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WILDER, Thornton (Niven) 1897-1975

PERSONAL:

Born April 17, 1897, in Madison, WI; died of a heart attack, December 7, 1975, in Hamden, CT; son of Amos Parker (a newspaper editor and U.S. Consul to China) and Isabella Thornton (Niven) Wilder. Education: Attended public and private schools in the United States and in Chefoo, China; attended Oberlin College, 1915-17; Yale University, A.B., 1920; attended American Academy in Rome 1920-21; Princeton University, A.M., 1926. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Congregationalist.

CAREER:

Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, NJ, French teacher and assistant master of Davis House, 1921-25, 1927-28; tutor, writer, and lecturer, 1925-29; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, lecturer in comparative literature, 1930-36; writer for motion picture studios, 1930-36; University of Hawaii, Honolulu, visiting professor, 1935; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Charles Eliot Norton Professor of poetry, 1950-51. American delegate to Institut de Cooperation Intellectuélle, Paris, France, 1937; goodwill representative to Latin America for U.S. Department of State, 1941; International PEN Club Congress delegate with John Dos Passos, 1941; chief of U.S. delegation to UNESCO Conference of Arts, Venice, 1952. Actor, appearing in Our Town, New York, NY, and summer stock, beginning 1939; and The Skin of Our Teeth, stock and summer theaters. Military service: Coast Artillery Corps, 1918; became corporal; commissioned captain in U.S. Army Air Intelligence, and served 1942-45, advancing to lieutenant colonel; awarded Legion of Merit, Bronze Star.

MEMBER:

American Academy of Arts and Letters, Modern Language Association of America (honorary member), Authors Guild, Actors Equity Association, Hispanic Society of America, Bayerische Akademie (corresponding member), Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur (Mainz, West Germany), Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts (honorary member), Century Association (New York, NY), Players (honorary member), Graduate Club, Elizabethan Club, Alpha Delta Phi.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Pulitzer Prize, 1928, for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1938, for Our Town, and 1943, for The Skin of Our Teeth; Chevalier, Legion of Honor, 1951; Gold Medal for Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1952; Friedenspreis, Deutschen Buchhandels (West Germany), 1957; Sonderpreis (West Germany), 1959, Goethe medal, 1959; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, 1959-60, for theater and film; Edward MacDowell Medal (first time presented), 1960; Century Association Art Medal; Medal of the Order of Merit (Peru); Order of Merit (Bonn, West Germany); honorary member of Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.); invited by President Kennedy's cabinet to present reading, 1962; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1963; National Book Committee's National Medal for Literature (first time presented), 1965; National Book Award, 1968, for The Eighth Day; honorary degrees from New York University, Yale University, Kenyon College, College of Wooster, Harvard University, Northeastern University, Oberlin College, University of New Hampshire, and University of Zurich.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

The Cabala (excerpt published in Double Dealer, September, 1922; also see below), Boni (New York, NY), 1926, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2003.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (also see below), Boni (New York, NY), 1927, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2003, limited edition with illustrations by William Kaughan, Franklin Library, 1976.

The Woman of Andros (based on Andria by Terence; also see below), Boni (New York, NY), 1930, reprinted, Avon (New York, NY), 1975.

Heaven's My Destination, Longmans, Green (London, England), 1934, Harper (New York, NY), 1935, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2003.

The Ides of March, Harper (New York, NY), 1948, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2003.

The Eighth Day, Harper (New York, NY), 1967.

Theophilus North, Harper (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2003.

Adapter, with Jerome Kilty, of stage version of The Ides of March.

PLAYS

The Trumpet Shall Sound (first published in Yale Literary Magazine, 1919-20), produced by American Laboratory Theater, 1926.

(Adapter and translator) Lucrece (based on The Rape of Lucrece by Andre Obey; first produced on Broadway, 1932), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1933.

Our Town (three-act play; first produced in Princeton, NJ, 1938; produced in New York, NY, 1938; produced on Broadway, 1988; also see below), Coward, McCann, 1938, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2003, limited edition with introduction by Brooks Atkinson and illustrations by Robert J. Lee, Limited Editions Club, 1974.

(Adapter and translator) Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House, first produced on Broadway, 1938.

The Merchant of Yonkers: A Farce in Four Acts (based on Einen Jux will er sich Machen by Johann Nestroy; first produced on Broadway, 1938), Harper, 1939, revised as The Matchmaker (produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1954; produced on Broadway, 1955; also see below), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1957.

The Skin of Our Teeth (three-act play; first produced in New Haven, CT, 1942; produced on Broadway, 1942; also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1942, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2003.

