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Thornton Wilder: A Life in Art

What do we do with this man who was a playwright, novelist, actor, teacher, musician, essayist, translator, adaptor, opera librettist, and screenwriter...
     -- playwright John Guare


The son of parents with distinctly different temperaments -- a strict father and a mother who wrote poetry and loved drama and music -- Thornton Niven Wilder was born on April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, Amos Parker Wilder, owned and edited the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper. Thornton was the second son (his twin brother died at birth) and had three sisters. All the Wilder children were successful in life: Amos Niven and Charlotte were both poets and professors, Janet was a scientist and environmentalist, and Isabel was a novelist and a member of the first graduating class of the Yale Drama School. After his father was appointed U.S. consul general to Hong Kong and later Shanghai, Thornton spent a year in a Chinese mission school but transferred to the Thacher School in California and then graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915. He went on to study at Oberlin and Yale.

After a year as a visiting student at the American Academy in Rome, Thornton returned to the U.S. in response to a telegram from his father: HAVE JOB FOR YOU TEACHING FRENCH AT LAWRENCEVILLE LEARN FRENCH LOVE FATHER. Throughout the 1920s, he taught at this elite prep school, and in 1926 earned a master's degree at Princeton. In 1924 he made his first of ten visits to the MacDowell Colony (now the oldest artists' retreat in America) in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he would later write much of Our Town.

In 1926 Wilder's first novel, The Cabala, was published and his play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, was produced off-Broadway. The following year, his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, brought Wilder instant literary success as well as his first Pulitzer Prize.

Wilder had an extraordinary number of friends -- including many famous writers and artists -- and was in great demand as a dinner guest, but apparently was wary of serious emotional relationships and never married. Director Tyrone Guthrie described his unique personality:

The manner is confidential and quite giggly; incredibly rapid utterance, accompanied by a series of stabbing gestures and jerky curlicues executed with the forefinger....I have never met anyone with so encyclopedic a knowledge of so wide a range of topics. Yet he carries this learning lightly and imparts it -- the important with the trivial, the commonplace with the exceedingly bizarre -- in a style and with a gusto that is all his own.

For the next decade Wilder wrote novels (The Woman of Andros, Heaven's My Destination) and experimented with one-act plays (The Long Christmas Dinner, which distilled 90 years of a family's life into one act, and Pullman Car Hiawatha, which anticipated Our Town by including a stage manager and a town called Grover's Corners). In 1930 he accepted a part-time position at the University of Chicago, where he lectured in comparative literature, held an immensely popular seminar on creative writing, and befriended Gertrude Stein on her American lecture tour.

After winning a second Pulitzer for Our Town in 1938, Wilder was awarded yet another for The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942. At the invitation of Alfred Hitchcock, a great admirer, Wilder wrote the screenplay for one of Hitchcock's best films, Shadow of a Doubt.

During World War II Wilder served with distinction in Europe and Africa, receiving an honorary Order of the British Empire, a Bronze Star, and other honors. Back in America after the war, Wilder delivered the prestigious Norton Lectures at Harvard and wrote several more plays including The Matchmaker, reshaped from an earlier flop, The Merchant of Yonkers, and later reborn as the musical Hello, Dolly!. He also played Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth on Cape Cod and the Stage Manager in Our Town at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (Massachusetts), confessing that the hardest thing he ever had to do was to learn the lines he'd written.

In the early 1960s Wilder was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His last two novels, The Eighth Day (1968) and Theophilus North (1973), were critically praised, the former receiving the National Book Award. On December 7, 1975, Thornton Wilder died in his sleep at his home in Hamden, Connecticut.


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