Thornton Wilder – Biography

Thornton WilderThornton Niven Wilder was born April 17, 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin. He was both a playwright and a novelist. During his life he won a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for The Bridge of San Luis Rey and two Pulitzer prizes for Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. He also won a U.S. National Book Award for his novel The Eighth Day.

Wilder was born into a remarkable family. His father was Amos Parker Wilder, a newspaper editor, a powerful public speaker and the United States Consul General to Hong Kong and Shanghai. His mother was Isabella Niven Wilder. She was a highly educated woman who wrote poetry and instilled a love of literature in her children. His older brother, Amos Niven Wilder was a college professor, New Testament scholar, an essayist, a poet and a tennis champion. His sister, Charlotte, was a professor of English and an award-winning poet. His sister, Isabel, was the author of three novels, and the curator of Yale University’s theatre archive. His youngest sister, Janet Wilder Dakin, was a professor of biology, a novelist and an environmentalist.

Thornton Wilder attended school in Ojai, California. He did not fit in and was teased as overly intellectual. He spent his time in the library. That is when he began to write plays. His family moved to China and he attended school there. Because of the unstable political conditions in China they returned to California and he graduated from high school there.

He served in the WWI in the Army’s Coast Artillery Corps. After the war, he attended Oberlin College and earned his Bachelor of Arts at Yale in 1920 where he continued to work on his writing. He earned a Master of Arts degree in French from Princeton University in 1926.

After graduating from Princeton, he studied in Rome and taught French in New Jersey. In 1926, he published his first novel. His second novel—The Bridge of San Luis Rey—was a commercial success and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. In 1998, it was selected as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. From 1930-1937 he taught at the University of Chicago. In 1938 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Our Town. He won the Pulitzer again in 1942 for The Skin of Our Teeth.

During WWII, Wilder was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Air Force Intelligence division in Africa and in Italy. After the war, he became a visiting professor at Harvard. He continued to write all his life, but considered himself a teacher first and a writer second. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In 1968, he won the National Book Award for his novel The Eighth Day. He translated plays by Ibsen, Andre Obey and Jean-Paul Sartre and wrote the libretti to two operas. He wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

Thornton Wilder died on December 7, 1975 at 78, in Hamden, Connecticut, where he had lived for many years with his sister, Isabel. He is buried at Hamden’s Mount Carmel Cemetery.

As a playwright, Wilder was dissatisfied with the theatre of his time. He wrote “I felt that something had gone wrong….I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was aimed to be soothing. The tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite, the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility.” As an answer to this evasion, he wrote Our Town. It is considered one of the great American plays. To some, it is THE great American play. It began life as “M Marries N.” Then it was “Our Village” and finally “Our Town.”

In the creation of Our Town Wilder stripped the play of the traditional visual elements—sets, props and complex costumes. He added a narrator and set about to “find a value above all price for the smallest elements of our daily life.” He played with time, using the flash back and jumping years between acts. These devices are found in many of his plays. The works he created were highly revolutionary at the time. The simplicity and universality of the people and situations was true then and is true now.
Act One of Our Town is one day in the lives of the member of the town—but he picks only the highlights of the day. He calls it “Daily Life.” Act Two, entitled “Love and Marriage” begins with the wedding day and then flashes back to the time the relationship began and ends with the Wedding. Act Three—he doesn’t name it but tells us we know what it is called—we see the funeral and the end of life. Grover’s Corners is our town. The people are us. Our Town is really all towns.

Our Town is about being alive—being human, living, loving and dying. Wilder’s message is that people should appreciate the details and relationships of everyday life while they live them. This message was especially important as the world neared World War II. Our Town focused on the parts of the human experience that make life precious. That message is just as important to us today as it was then. For Thornton Wilder we, as human beings, must “realize life while we live it, every, every day.”