Our Century (three-scene burlesque; first produced in New York, NY, 1947), Century Association (New York, NY), 1947.

The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, produced with The Respectful Prostitute by Jean Paul Sartre, on Broadway, 1948.

(Translator) Jean-Paul Sartre, The Victors, produced Off-Broadway, 1949.

The Alcestiad (based on Alcestis by Euripides; also see below), first produced as A Life in the Sun in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1955.

The Wreck of the 5:25 and Bernice, first performed in West Berlin, West Germany, 1957.

The Drunken Sisters (satyr play; first appeared in centennial issue of Atlantic Monthly, 1957; first produced as fourth act of Die Alkestiade [also see below] in Brooklyn Heights, NY, 1970), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1957.

Childhood (one-act; first appeared in Atlantic Monthly, November, 1960; also see below), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1960.

The Long Christmas Dinner (also see below), revised edition, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1960.

(Author of libretto) Paul Hindemith, translator, Das Lange Weihnachtsmal (opera; adapted from play The Long Christmas Dinner; first produced in Mannheim, Germany, 1961), music by Paul Hindemith, Schott Music, 1961.

Infancy: A Comedy in One Act (also see below), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1961.

Plays for Bleecker Street (three volumes; includes Infancy, Childhood, and Someone from Assisi; first produced Off-Broadway, 1962), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1960-61.

(Author of libretto) Die Alkestiade (opera; adaptation of A Life in the Sun), music by Louise Talma, first produced in Frankfurt, West Germany, 1962.

Pullman Car Hiawatha (also see below), produced Off-Broadway, 1964.

Thornton Wilder's Triple Bill (includes The Long Christmas Dinner, The Queens of France [also see below], and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden [also see below]), produced Off-Broadway, 1966.

OMNIBUS VOLUMES

The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays (includes Nascunter Poetae, Proserpina and the Devil, Fanny Otcott, Brother Fire, The Penny That Beauty Spent, The Angel on the Ship, The Message and Jehanne, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Centaurs, Leviathan, And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead, Now the Servant's Name Was Malchus, Mozart and the Gray Steward, Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job?, The Flight into Egypt, and The Angel That Troubled the Waters), Coward, McCann (New York, NY), 1928.

The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act (includes The Long Christmas Dinner, Pullman Car Hiawatha, Such Things Only Happen in Books, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, Love and How to Cure It, and The Queens of France), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1931, reprinted, Avon (New York, NY), 1980.

(And author of preface) Three Plays: Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Matchmaker, Harper, 1938, reprinted, Perennial Classics (New York, NY), 2003, published as Our Town; The Skin of Our Teeth; The Matchmaker, Penguin Books, 1962, limited edition with illustrations by Dick Brown, Franklin Library, 1979.

A Thornton Wilder Trio: The Cabala, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Woman of Andros, Criterion (New York, NY), 1956.

The Cabala [and] The Woman of Andros, Harper (New York, NY), 1968.

The Alcestiad; or, A Life in the Sun: A Play in Three Acts, with a Satyr Play, The Drunken Sisters, Harper (New York, NY), 1977, limited edition published as The Alcestiad; or, A Life in the Sun; The Drunken Sisters, illustrations by Daniel Maffia, Franklin Library, 1977.

The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder, edited by Donald Gallup and A. Tappan Wilder, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1997.

The Collected Translations and Adaptations of Thornton Wilder (includes A Doll's House, A Seagull, The Victors, Lucrece, and The Beaux Stratagem), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 2000.

OTHER

We Live Again (screenplay; based on Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936.

An Evening with Thornton Wilder, April thirtieth, 1962, Washington, D.C. (consists of third act of Our Town), Harper (New York, NY), 1962.

American Characteristics and Other Essays, edited by Donald Gallup, foreword by Isabel Wilder, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.

The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961: With Two Scenes of an Uncompleted Play, "The Emporium," edited by Donald Gallup, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1985.

The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, edited by Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1996.

A Tour of the Darkling Plain: The Finnegans Wake Letters of Thornton Wilder and Adaline Glasheen, University College Dublin Press (Dublin, Ireland), 2001.

Author of screenplay Shadow of a Doubt, 1942. Contributor to periodicals, including Harper's, Hudson Review, Poetry, Atlantic, and Yale Review. Theater reviewer for Theatre Arts Monthly, 1925.

