Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1897. The second of Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Niven Wilder's five children, Wilder spent his childhood traveling back and forth to the Far East where his father was posted as the United States Consul General to Hong Kong and Shanghai. A strict Congregationalist with a Ph.D. in economics from Yale, Amos read to his children from the classics and insisted that they spend their summers working on farms. Wilder's mother was a cultured, educated woman who instilled a love of literature, drama, and languages in her children. She read widely, wrote poetry, and was actively involved in the cultural life of communities where they lived. She was the first woman elected to public office in Hamden, Connecticut. Thornton remembered her "like one of Shakespeare's girls -- a star danced and under it I was born."
The Wilder children were all highly educated and accomplished, as their father and mother expected. Thornton's older brother Amos was an acclaimed New Testament scholar and nationally ranked tennis player. His oldest sister Charlotte was an award-winning poet who suffered a nervous breakdown in 1941 and remained in institutions the rest of her life. His youngest sister, Janet Wilder Dakin, was a professor of biology and noted environmentalist. Of all the Wilder family members, however, Thornton was closest to his middle sister Isabel, herself the author of three successful novels and a member of the first graduating class of the Yale School of Drama (1928). She acted as his secretary, business manager, and literary adviser. After her parents' deaths, she and Thornton lived together in the family home in Hamden, Connecticut.
In 1915, Wilder finished high school in California and enrolled in Oberlin College, where he studied the Greek and Roman classics. When the family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, two years later, Wilder followed, enrolling in Yale University. His first full-length play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, appeared in the 1920 Yale Literary Magazine, but was not produced until 1926. Turned down by the other services due to his poor eyesight, Wilder left school for eight months to serve as a corporal in the Coast Artillery Corps in World War I. He returned to complete his B.A. in 1920, and then proceeded to Rome, where he studied archaeology at the American Academy. (That summer in Rome inspired his first novel, The Cabala (1926).) Wilder received his final degree, a master's in French literature from Princeton University in 1926, but retained his intellectual curiosity throughout his life, reading widely in English, French, and German and conversing in Italian and Spanish. He went on to teach French at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, lecture on comparative literature at the University of Chicago, serve as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii, and teach poetry at Harvard University. Even after he'd achieved publishing success, Wilder considered himself a teacher first and a writer second.
Wilder's breakthrough novel was The Bridge Of San Luis Rey (1927), an examination of the fate of five travelers who fall to their deaths from a bridge in 18th-century Peru. Seeking to discover meaning in the lives lost, a scholarly monk named Brother Juniper explores the lives of the five victims, an endeavor that leads to his own death at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. The book earned Wilder his first Pulitzer Prize. (Originally filmed in 1929 by MGM, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is currently [September, 2003] in production as a new film starring Robert De Niro, Kathy Bates, and Harvey Keitel.)
While living in Chicago, Wilder became close friends with fellow lecturer Gertrude Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas. In fact, Stein's novel The Making of Americans (1925) is said to have inspired Wilder's Our Town (1938). Tracing the childhood, courtship, marriage, and death of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, the play finds universal meaning in the ordinary lives lived in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. (The fictional town was based on Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Wilder spent summers at the MacDowell Colony.) A huge success on Broadway, Our Town earned Wilder his second Pulitzer, making him the only American author to win Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and drama. Wilder himself took on the role of the Stage Manager for two weeks in the Broadway production and in summer stock productions in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. (In 1988, the play's 50th anniversary revival on Broadway earned the Tony Award for Best Revival; the 2003 Westport Country Playhouse revival would earn a Tony nomination for the same award.)
Before heading off to war, Wilder turned his dramatic attentions from stage to cinema, working on Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and a play based on Franz Kafka's works, The Emporium. During World War II, Wilder enlisted in the army, rising to lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and earning the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star. After his discharge, Wilder completed The Ides Of March (1948), a historical novel about Julius Caesar that was his most experimental work.
Inspired (some critics said too closely) by James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, The Skin Of Our Teeth (1943) depicted five thousand years in the lives of George and Maggie Antrobus, a suburban New Jersey couple, who with their children and maid Sabina struggle through flood, famine, ice, and war only to begin again. Premiering in 1942 with Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, and Florence Eldridge in the central roles, the play was Wilder's critical response to the American entry into World War II. Although many famously exited the theatre after the first act, the play earned Wilder his third Pulitzer.
In the 1950s, Wilder wrote the plays The Wreck Of The 5:25 (1957), Bernice (1957), and Alcestiad, based on Euripides's Alcestis. He revised his The Merchant Of Yonkers (1938) under the new title The Matchmaker (1954), which was made into a film with Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine in 1958. In 1964 the play was turned into the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing. A critical and popular success, the musical went on to win 10 Tony Awards and ensured Wilder's financial security for life.
In addition to Pulitzers and Tonys, Wilder received many literary awards for his work, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction (1952), the first National Medal for Literature (1962), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), and the National Book Committee's Medal for Literature (1965). His last two novels were The Eighth Day (1967), which won the National Book Award, and Theophilus North (1973), which is considered autobiographical.
Wilder is believed to have had one or two affairs with younger men, but he never publicly addressed his sexuality and the subject of sexuality was largely absent from his work. Instead, renowned for his sociability and energy, he focused on his countless friends, which included Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and Montgomery Clift. On December 7, 1975, Wilder died at the age of 78 in Hamden, Connecticut, where he had lived for many years with his devoted sister Isabel.
The Cabala (1926)
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)
Heaven's My Destination (1934)
The Eighth Day (1967)
Theophilus North (1973)
An Angel That Troubled Waters and Other Plays (1928)
The Woman of Andros (1930)
Our Town (1938)
The Merchant of Yonkers (1938)
The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)
The Matchmaker (1954)
Plays for Bleeker Street (1962)
Hello Dolly! (1964)
Shadow of Doubt (1943) (collaboration)
Essays + Interviews:
Thornton Wilder | Williamstown, Westport, the world...
Paul Newman and James Naughton | OT: our town
Essays + Interviews | Drama to Film | Who's Who/Cast + Credits
Story Synopsis | Teacher's Guide | Links + Bibliography | The Forum
Home | About The Series | The American Collection | The Archive
Schedule & Season | Feature Library | eNewsletter | Book Club
Learning Resources | Forum | Search | Shop | Feedback
Masterpiece is sponsored by: