Thornton Wilder: A Life

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Overview

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.
—Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder: A Life, the first biography of the playwright and novelist since 1983, is also the first to be based on thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts, and other documentary ...

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Overview

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.
—Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder: A Life, the first biography of the playwright and novelist since 1983, is also 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, biographer Penelope Niven has 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.

Thornton Wilder was a multifaceted man: a teacher, novelist, playwright, lecturer, actor, musician, soldier, man of letters, outspoken citizen, and international public figure. He was also an enigmatic, intensely private man. He belonged to a close-knit, complicated family—two brilliant parents, four gifted siblings, and the specter of his twin brother lost at birth. His biography is also a compelling family saga, starring Thornton Wilder, with strong supporting roles played by his father, mother, brother, and sisters.

He was a gypsy, wandering the world, writing, he said, 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 Skin of Our Teeth, are still performed on stages around the globe.

Yet 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 his published and unpublished work.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) was a playwright and novelist who won three Pulitzers and one National Book Award, but today he is remembered, if at all, as the writer behind countless school productions of Our Town and Skin of Our Teeth. This new biography by the talented Penelope Niven (Thornton Wilder; Swimming Lessons) draws on extensive, previously unavailable personal papers to present Wilder as a living, breathing, often conflicted man. By placing the U.S. diplomat's son within the context of his fractious Wisconsin family, Niven reveals some of the reasons behind both his strong work ethic and his deep self-doubt. A fascinating, probing look at a major writer of his time.

