Thornton Wilder Biography

Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)

Thornton Wilder

American writer and playwright, best known for the Pulizer Prize awarded play OUR TOWN (1938), which was seen by the critic Brendan Gill as “a nightmare of passive awareness felt through all eternity”, misinterpreted as a slice of Normann Rockwell-like Americana. Wilder’s breakthrough novel was THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY (1927), an examination of justice and altruism in the fates of five travelers in the 18-century Peru, who happen to be crossing the finest bridge in the land when it breaks and throws them into the gulf below. A priest interprets the story of each victim in an attempt to explain the working of divine providence.

Thomas Wilder

Thomas Wilder

Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, as one of five children of Amos Parker Wilder, a newspaper editor and diplomat, and Isabella (Niven) Wilder. In 1906 the family moved to Hong Kong, where his father had been appointed American Consul General. After six months his mother returned with the children to the United States, but the family rejoined again in 1911 in Shanghai, where his father had been transferred. Wilder stayded in China for a year.

During WW I Wilder served for eight months in the Coast Guard. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1920 and went to Rome, where he studied archaelogy. By 1926 he had received an M.A. degree in French literature from Princeton University. In the same year appeared his first novel, THE CABALA. From 1930 to 1937 he taught literature and classics at the University of Chicago.

Early in WW II Wilder enlisted in the army, and eventually became a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. His responsibilities included the interrogation of prisoners and the preparation of reports for the aMediterranean Air Headquarters. After his discharge Wilder managed to complete THE IDES OF MARCH (1948), a historical novel about Julius Caesar, with which he had been long struggling. In the 1950s Wilder wrote among others such plays as THE WRECK OF THE 5:25 (1957), BERNICE (1957), and ALCESTIAD, based on Euripide’s Alcestis, and played at the Edinburgh Festival under the title of Life in the Sun.

In 1962 Wilder received the first National Medal for Literature at a special White House ceremony. He died on December 7, 1975, Hamden, Connecticut, where he had lived off and on for many years with his devoted sister, secretary, business manager, and literary adviser, Isabel Wilder. Though Wilder had one or two affairs with younger men, he nevr allowed a sexual relationship to stand in the way of a friendship – from Gertrude Stein to Montgomery Clift amiable Wilder seemed to know everybody.

The Wilder Family

The Wilder family did not produce only one writer, or only one brilliant thinker. The entire family was, by any measure, filled with successful and highly accomplished, educated people. Begin with Thornton Wilder’s father, Amos Parker Wilder, who was a newspaper owner & editor and U.S. Consul General to Hong Kong and Shanghai. Continue to all of the Wilder children: the eldest, Amos Niven Wilder, a highly acclaimed professor of New Testament scholarship and a noted poet; Isabel Wilder, author of three popular novels and curator of Yale’s theatre archive; Charlotte Wilder, professor of English and an award-winning poet; and the youngest Wilder sibling, Janet Wilder Dakin — a professor of biology and noted environmentalist — the Wilder family made its mark across generations and in many different fields.

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