The autograph of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is held in Yale University's American Literature Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

ADAPTATIONS:

The Bridge of San Luis Rey was filmed three times, initially in 1929; Theophilus North was adapted for film as Mr. North by John Huston, starring Danny Huston, Anjelica Huston, and Robert Mitchum; also filmed were Our Town, 1940, and The Matchmaker, 1958. The Matchmaker was adapted by Michael Stewart as the stage musical Hello, Dolly!, with words and music by Jerry Herman, 1964; Hello, Dolly! subsequently was adapted for film. Our Town was adapted as the stage musical Grover's Corners, by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, 1987. There have also been radio and television versions of many of Wilder's works, including The Skin of Our Teeth, WNET, 1984.

SIDELIGHTS:

Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder occupied, wrote Edmund Wilson in his A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950, "a unique position, between the Great Books and Parisian sophistication one way, and the entertainment industry the other way, and in our culture this region, though central, is a dark and almost uninhabited no man's land." The author of such distinctly American works as the play Our Town, Wilder had been heralded for his exploration of American culture and community, Christian morality, and family. In American Drama, critic Louis Broussard noted that "In such company as [Eugene] O'Neill, [T. S.] Eliot, [Jean] Anouilh, and many other postwar pessimists, Wilder emerges as a lone dissenter. Not because he was an optimist … but because his optimism grows out of an indifference to his own period.…No other writer begins with so hopeful a premise: that this age is essentially no different from any other, that its problems, whatever they may be … will resolve themselves in change which can only be better than the past. His is not the search for an exit from dilemma; there is no dilemma."

Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and traveled widely with his family while growing up. He attended Oberlin College for two years, and then completed his bachelor's degree at Yale University, where he published his first full-length play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, in the Yale Literary Magazine. After graduation, Wilder traveled to Rome, where he spent a year studying archaeology. This experience strongly influenced his interest in the human condition in relation to the passage of time, a theme that can be seen throughout his oeuvre. After returning to the United States, Wilder taught French at a New Jersey school for four years while working toward a graduate degree in French at Princeton University.

Wilder's literary reputation was established with his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is set in eighteenth-century Peru and portrays a priest's quest to discover a theological meaning for the accidental death of five people when a bridge collapses. Wilder's fourth novel, Heaven's My Destination, is a lighthearted picaresque novel set during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The play parodies facets of American life such as fundamentalist evangelism. Wilder returned to historical themes after Heaven's My Destination with The Ides of March, a novel consisting of four books of documents, proclamations, and letters that recount the events leading to the assassination of Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Considered by some critics to be Wilder's most accomplished work, The Eighth Day portrays a man who lives as a fugitive after being falsely convicted of murder. The Eighth Day earned its author a National Book Award in 1968; Wilder died seven years later, leaving his final novel, Theophilus North, to be published posthumously in 1973.

Although he continued to write novels throughout his career, it is as a playwright that Wilder remains best known. Wilder believed the theater exists to present experience for its own sake. "I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms," he once explained in the Paris Review, "the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. This supremacy of the theater derives from the fact that it is always 'now' on the stage." Ignoring conflict, preferring comedy to tragedy, and extolling traditional ideas, Wilder was "the artist of the anachronism," explained Malcolm Cowley in his Writers at Work.

In his plays, Wilder focuses on morality as it is embodied in the human condition, and he was innovative in his staging. The plays collected in The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays reflect the influence of European experimental theater, while his second work, Our Town, uses a minimal backdrop and employs formulaic characters to symbolize universal character values rather than individual men and women. In commenting on Our Town, Broussard maintained that Wilder effectively presents "the cycle of life without conflict because the foundations upon which his ideals rest have not yet been shaken. Romantic love, marriage, the concept of the 'Mind of God'.… These remain safe behind the barrier of isolated time."

Our Town earned Wilder his second Pulitzer Prize; The Skin of Our Teeth, which was produced while its author was serving in the Air Force during World War II, earned him his third. The Skin of Our Teeth chronicles the 5,000-year history of man, and some critics have contended that this work has a basis in Irish writer James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake. According to the playwright in an interview with the Paris Review, however, The Skin of Our Teeth "is really a way of trying to make sense out of the multiplicity of the human race and its affections." By the 1950s, Wilder was solidly established as a major figure in American literature.

In contrast to the works of such playwrights as O'Neill, many critics found in Wilder's plays a uniquely American viewpoint: an optimistic outlook, naive humor, and a celebration of everyday life. Wilson believed "all of this works very well in the theater.… But if one happens to be feeling a little morose … or if one tries the experiment of reading [The Skin of Our Teeth] in cold blood, the marriage of Plato and Groucho Marx may fail to appeal." Wilder, however, concluded that the theater addresses itself to the group and "partakes of the nature of festival." A play "presupposes a crowd." He once said: "I would love to be the poet laureate of Coney Island."