The Washington Post
Penelope Niven's rich life of Wilder…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.
—Dennis Drabelle
The New York Times
Ms. Niven…[gives] an appraisal of Wilder's experience that places equal emphasis on the public man and the private thinker, the literary celebrity and the son and brother. The hours Wilder spent in hard study and grinding work are examined with the same attention as the hours of literary hobnobbing that filled his later years…deeply researched and fluidly readable…It cannot be easy to write a biography of a man who lived most deeply inside his questing mind. Yet with the aid of Wilder's journals and letters Ms. Niven is able to make his continuing education a journey that often outshines the more superficially engaging aspects of his career…
—Charles Isherwood
Publishers Weekly
Fans and scholars of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder will delight in Niven’s comprehensive and engaging biography. Niven (Carl Sandburg: A Biography) combed through the author’s many published and unpublished personal writings (including letters, manuscripts, journals, and family records) to create a “substantial scaffolding of facts that shape and support a narrative of his life and work.” A bookish second son, Wilder was painfully micromanaged by an overbearing father who was distressed by Wilder’s theatrical and literary inclinations—though such inclinations allowed him to take full financial responsibility for his parents and sisters once he found commercial success with the publication of The Bridge of San Luis Ray in 1928. “Wilder once called himself the poet laureate of the family,” and Niven gives ample evidence that this title was deserved. He never married (questions remain about his sexuality; it was one of the few subjects he didn’t write about), but remained devoted to his immediate family and close friends. Through Wilder’s own words, the reader is privy to his arrogant thrills and frequent bouts of self-doubt. Chronicling Wilder’s successes and failures in various literary forms (novels, plays, lectures), Niven includes brief criticism and reviews with each of his major works. The real value of her extensive research comes in the seamless weaving of letters and journals that make up the full tapestry of the writer’s life. Photos. Agent: Barbara Hogenson, the Barbara Hogensen Agency. (Oct.)
Booklist (starred review)
“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.”
Daily Beast
“Lucid, elegantly written...there is just enough shrewd literary analysis to make us understand why this prodigally gifted writer so richly deserves an audience beyond the 12th grade.”
Harper's Magazine
“Capacious and authoritative.”
New York Times
“Deeply researched and fluidly readable.”
Washington Post
“The best kind of literary biography, one likely to send the reader back (or perhaps for the first time) to the author’s works.”
Chicago Tribune
“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.”
—James Earl Jones
“Almost everybody knows OUR TOWN, but very few people really know Thornton Wilder. Penelope Niven’s fascinating biography changes that once and for all…Meticulously researched, Niven’s book reads like a riveting novel.”
—Edward Albee
“This new biography of Wilder — comprehensive and wisely fashioned — gives us sufficient view of his methods, his public and private life, and the reaches of his mind…This book is a splendid and long needed work.”
Booklist
"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."
James Earl Jones
"Almost everybody knows OUR TOWN, but very few people really know Thornton Wilder. Penelope Niven’s fascinating biography changes that once and for all…Meticulously researched, Niven’s book reads like a riveting novel."
Edward Albee
"This new biography of Wilder — comprehensive and wisely fashioned — gives us sufficient view of his methods, his public and private life, and the reaches of his mind…This book is a splendid and long needed work."
New York Times Book Review on Carl Sandburg: A Biography
“Niven complements her own clear, lyrical voice with the eloquent words of Steichen’s contemporaries...”
New York Times Book Review on Steichen: A Biography
“Niven complements her own clear, lyrical voice with the eloquent words of Steichen’s contemporaries.”
Library Journal
Popular and critically acclaimed American writer Thornton Wilder (1897–1975) was a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth). Niven (writer in residence, Salem Coll.; Carl Sandburg: A Biography) had access to previously unavailable primary materials both from Wilder's sister's extensive accumulation of materials, now at Yale's Beinecke Library, and from his nephew and literary executor, who made more information available, thus enabling readers to gain deeper understanding of Wilder the man and Wilder the scholar. 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. Niven presents a detailed picture of Wilder from his youthful writing attempts to his success as a mature novelist and playwright who counted F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein as friends. VERDICT 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.—Alison M. Lewis, Drexel Univ., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
A satisfying and insightful, if overlong, picture of a solitary writer who never stopped being a family man. There are times reading this new biography by Niven (Swimming Lessons: Life Lessons from the Pool, from Diving in to Treading Water, 2004, etc.) when readers may wonder why a book about Thornton Wilder (1897–1975) is so inordinately concerned with the lives of his siblings. Biographical overkill, or is there some kind of a point? Both. For Niven, understanding Wilder's family is simply vital to understanding Wilder, whose books and plays dig away at how people become who they are. His loving but repressive father, Amos, raised five children all over the world (while serving as President Taft's consul to China) and micromanaged their lives every step of the way; they in turn bore the burden of his influence. At one extreme is Thornton; the son from whom Amos expected the least became a three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and playwright whose major dramas, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, are anchored by families as hopeful and anxiety-ridden as his own. At the other is sister Charlotte, an esteemed poet whose artistic life was cut short by tormented lesbian desires and schizophrenia. Wilder's own sex life is a mystery; like Henry James, he left only scant evidence that he ever had one. He had other things on his mind, as Niven ably sums up: "How do you live? How do you bear the unbearable? How do you handle the various dimensions of love, of faith, of the human condition? How do universal elements forge every unique, individual life? And where does the family fit in the cosmic scheme of things?" For Wilder, the old questions were the only ones worth considering. Although at times overwhelmed by her own research, Niven creates a perceptive, indispensable portrait of a productive and restlessly intellectual life.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Writers' lives, though valuable in shedding light on their work, tend to make depressing reading. Something about the rigor and solitude of the calling seems to lead straight to depression and alcohol. My first reaction on finishing a literary biography is usually to heave a sigh of relief that I did not know the writer in question, however fascinating his output might be.

But occasionally there are exceptions, and one such is Thornton Wilder (1897–1975), whose life has been recounted with sympathy and discretion by Penelope Niven, author of previous works on Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg. Although Wilder cut a prominent figure in the celebrity culture of mid-twentieth- century America, he was a consummately private man who kept his personal life to himself, and Niven has respected that trait — as far as a biographer can — while revealing much in a rather oblique manner, rather as Wilder himself did in his plays and novels. "Art," he wrote once, "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." Wilder revealed more about himself through the indirection of art than he did in his copious correspondence. He kept his sex life, if he had one, strictly under wraps and lived an essentially solitary life. His particular family drama, to which everything in his subsequent life related, lay in the tight-knit but ill-assorted nuclear clan that produced him; Niven has succeeded in creating a group portrait of the Wilder family that explains much about this brilliant, repressed, very good man.

