to Julius Caesar. The Eighth Day in 1967 returned Wilder to a 20th-century American setting that examined the lives of two families. Wilder's last novel, Theophilus North, was published in 1973.

In line with his diverse interests and scholarly bent, Wilder lectured and published extensively. His Harvard lectures "Toward an American Language," "The American Loneliness," and "Emily Dickinson" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly (1952). His topics addressed play writing, fiction, and the role of the artist in society. His range spanned from the works of the ancient Greeks to modern dramatists, particularly Joyce and Gertrude Stein. His observations and letters were published in a variety of works, from André Maurois's A Private Universe (1932) to Donald Gallup's The Flowers of Friendship (1953).

Wilder died of a heart attack December 7, 1975, in Hamden, Connecticut.


Further Reading on Thornton Niven Wilder

Biographical details appear most cohesively in Malcolm Goldstein's perceptive study, The Art of Thornton Wilder (1965). Other critical works include Rex Burbank, Thornton Wilder (1961); Bernard Grebanier, Thornton Wilder (1964); Donald Haberman, The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study (1967), useful as an interesting source book; and Helmut Papajewski, Thornton Wilder, translated by John Conway (1968). For more information, please see David Castronovo, Thornton Wilder (1986); Richard Henry Goldstone, Thornton Wilder, an annotated bibliography (1982); Idy Martouskie, Thornton Wilder, 1897-1975 (videotape, 1993); Theophius North, Thornton Wilder, 1897-1975 (1975). Other works include The Journals of Thornton Wilder: With Two Scenes of an Uncompleted Play, "The Emporium" (1985), and Mirrors of Friendship: The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder (1996).