Perhaps because of his underlying optimism, Wilder was somewhat ignored by serious critics during his lifetime. In fact, his most frequently produced play, Our Town, closed after one week in Boston in 1938, because of bad notices. But in time, Wilder was praised for his experimentation and innovation, and The Skin of Our Teeth has become a modern classic. Travis Bogard called Wilder "a man who, along with O'Neill, freed the American theater from its traditional forms through his experiments in Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. … In a sense, perhaps, all of Wilder's plays are about the Day of Judgment, imaging human character as a bubble rising to burst on the surface of eternity. There undoubtedly were influences on his experimental style, but, in the last analysis, Wilder's innovations are important consequences of his point of view and of his way of commenting on experience." Wilder may have taken himself less seriously; as he once told the Paris Review: "I'm the kind of man whom timid old ladies stop on the street to ask about the nearest subway station."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Allen, Walter, The Modern Novel, Dutton (New York, NY), 1965.

Authors in the News, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.

Blank, Martin, Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder, Prentice Hall (New York, NY), 1996.

Bogard, Travis, and William I. Oliver, editors, Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1965.

Broussard, Louis, American Drama, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1962.

Bryer, Jackson R., editor, Conversations with Thornton Wilder, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1992.

Burbank, R., Thornton Wilder, Twayne (New York, NY), 1961.

Cohn, Ruby, Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1971.

Cole, Toby, editor, Playwrights on Playwriting, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1961.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 35, 1985, Volume 82, 1994.

Cowley, Malcolm, editor, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Viking (New York, NY), 1957.

de Koster, Katie, editor, Readings on Thornton Wilder, Greehaven Press, 1998.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4: American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939, 1980.

Drama Criticism, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.

Edelstein, J. M., compiler, Bibliographical Checklist of the Writings of Thornton Wilder, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1959.

Fergusson, Francis, The Human Image in Dramatic Literature, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1957.

Goldstein, Malcolm, The Art of Thornton Wilder, University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Goldstone, Richard H., Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait, Dutton (New York, NY), 1975.

Grebanier, Bernard, Thornton Wilder, University of Minnesota Press, 1965.

Haberman, Donald, The Plays of Thornton Wilder, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1967.

Kuner, M. C., Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark, Thomas Y. Crowell (New York, NY), 1972.

Lifton, Paul, Vast Encyclopedia: The Theatre of Thornton Wilder, Greenwood (New York, NY), 1995.

Papajewski, Helmut, Thornton Wilder, translated by John Conway, Ungar, 1969.

Schroeder, Patricia R., The Presence of the Past in Modern American Drama, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989, pp. 53-75.

Simon, Linda, Thornton Wilder: His Work, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1979.

Stresau, Herman, Thornton Wilder, translated by Frieda Schultze, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1959.

Wagenknecht, Edward, Calvalcade of the English Novel, Holt (New York, NY), 1943.

Wilder, Amos Niven, Thornton Wilder and His Public, Fortress Press, 1980.

Wilson, Edmund, A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1956.

PERIODICALS

AB Bookman's Weekly, January 5, 1976.

Antioch Review, summer, 1967, pp. 264-269.

Classical and Modern Literature, fall, 1991.

Kenyon Review, spring, 1986, pp. 126-130.

Modern Drama, September, 1972.

Nation, September 3, 1955.

New Republic, August 8, 1928.

New York Review of Books, November 21, 1985, pp. 31-34.

New York Times, November 24, 1986; December 20, 1987; December 5, 1988; December 11, 1988.

New York Times Book Review, December 30, 1979.

Paris Review, winter, 1957, pp. 36-57.

Philadelphia Inquirer, December 14, 1975.

Saturday Review, October 6, 1956.

School Library Journal, December, 1995, p. 56.

Sewanee Review, winter, 1987, pp. 162-168.

Times Literary Supplement, March 14, 1986, p. 281.

Twentieth Century Literature, Number 9, 1963, pp. 93-100.

Variety, April 29, 1996, p. 149.

Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1953, pp. 103-117.

Yale Review, October, 1994, p. 17.

Yankee, March, 1994, p. 98.

OBITUARIES:

PERIODICALS

Detroit Free Press, December 8, 1975.

Detroit News, December 8, 1975.

Newsweek, December 22, 1975.

New York Times, December 8, 1975.

Washington Post, December 8, 1975.*

Wilder, Thornton (Niven) 1897-1975

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