Thornton Wilder was the second child in a family of five (he had an elder brother, Amos, and three younger sisters, Charlotte, Isabel, and Janet) born to a loving but agonizingly overbearing father of limited imagination and rigid Calvinist principles. Amos Parker Wilder, Thornton's father, micromanaged all of his children's education and early careers in a misguided certainty that he alone knew what was best for each of them. Not that his own career went smoothly; he spent several years in consular posts in China during Thornton's youth (Thornton was educated at a mission boarding school there, of the muscular Christian variety) but was not a success, being a poor administrator and, as a doctrinaire teetotaler, a less-than-popular diplomatic host.

He found it easy to approve of Thornton's older brother, Amos: "a manly lad," as he wrote a friend; "not only a good mind but a strenuous body." Thornton, one of those talented changelings who comes along occasionally to challenge conventional parents, was harder for him to accept: "the last word in high browism, a delicate, girl-playing, aesthetic lad in the early teens; this kind of boy making a one-sided, often unhappy, inadaptable man is familiar." The coded references to homosexuality stand out, though Wilder Sr. might not have been conscious of them; it's clear, though, that Thornton was both effeminate and artistic, qualities that appalled his father, who was afraid the boy was too dreamy to take care of himself: in a letter to Amos, he urged him on to excel professionally, warning him that "in the years to come you will have not only yourself but some of these others, especially hopeless Thornton, to finance."

Amos Wilder Sr. tried to turn his troublesome son into a man by sending him to a rough outdoor school, to various farms across the country to labor during the summers, and to Oberlin College. Thornton held out for Yale, lobbying against "Oberlin with its compulsory chapels and prescribed Scripture-class-work and its suggested Christian endeavors, Bible-class, YMCAs and Temperance Society," but he lost the battle; in the end, though, Oberlin proved a fertile ground for his literary and musical aspirations as well as for the short dramas he had already begun to write, and he was almost sorry when his father transferred him to Yale in his third year. The entry of the United States into the First World War drummed Amos Sr. into a patriotic frenzy; he was eager for his sons to prove their manhood in battle, and good son Amos went off to the trenches dutifully, returning with PTSD and health troubles that would plague him the rest of his life. Thornton's bad eyesight rendered him unfit for the front, though his father professed himself willing to procure him a waiver. In the end, he had an unremarkable few months in service Stateside before the Armistice was declared. Amos Sr. was philosophical. "Let us have a true man, a patriot, a Christian, a gentleman, Thornton dear, and all else shall be added."

Wilder spent a post-graduation year studying Latin, Italian, and archaeology at the American Classical School at Rome. His father was predictably nervous about the trouble he might get up to in the wickedest of wicked metropolises: "Dear boy, I pray for you — that you may be benefitted by these experiences and not return to us impaired in soul" from "that setting where there is so much to make you unworthy." For young Thornton, though the experience was transformative — particularly his new knowledge of archaeology. The dig that made the greatest impression was

a newly discovered tomb of about the first century; it was under a street near the center of the city, and while by candle-light we peered at faded paintings of a family called Aurelius, symbolic representations of their dear children and parents borne graciously away by winged spirits playing in gardens and adjusting their Roman robes, the street- cars of today rushed by over us. We were clutching at the past to recover the loves and pieties and habits of the Aurelius family, while the same elements were passing above us.
As Niven writes, "This profoundly significant experience resonated far into his future. He conjectured that October day in 1920 that 'two thousand years from now,' other people would be striving to recover the artifacts, experience, atmosphere, and humanity of his own time. He went on to do that himself, in fiction and in drama?. Over time he would excavate and explore the 'loves and pieties' of unique yet universal characters — in Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, and other plays, and in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, and other novels."

Upon his return Wilder went to the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, as a teacher of French and Latin and an assistant housemaster. Considering his burning ambition to write, he found the work surprisingly congenial: "Teaching is wonderful; I cannot tell whether I like it for itself, or whether my mind is such that in any walk of life I would be thus daily excited, moved, amused, surprised, and frightened." Somehow he managed to find time for his own writing, which included preliminary work on what would be his first two novels and for a literary self-education that included the reading and technical analysis of works by Proust, Flaubert, Racine, James, Meredith, Pindar, Cicero, Austen, and the letters of Mme. de Sévigné. He published some theater criticism in Theatre Arts Monthly that placed him tentatively on the New York cultural map. And in 1925 he left Lawrenceville temporarily to take up graduate studies in French at Princeton. Academic endeavor pleased his father, but what the time at Princeton really did was free Thornton up to write in earnest; the result was his first novel, The Cabala, published by Boni & Liveright in 1926.

This is not a critical biography; Niven admits that she has not attempted literary criticism. She does repeat one mantra, however, that would seem to apply to every book and play Wilder wrote: "How does one love, and why? What is the nature and purpose of art, and the function of the artist? How does one truly live and bear the burdens of life? And what does it all mean?" These are questions that could apply to almost all major works of art and are too broad to be particularly helpful, but it is safe to say that all Wilder's work does deal with themes that are universal rather than particular to his place and time. The Cabala was a modest hit, selling in respectable numbers, but it did not give Wilder the confidence to quit his day job; he returned to Lawrenceville in 1927, teaching during the day and sitting up at night with the work that would establish him as a major writer, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. This novel, published in 1928, made it to the top of the bestseller list, was serialized in the Hearst press, and won Wilder the first of three Pulitzer Prizes. It was followed in 1930 by The Woman of Andros, which spent twelve weeks on the bestseller list. Wilder might now have devoted himself wholly to writing; instead, he took a gig teaching at the University of Chicago for six months of every year. The lessons of his Puritan father had not been lost.

Heaven's My Destination (1935), arguably Wilder's best novel, was possibly written in response to the "social revolutionist" writers of the era, who criticized Wilder for writing about exotic locales and ignoring homegrown material. This picaresque tale of a zealous Bible salesman and the life lessons he learns on his travels was a direct response not only to the Depression but to the inflexible Calvinism in which he had been indoctrinated. "[T]he very thoroughness of my exposure to dogmatic Protestant positions," he wrote later in life, "made me aware that they were insufficient to encompass the vast picture of history and the burden of suffering in the world."

But while fiction remained Wilder's bread and butter during the early thirties, he had not given up on his ambition to be a dramatist. In 1931 he published The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act, which included the frequently performed The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. As a theatergoer in the late twenties and early thirties he found himself increasingly dissatisfied, in spite of the fact that, as he later wrote, "the conviction was growing in me that the theatre was the greatest of all the arts. I felt that something had gone wrong with it in my time and that it was fulfilling only a small part of its potentialities." In his new plays, he explained, he "tried to capture not verisimilitude but reality. In The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden four kitchen chairs represent an automobile and a family travels seventy miles in twenty minutes. In Pullman Car Hiawatha some more plain chairs serve as berths and we hear the very vital statistic of the towns and fields that passengers are traversing; we even hear the planets over their heads." These were techniques that led directly to Our Town (1938), which, as much as any work of art over the last century, wedded the mundane to the cosmic. As he wrote this play, he later remembered, "the archaeologist's and the social historian's points of view began to mingle with another unremitting preoccupation which is the central theme of the play: What is the relation between the countless 'unimportant' details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas, on the other?"

The superficially simple Our Town was of course successful beyond anyone's imaginings; its power was evident from the very first actors' reading in New York, where, Wilder said, they all wept, "so that pauses had to be made so they could collect themselves." At previews in New Haven the box office broke the house record, and even old reprobates like Samuel Goldwyn and Beatrice Lillie were seen to be sobbing in the audience. Wilder was perplexed by the contradictory conclusions the play seemed to provoke: some found it sentimental, he noticed, while others saw an "embittered pessimism about human nature and its being in the dark." "For every person that thinks the last act is easy, sentimental and soft," he wrote, "there's always another person who thinks it hard, embittered and cruel." It is a debate, I believe, that still goes on, though on balance the play has probably inspired more hope than despair; indeed, at the end of World War II Our Town was the first foreign play to be performed in Berlin after the occupation, "with audiences transfixed as they sat or stood in the rubble of buildings." Our Town procured Wilder another Pulitzer Prize — this made him the only author to have won Pulitzers for both fiction and drama.

