Wilder, Thornton Niven

Wilder, Thornton Niven, 1897–1975, American playwright and novelist, b. Madison, Wis., grad. Yale (B.A., 1920), Princeton (M.A., 1925). He received most of his early education in China, where his father was the U.S. consul-general in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Wilder taught in colleges and universities in the United States and Europe; he was (1950–51) Charles E. Norton professor of poetry at Harvard. A serious and highly original dramatist, Wilder often employed nonrealistic theatrical techniques, i.e., scrambled time sequences, minimal stage sets, characters speaking directly to the audience, and the use of a narrator. His plays, like his novels, usually maintain that true meaning and beauty are found in ordinary experience.

Wilder's first important literary work was the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927; Pulitzer Prize), which probes the lives of victims of a bridge disaster in Peru. Among his other novels are The Cabala (1926); The Woman of Andros (1930); Heaven's My Destination (1934); The Ides of March (1948); The Eighth Day (1967), an old-fashioned saga about two families that is also a mystery story and an exploration of chance and human destiny; and Theophilus North (1973), a comic account of the experiences of an unusual young man living in Newport, R.I., during the summer of 1929.

Although he had written one-act plays, published in The Angel That Troubled the Waters (1928) and The Long Christmas Dinner (1931), Wilder did not achieve critical recognition as a playwright until the production of Our Town (1938; Pulitzer Prize). Perhaps the most familiar and most frequently produced of all American plays, it relates a panoramic story of unexceptional, yet universally recognizable people in Grover's Corners, N.H. The Skin of Our Teeth (1942; Pulitzer Prize) has affinities to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939); it treats the unending human struggle to survive. Wilder's other plays include The Merchant of Yonkers (1938), which was revised as The Matchmaker (1954) and adapted, by others, into the musical Hello Dolly! (1963); and Plays for Bleecker Street (1962), one-act plays from his projected “Seven Ages of Man” and “Seven Deadly Sins” cycles. In 1965, Wilder was awarded the first National Medal for Literature.

See Collected Plays & Writings on Theater (ed. by J. D. McClatchy, 2007); biographies by G. A. Harrison (1983) and P. Niven (2012); R. H. Goldstone, Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait (1975); studies by D. Haberman (1967), M. C. Kuner (1972), R. J. Burbank (1978), A. N. Wilder (1980), D. Castronovo (1986), P. Lifton (1995), M. Blank (1996; as ed., 1999), H. Bloom (2003), and L. Konkle (2006); annotated bibliography by R. H. Goldstone and G. Anderson (1982).

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