The winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, Thornton Niven Wilder was one of twentieth century America’s leading playwrights and novelists. Born on April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin, he was the son of Amos Parker Wilder, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, and Isabella Thornton Niven Wilder. Though his father disapproved of writers, all five Wilder children–Amos, Charlotte, Isabel, Janet Frances, and Thornton–became authors. His father’s peripatetic career, ranging from Madison to Hong Kong to New Haven, Connecticut, guaranteed Wilder a sophisticated upbringing. After attending high school in Chefoo, China, and Ojai and Berkeley, California, Wilder went to Oberlin College for two years, and then received his bachelor’s degree in 1920 from Yale University. During World War I, Wilder was a corporal in the Coast Artillery Corps. His education continued with a year in Rome at the American Academy, where he collected material for his first published novel, The Cabala, originally entitled “Memoirs of a Roman Student,” a description of aristocratic life in contemporary Italy. The receipt of a master’s degree in French from Princeton University in 1926 completed Wilder’s education.
From 1921 to 1928, Wilder was housemaster and French teacher at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. Torn between teaching and writing, Wilder submitted a play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, to the American Laboratory Theatre in 1926. Most critics were less than enthusiastic, The New York Times reviewer calling it “a rather murky evening.” Resigned to being an educator, Wilder nevertheless was working on the novel that would change his life, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Set in colonial Peru, it pioneered a new type of fiction, one in which diverse characters are arbitrarily brought together by an accident, in this case, the collapse of an ancient bridge. Exploring the philosophical themes of fate and freedom, this novel not only caught the popular imagination but also won for Wilder his first Pulitzer Prize.
Resigning his post at Lawrenceville in 1928, Wilder turned his attention to full-time writing. His novel The Woman of Andros, set in pre-Christian Greece, explores the questions, “How does one live?” and “What does one do first?” Wilder was fond of taking philosophical themes from the Bible or the classics (both ancient and modern) and then developing them with a new twist. Having become a celebrity. Wilder made “walking tours of Europe” with prizefighter Gene Tunney and lecture tours of America to garner material for future works. The Long Christmas Dinner was Wilder’s experiment with a play that would have a minimum of props, no curtain, and maximum attention to plot and personality. Travels in the heartland prompted Wilder to move to the Midwest.
From 1930 to 1936, Wilder was a lecturer in literature at the University of Chicago, where “boy wonder” Robert M. Hutchins was stressing a program in the humanities centered on a core course of “great books.” Wilder was to be resident six months annually, teaching a large course on literature and a small seminar on writing, the remainder of the year to be free for writing. The Chicago years were mingled glory and tragedy. Lionized by North Shore society, Wilder was often shunned by more scholarly members of the university community. In 1930 he was stunned by Michael Gold’s accusation, in the essay, “Wilder: Prophet of the Genteel Christ,” in The New Republic, that he avoided topics of social relevance. The next novel, Heaven’s My Destination, became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
Wilder believed the theater was “the greatest of all art forms” and “the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” That conviction and economic circumstance led him to settle permanently in New Haven in 1937 and to turn his attention once more to drama. It was a wise decision. His play Our Town won for him his second Pulitzer Prize. Set in New Hampshire at the start of the twentieth century, Our Town explores “ordinary lives,” finding in them “extraordinary meaning.” Perhaps Wilder’s most widely known work, Our Town experimented with simplicity of stage set and complexity of theme.
In World War II, Wilder served in the Air Force Intelligence Corps, seeing action in Italy and rising to the rank of major. Profoundly disturbed by this crisis in Western civilization, Wilder wrote the play for which he won his third Pulitzer Prize, The Skin of Our Teeth, which opened in New York’s Plymouth Theatre on November 18, 1942. An “allegorical comedy of man’s struggle for human survival,” it was both praised as “the best pure theater” of the 1940’s and panned as “a philosophy class conducted in a monkey house.” Traumatic for Wilder was the accusation, made by Joseph Campbell and Henry Robinson, that his play was plagiarized from James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake (1939). Once more Wilder was vindicated but deeply shaken.
Wilder toured Latin America, lectured in postwar Europe, and was visiting professor at a number of institutions, including Harvard University. Our Century, a play in three brief vignettes, appeared in 1947, followed the next year by his novel The Ides of March, a study in identity featuring Julius Caesar. In 1955 Wilder revised an earlier play, The Merchant of Yonkers, producing it as The Matchmaker. The play had previously failed; now it proved popular. Reworked again as the popular musical Hello, Dolly! (1964), starring Carol Channing, it gave Wilder even more exposure.
A time of “summing up” began. Wilder’s novel The Eighth Day explores the dilemma of humankind’s struggle against benevolent and malevolent forces. A mystery set in the Midwest, its theme is that humankind is yet young, that the eighth day of creation is at hand, and that “there are no Golden Ages and no Dark Ages,” but rather the “oceanlike monotony of the generations of men under the alternations of fair and foul weather.” This work won the National Book Award and prepared the way for Wilder’s finale, the novel Theophilus North. The main character often mirrors Wilder’s own personality and career. Torn by many contradictory dimensions and aspirations, the hero finds unity in his “desire to be a lover.” Favorably received, the novel was Wilder’s own obituary, for “the kindly grandad of American letters” died at Hamden, Connecticut, on December 7, 1975.
The recipient of honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of Zurich, and other colleges, as well as the Legion of Honor and the Order of Merit (West Germany and Peru, respectively), and many other distinctions, Wilder is assured his place in American and world literature. Perceiving him as “sophisticated and urbane,” critics commented on Wilder’s “consecration to perfection,” his “commitment to the classics,” and his “passion for absolute excellence.” A lifelong Congregationalist, always a teacher, whether in the classroom or in the theater, Wilder embodied the humanist ideals of the classical tradition and reinterpreted them in the light of twentieth century realities.