He was now earning prodigious sums of money. By this time the feckless, dreamy boy whose future had worried his father so gravely was supporting both of his aged parents, his brilliant, schizophrenic sister Charlotte, and his sister Isabel, who became his lifelong amanuensis. (Brother Amos had become a distinguished theologian, sister Janet a biologist and college professor.) Wilder's next play would eventually earn him even more money than Our Town, though it did not look promising early on. He wrote The Merchant of Yonkers with his friend Ruth Gordon in mind for the leading role of Dolly Levi, but the role was played by someone else, and the play closed after a mere thirty-nine performances in 1938. It would not be until 1954 that Gordon and her new husband, Garson Kanin, who had directed Wilder's drama The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), approached Wilder about a rewrite of the play as a vehicle for Gordon. The result was The Matchmaker, which was a big hit on Broadway in 1955 and, in its final incarnation as Hello, Dolly! (1964), brought Wilder financial security for the rest of his life.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Wilder, forty-five years of age, volunteered ten days before his eligibility for active duty expired. "Picture my father's face if he'd been told that Thornton had been advanced to a Major and in a HQ Department called Management, Control, Organizational Planning," he gloated. He turned out to be as excellent an administrator as his father had been a bad one, helping prepare, among other tasks, for the Italian campaign and winning the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the MBE, and the Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur. The war wore Wilder out, temporarily, but he still had some of his best work in him, including The Ides of March (1948), The Eighth Day (1968), and Theophilus North (1973). He vacillated between leading an active and even frenetic social life (he counted among his best frinds Alexander Woolcott, Gertrude Stein, and Sybil Colefax) and a pull toward solitude; at the age of sixty-five, wanting to get away from it all, he started driving his car westward and kept going until it broke down, in a little border town called Douglas, Arizona. Here he stayed for almost two years, writing during the days and hanging out in the local bar with new friends at night. It was a productive idyll, but he eventually returned to the real world. Wilder died in 1975, of a heart attack, after undergoing cancer surgery.

Some might fault Penelope Niven for not digging deeply enough into Wilder's personal life. She dutifully quotes the one and only piece of evidence we have for his having had a sex life: a published account by one Sam Steward, who claimed to have had a brief affair with author in the late 1930s. "He was very secretive about his homosexual inclinations but they were definitely there," Steward recalled. We had quite an experience. Thornton always went about having sex as though it were something going on behind his back and he didn't know anything about it." Perhaps, as a conscientious biographer, Niven should have dug away more energetically at Wilder's private life and his prevarications on the subject, but instead she has chosen — honorably, I think — to respect his closely guarded privacy. With a John Cheever, a Tennessee Williams, a Philip Roth, knowledge of the author's sex life greatly enriches the reader's appreciation for the work, but this is not the case for Wilder, who was not a particularly autobiographical writer. "He would have instinctively protected his own privacy as well as that of his sex partners," Niven writes, "not out of hypocrisy but out of affection, out of courtesy, out of propriety, out of respect for others, and himself." Niven, in short, is probably the biographer Wilder would have chosen, and the one he deserves. Her writing displays an instinctive delicacy that allies her ethos to his in an almost uncanny manner.

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060831363
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/30/2012
  • Pages: 848
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Penelope Niven is the author of critically acclaimed biographies of poet Carl Sandburg and photographer Edward Steichen, 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, and other fellowships and awards.

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Read an Excerpt

Thorton Wilder

A Life


By Penelope Niven

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2012 Penelope Niven
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-083136-3


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

"GODLY FOLK"

"The Wilders were Baptists, - plain, stern, godly folk." Amos Parker Wilder – History of Dane County

Maine, Connecticut, New York, and Wisconsin (1862–1906) Thornton Niven Wilder and his twin brother were delivered into the world prematurely on April 17, 1897, in an apartment at 14 West Gilman Street in Madison, Wisconsin, to Amos Parker Wilder, a loving, domineering father, and Isabella Thornton Niven Wilder, an equally strong, devoted mother.

