Book Review of Thornton Wilder: A Life

Book Review
Thornton Wilder: A Life
By Penelope Niven

Bruce Jacobs
Shelf Awareness

 

“With access to Wilder’s voluminous letters and journals, Niven captures the remarkable life of this 20th-century American man of letters.”

 

When people think of Thornton Wilder these days, it likely involves a vague memory of a high school performance of Our Town. The wise old Stage Manager of the play became many generations’ image of the playwright himself, but few know Wilder’s other plays or bother to read his seven novels (except maybe The Bridge of San Luis Rey–like Our Town, a Pulitzer winner exiled to the dread high school required reading list). Thanks to Penelope Niven (Carl Sandburg: A Biography), this void in American literary biography has been exquisitely filled.

 

With the death of Isabel Wilder (his sister and literary executor) in 1995, “ninety banker’s boxes” of Wilder’s letters and journals became available through the Yale Beinecke Library, and Niven spent more than a decade studying these primary sources. Thornton Wilder: A Life is biography as biography should be, and as the conservative classicist Wilder would no doubt have wanted. Niven quotes extensively from the Yale papers, the letters of Wilder’s many friends, and conversations with his family and colleagues. Except as supported by primary sources, she makes no attempt at psychological speculation and refreshingly avoids any literary criticism of his work except as found in his own letters or as published by critics and friends.

 

Rather, in straightforward, mostly chronological chapters, Niven taps Wilder’s own words to tell much of his remarkable story and that of his equally literary family. They lived peripatetic childhoods in Wisconsin, California, Connecticut, China and Europe as his father struggled to raise them all according to his strong convictions and earn enough to educate them without fear of financial ruin, while serving his country as a diplomat. Wilder’s was a writing family all their lives–by necessity almost, since letters, books and journals became the glue holding the scattered family together. From this diverse background, the shy letter writing young man emerged to become a lifelong world traveler, reader, solitary walker, cross-country driver, scholar, teacher, playwright, actor, novelist, soldier, financially successful family benefactor and friend to seemingly everyone he met from Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein to boxer Gene Tunney, actress Ruth Gordon and (perhaps his closest friends) critic Alexander Woollcott and University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins.

 

The underappreciated rich, thoughtful and generous life of Thornton Wilder is underappreciated no more. Penelope Niven’s biography doesn’t embellish the facts but lets Wilder’s words and accomplishments quietly speak for themselves, fascinating chapter by fascinating chapter.