Thornton Wilder Biography


Personal Background

Thornton Niven Wilder's Our Town is a major work in the canon of American theater. Translated and produced throughout the world, it has been called a poetic chronicle of life and death. First produced at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 22, 1938, the play wavered in Boston, was moved to New York, and, to the surprise of both the playwright and his collaborators, won a Pulitzer Prize as the best play of the season. Our Town remains a perennial favorite among directors, particularly in small-town productions.

Our Town pays tribute to traditional American hometown values. Deceptively simple in structure and tone, the play represents many of the author's humanistic views. In an age obsessed with the unusual and the bizarre, the neurotic and the psychotic, Wilder turns his attention to the attributes and universality of the ordinary citizen. Making no apologies for his nostalgic journey into the past, he asserts his optimism in an age of pessimism.

Although Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, April 17, 1897, his tastes are not regional. He tends toward the mainstream of the American tradition. Both of Wilder's grandfathers were clergymen, and he himself considered going into the ministry. His parents — Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Thornton Wilder — believed strongly in culture and stressed religion, education, and intellectual pursuits to their five children. Early in his son's life, Amos Wilder studied economics and edited the Wisconsin State Journal. Through his friend President Taft, he was named America's Consulate-General to Hong Kong in 1906. Thornton Wilder, therefore, received his early education in Chinese missionary schools in Hong Kong, Chefoo, and Shanghai. Upon completing high school in Berkeley, California, in 1915, he attended Oberlin College for two years, served in the coast artillery in 1918, and graduated from Yale in 1920 with a degree in classical literature.

From 1920 to 1921, Wilder spent a year studying archeology at the American Academy in Rome, where he participated in the excavation of an Etruscan roadway. He returned to America to teach French and to counsel at a prep school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey; he completed a master's degree in English from Princeton in 1926. Seven years later, Wilder was able to live on the income of his writing.

In 1930, however, Wilder returned to the classroom, teaching drama and poetry at the University of Chicago, a position he retained until 1936. In this same period, he worked for several motion picture studios as a screenwriter. During World War II, he served as an air intelligence officer and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. For his wartime contributions, he earned the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Legion d'Honneur, and honorary membership in the Order of the British Empire. From 1950 to 1951, he gave the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in poetry at Harvard. By the spring of 1962, Wilder, flagging somewhat in health, retired to Douglas, a small town in the Arizona desert, where he allowed himself the luxury of a two-year respite. Among the locals, Thornton was known as "Doc " Until his death in Hamden, Connecticut, in 1975, Wilder lived with his sister, novelist Isabel Wilder, and spent his time writing and traveling.

Wilder's acclaim is based mainly upon his novels, particularly The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), which won a Pulitzer Prize and established his popularity after being adapted for film and television, and The Ides of March (1948). His most famous plays are Our Town (1938), which was filmed in 1940 and reproduced as a TV musical in 1955; The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), a Pulitzer Prize-winning historical drama about Julius Caesar; and The Matchmaker (1954), which forms the basis for the Broadway musical and Hollywood movie Hello, Dolly (1963). As a result of his success, in 1965 Wilder became the first recipient of the National Medal for Literature.

The appeal of most of Wilder's plays is based on classic human values, which he draws from myth, fable, and parable as well as from the influence of James Joyce, Andre Gide, Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Anatole France, and Gertrude Stein. Although it is not immediately apparent in Our Town, the play is grounded on a humanism which depicts life as both terrifying and wonderful. The author emphasizes the spark of immortality that exists in each human spirit.

Major Works

The Cabala, novel, 1926.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, novel, 1927.

The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays, drama, 1928.

The Woman of Andros, novel, 1930.

The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays in One Act, drama, 1931.

Lucrece, drama, 1933.

Heaven's My Destination, novel, 1935.

Our Town, drama, 1938.

The Merchant of Yonkers, drama, 1938.

Our Town, screenplay, 1940.

The Skin of Our Teeth, historical drama, 1942.

Shadow of a Doubt, screenplay, 1942.

Our Century, drama, 1947.

The Ides of March, novel, 1948.

The Matchmaker, drama, 1954.

The Alcestiad, drama, 1955.

The Matchmaker, screenplay, 1958.

The Seven Deadly Sins, drama cycle, 1964.

The Seven Ages of Man, drama cycle, 1964.

The Eighth Day, novel, 1967.

Theophilus North, novel, 1973.