The other Wilder twin was stillborn, leaving his brother Thornton a haunting legacy of loss and incompletion as well as a survivor's instinctive guilt. According to family memory, Amos Parker Wilder had planned to name the lost child Theophilus, after his own Wilder grandfather (a second son), and other ancestors given that name. Thornton was a frail infant, carried carefully on a small pillow for the first months of his life. As he grew older and stronger, the energetic, curious boy played with his brother, Amos Niven Wilder (who was born on September 18, 1895). They were joined on August 28, 1898, by a sister, Charlotte Elizabeth, and then on January 13, 1900, by another sister, Isabel. The youngest sister, Janet Frances, would not come along until June 3, 1910.

"We bring from childhood the passionate expectation that life will be colorful, but life is seldom ever as exciting as it was when we were five and six and seven years old," Thornton Wilder wrote when he was in his thirties.

During the early years of his life, he was shaped and molded in Madison, Wisconsin. He described himself as "a bookish, musing, sleep-walking kind of boy" who appreciated his Midwestern beginnings.

The four older Wilder children grew up spending idyllic summers in the village of Maple Bluff on Lake Mendota's northeastern shore on the outskirts of Madison. The Wilders built a modest summer cottage there in 1901. Isabella designed it, and they called it Wilderness. The Winnebago Indians had once staged their summer encampments in the dense woods lining McBride's Point, the beach where the Wilder children played, and an occasional Indian mound or artifact could still be discovered there.

During the long, bitter Wisconsin winters, the children spent quiet days at home in Madison with their mother, who loved poetry, drama, music, and philosophy. Their robust, outspoken father kept a frenetic schedule, editing his newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, and traveling to make speeches about politics, municipal planning, and current events. Amos Parker Wilder was born February 15, 1862, in Calais, Maine, the son of Charlotte Topliff Porter and Amos Lincoln Wilder, a dentist. His paternal grandfather, Theophilus Wilder, ran a grocery store in Milltown, Maine. Amos Parker Wilder, called Parker by his family, described his Wilder relatives as "Baptists, - plain, stern, godly folk." They were descended from the Wilders who came from England's Thames Valley to settle in Hingham, Massachusetts, in about 1636. Parker Wilder's religious heritage was an amalgam of Baptist and Puritan principles, Congregationalist philosophy, and the "Hebrew strain" he said he inherited from his mother's family. His great-grandmother, Betsy Marks Porter, was the daughter of Capt. Nehemiah Marks of Derby, Connecticut, son of a Jewish family who converted to Christianity.

Young Parker Wilder especially revered his grandfather Porter, who lived to be ninety and was "strong, kind, religious, one of the best of men," Parker wrote proudly, noting as well that his grandfather was "a ship owner and lumberman of importance in the St. Croix Valley" on the border of Maine and Canada. The Porter family also held shipping and lumber interests in New Brunswick, Canada. Parker's father worked and saved his money to finance dental school. He practiced dentistry first in Calais, and then in Augusta, where he invested in an oilcloth factory, which became his principal - and prosperous - business until his death at the age of seventy ("Sole Manufacturer of Wilder's patent 'Drum-Made Floor Oil Cloths,'" his 1888 letterhead proclaimed).

Young Parker Wilder inherited his father's drive and ambition, along with his ancestors' "plain, stern, godly" traits. When he was seven, he pledged himself to a life of total abstinence from alcohol. As a teenager, he learned the skills of telegraphy from Frank A. Munsey (1854–1925), the young man who managed the Western Union office in Augusta, a bustling shipping and publishing center as well as the capital of Maine. Parker Wilder mastered the craft well enough to earn money during his college years as a part-time telegrapher. He made the most of his public school education and a year at Highland Military Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then, largely through his mother's encouragement, went off to Yale in the fall of 1880. He adored his mother, and savored childhood memories of the family's summer vacations at Squirrel Island or Mouse Island, Maine: "We dug clams and caught young mackerel, sometimes from the net of big fishers in the Bay," he remembered. "In the more important years I went to Squirrel or Mouse with my Mother and we had quiet, rich days together. She was a tender, restful, heaven-associating soul, yet all sense and balance."

