“Thornton Wilder: A Life” Now Available in Paperback!
“Thornton Wilder: A Life is the best kind of literary biography, one likely to send the reader back (or perhaps for the first time) to the author’s works. . . . As for Niven, she has admirably done what Chekhov and Wilder identified as a writer’s business, even if Wilder himself did not always succeed in doing it: stated the great questions about her subject correctly.” –Washington Post Book World “Admiring but never fawning and precisely the sort of scrupulous life [Niven’s] subject deserves. . . . A wonderful introduction to a great writer who’s been hiding in plain sight for far too long.” –The Daily Beast
“To navigate the deep chasm between the nature of the writer and the disposition of his writings, Penelope Niven’s compendious account of [Wilder’s] complicated personality is an indispensable guide.”
— The New York Review of Books
Penelope Niven’s THORNTON WILDER: A LIFE (Harper Perennial; On Sale: November 5, 2013; $19.99, 864 pages; ISBN: 9780060831370 ), now available in paperback, is the first biography of the playwright and novelist since 1983 and the first to be based on thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts, and other documentary evidence of Wilder’s life, work, and times. For more than a decade, Niven worked with unprecedented access to Wilder’s papers, including his family’s private journals and records, searching for the secrets that illuminate Wilder’s public life and work, as well as the hidden inner self sometimes concealed and sometimes revealed in his art and in his papers. The result is a definitive portrait of the writer, an honest and insightful exploration of the rich life and work of the man responsible for such classics as Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
The author of biographies of Carl Sandburg and Edward Steichen, and co-author with James Earl Jones of Voices and Silences, Niven seamlessly intertwines Thornton Wilder’s story with that of his close-knit, complicated family–his two brilliant parents, his four gifted siblings, and the specter of his twin brother, lost at birth. Wilder and his stillborn twin brother were born in 1897, to a domineering father and a devoted mother. Thornton Wilder and his older brother Amos were soon joined by three younger sisters, and the family would remain tightly bound throughout Wilder’s entire life. Dr. Amos Parker Wilder, was a diplomat and writer who moved the family around (from China to Europe to San Francisco) for much of Thornton’s early life. He was a loving father, but also a strict and pious man who preached the values of temperance and who expected excellence from all of his children. As Thornton grew up and started expressing his love and aptitude for theater and writing, his father worried that his son’s interest in such “unmanly” topics would result in a poverty-stricken failure of a life. Little did he know that Thornton’s stunning success as a writer would lead to his ability to financially support much of his family for the rest of their lives.
Thornton Wilder was a pivotal figure in the twentieth century, both as a novelist and playwright, winning the Pulitzer Prize three times–once for fiction (The Bridge of San Luis Rey) and twice for drama (Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth). He wrote for and about everybody–a fact international audiences still embrace. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Eighth Day, and his other novels are still read in the United States and abroad. His plays, especially the iconic Our Town and the revolutionary The Skin of Our Teeth, are still performed on stages around the globe.
Throughout his life, Wilder wandered the world like a gypsy, rarely ever settling in one place, though often returning to the family’s eventual home in Hamden, Connecticut–a house that Wilder was able to build from the profits of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. His wide circle of friends in the worlds of theater, movies, and literature included Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Montgomery Clift, Alfred Hitchcock, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Alexander Woollcott, Ruth Gordon, Sibyl Colefax, Ernest and Hadley Hemingway, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. In addition to being a novelist and playwright, the multifaceted Wilder was a son, brother, teacher, soldier (serving in both world wars), screenwriter (including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), lecturer, actor, translator, musician, man of letters, and international public figure. Wilder was also enigmatic and very private. Although he was intensely social (as indicated by these numerous friendships), this sociability often battled with his desire for solitude and privacy.
While THORNTON WILDER: A LIFE is a brilliant, fascinating portrait of a man and his tight-knit family, tracing one man’s improbable and event-filled life, it also offers penetrating views of the inner life of a writer. As Niven writes of Wilder’s plays and fiction, “Wilder continually excavated and resurrected universal, time-defying human dramas, and probed the enduring questions: How do we live–survive, surmount, even transcend the struggles implicit in the human condition? And why?” Besides his family and friendships, art is what mattered most to Wilder. It was his obsession, his true love, his life. As Wilder wrote, “Art is confession; art is the secret told. . . . But art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time. And the secret is nothing more than the whole drama of the inner life.”
Despite the international fame and visibility of Wilder the writer, far too little has been known or understood about Wilder the man–until now. Comprehensively researched and richly detailed, THORNTON WILDER: A LIFE brings the private man center stage and sheds new light on the published and unpublished work of one of this country’s greatest writers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PENELOPE NIVEN is the author of critically acclaimed biographies of poet Carl Sandburg and photographer Edward Steichen, and playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, as well as Swimming Lessons, a memoir, and Voices and Silences, coauthored with the actor James Earl Jones. She is the recipient of three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Thornton Wilder Visiting Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale, the North Carolina Award in Literature, and other fellowships and awards. Niven lectures in both the United States and abroad, and she has served as a consultant for television films about Sandburg, Steichen, and Jones. She lives in North Carolina.
Praise for Penelope Niven’s THORNTON WILDER: A LIFE
“This book is a splendid and long-needed work.” –Edward Albee, from the Foreword
“A rich, revealing, sympathetic, and utterly enthralling portrait of a great writer. Wilder’s exuberant artistry and mysterious depths are explored with rare insight. His famous friendships, abiding loneliness, and restless life–it is all here in Penelope Niven’s biography. Her long-awaited book is a gratifying and thrilling account of one man’s struggle to make a world out of words. A major achievement!” –J.D. McClatchy
“Wilder: A Life brings readers face to face with the extraordinary man who made words come alive around the world, on the stage and on the page. Meticulously researched, Niven’s book reads like a riveting novel. . . . Wilder believed a playwright should have experience as an actor. As an actor who’s played the Stage Manager in Our Town, I ‘m betting that Wilder the actor helped make Wilder the dramatist even better at his craft.” –James Earl Jones
“Niven has written an exemplary biography, maybe worthy of its own Pulitzer Prize.”
“Essential. . . . Studiously researched and measured. . . . The great strength of ‘Thornton Wilder: A Life’ is how well it fuses the early years of the Wilder biography with the themes that informed his works.”
“Capacious and authoritative.”
“A great literary biography commands our attention. It sends us back to the texts and compels us to look at them again for the first time. Penelope Niven’s biography of Thornton Wilder startles us into renewed appreciation for a great American writer.”
–Dallas Morning News
“The author admits to a ‘decade of close study of . . . primary sources’ in preparation for her biography of distinguished American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. The result, fully displayed on every page of this definitive treatment, is a joyous presentation of detail that will introduce Wilder to readers for whom such works as the seminal play, Our Town, and the finely executed historical novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, are vague echoes from times long gone.” –Booklist (Starred Review)
“Although Wilder is at the center of this work, it relates very much to his family as well, providing the most complete, in-depth portrait of the author to date. . . . Fast-paced and engaging, this work is essential for academic readers with an interest in American literature and culture. It will also appeal to the more general reader of American biography.”
–Library Journal (Starred Review)