He described her effusively in an autobiographical sketch he wrote for his own children: "Strong in body, possessed of great sense, having had many advantages in her youth, of a hopeful, serene nature, always able to see a bend in the road ahead, and wont to relate all the ordering of life to prayer, Mother has been and is one of the most normal and best women I have known." Deliberately or not, Amos Parker Wilder implied a contrast between his mother and his wife, who was not always physically strong, or hopeful and serene, or optimistic about "the road ahead," or prayerful, or, for that matter, "normal," in the sense of the conventional, traditional nineteenth-century wife and mother.

Isabella Thornton Niven Wilder was, as much as she possibly could manage to be, her own person. A minister's daughter from Dobbs Ferry, New York, she was refined, cultured, and extraordinarily intelligent. Despite her independent spirit, her father thwarted her hopes of going to college to study medicine, as well as her plans to teach or otherwise establish an independent career. He was proud of his daughter's brilliance, but he still held firmly to his conventional opinions about a lady's proper place in polite society. She was educated at the Misses Masters Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies and Children in Dobbs Ferry. Her father had helped the Misses Masters lease the Dobbs Ferry residence that housed their school for the first six years. Not simply a finishing school for young women, the school offered a strong liberal arts curriculum - literature, history, Latin, psychology, astronomy, mathematics. Isabella wrote poetry, translated the poems of others from French and Italian, played the piano skillfully, knew and enjoyed the literature of the theater, and competed in local tennis tournaments.

She was born in February 1873 to Elizabeth Lewis Niven and Dr. Thornton MacNess Niven, Jr., a highly respected Presbyterian clergyman who was the son of the noted engineer, builder, architect, and businessman Thornton MacNess Niven of Newburgh, New York. T. M. Niven, Sr., who had started out as a stonemason, was described as "a man of wealth, a vigorous writer, and a fine public speaker." In 1839 he had designed and built a house for his family at 201 Montgonery Street in Newburgh, a sturdy, spacious edifice still in use in the twenty-first century, along with other buildings he designed, such as the Newburgh courthouse. In 1841 the navy commissioned him to supervise a ten year long, three million dollar project - the construction of its first dry dock. Dry Dock Number One in the Brooklyn Navy Yard was also the first dry dock to be built in New York. T. M. Niven arranged for massive blocks of prime granite to be floated down on barges from Maine to be installed in tiers in what was hailed as "one of the greatest structural achievements of its day." He went blind in his eighties, after failed cataract surgery, but the loss of vision did not keep him from other pursuits, such as composing hymns and poems, including "Meditations of an Old Blind Man on His Eighty-Eighth Birthday," written on February 3, 1894, the year before he died.

The Niven ancestors had immigrated to the northeastern United States from Bowmere, a small village on the island of Islay off the west coast of Scotland, now known for producing uncommonly good Scotch, and in the New World they became engineers, masons, architects, merchants, and ministers. Isabella's father, an 1855 graduate of Williams College, prepared for the ministry from 1856 until 1858 at the Newburgh, New York, Theological Seminary of the Associated Reform Church, for which his father had drawn the architectural plans in 1837. When the seminary closed in 1858, his father, who opposed abolition, dispatched him to complete his studies at Union Theological Seminary of Virginia, a Presbyterian school. After graduating from the seminary in the middle of the Civil War, Thornton M. Niven, Jr., was ordained by the West Hanover, Virginia, Presbytery, preached in various churches in Virginia, and served as a chaplain under General Stonewall Jackson. After the Civil War, Niven became pastor of the Greenburgh Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Isabella Thornton Niven was the Nivens' second child. Her older brother, Archibald Campbell Niven, died of tuberculosis in 1891 at the age of twenty, leaving a heartbroken family behind. His letters indicate that he was a patient in 1889 in the famous Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium at Saranac Lake, New York, founded by Edward Livingston Trudeau in 1884 - one of the foremost tuberculosis treatment centers in the country. Archie Niven's parents later sent him to Pasadena, California, where the climate was touted as ideal for treating tuberculosis. They hoped in vain that he could recover from what he called his "terrible disease" in a letter written from Pasadena May 15, 1891, shortly before his death. His mother and sister Charlotte were with him when he died.

Isabella's mother, Elizabeth, was much indulged by her husband because she was often ill, most likely with gynecological problems, leaving to Isabella many of the daily duties that usually fall to a minister's wife. Isabella's dynamic younger sister, Charlotte, was freer to go her own way. She was a gifted pianist who hoped to become a concert performer. Instead she would build a globally useful and visible career for herself as an officer of the international Young Women's Christian Association. Dr. Niven needed one of his daughters to stay in the home and help him in his ministry in ways his wife was not always able or willing to do. This seemed to be Isabella's destiny, not only as the older daughter but as the eldest surviving child.

Parker Wilder met Isabella Niven at a vacation house party in Dobbs Ferry, and from the first he was drawn to the lovely young woman - her gentility, her elegant good looks, her accomplishments - and her pedigree. Her father's people had been successful in business and the ministry - but her mother's people had helped to shape history. Not only were Isabella's father and paternal grandfather prominent figures in their own right, but her maternal great-grandfather was Arthur Tappan, a wealthy merchant and a leading abolitionist, who had been elected first president of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and, after his break with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (and the society's decline), was voted first president of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. The Tappans had money, and used it for important causes. In 1835 Arthur Tappan began to make significant financial contributions to support the development of fledgling Oberlin College, the first coeducational college in the United States and the first to have a race-blind admissions policy. His generous patronage of Oberlin was conditional; he specified that "students should be admitted irrespective of color, that entire freedom should be allowed on the anti-slavery question, and that a high order of religious instruction should be given, especially in favor of revivals of religion." He also supported the idea of the coeducation of males and females - an idea, unfortunately, which was not shared by some on the Niven branch of Isabella's family tree. Arthur Tappan's brother, Lewis, had arranged for and helped to finance the defense of the slaves in the Amistad slave ship mutiny case, and chose John Quincy Adams to assist in presenting the case successfully to the Supreme Court.

Isabella Niven possessed "rare good looks and personal charm," as well as a fine intellect and a courageous, independent spirit. From 1892 through 1894 she kept a scrapbook recording her interests in her late teens and early twenties. She was a strong student at the Misses Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, earning 90s or above in all eleven of her courses, including first honors in six. After graduation she studied at the Dobbs Ferry University Extension Center, established in 1893, passing her course in the masterpieces of English literature with honors. In her scrapbook she saved invitations to dances and parties, along with programs of tennis tournaments she played in and concerts she attended - including John Philip Sousa's Grand Concert at the Manhattan Beach Hotel on Coney Island, July 20, 1893. She traveled to Chicago to see the great World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 - an enterprise that had, coincidentally, moved journalist Parker Wilder so profoundly that he composed an oration that was published in its entirety - filling a full newspaper page - on April 28, 1893, just before the official opening of the exposition on May 1.

Also tucked between the leaves in Isabella's album were pressed flowers, and evidence of an evolving courtship: An undated news clipping reports that Mr. A. P. Wilder participated in a discussion at the "Splendid Gathering" at the Quill Club's monthly dinner. Another undated clipping, headlined "Patria Club Election: Prominent People Attend the Annual Meeting of the Organization Last Night," noted that the evening's topic was "The Industrial Emancipation of Woman," and that Amos Parker Wilder was elected recording secretary of the club, which was founded on the "cardinal principle" of the "inculcation of patriotic sentiment," and admitted both men and women to membership. Saved also was an invitation to a dinner party in New York, with a note from her hostess: "When I hear from you I will write to Dr. Wilder inviting him."
(Continues...)


Excerpted from Thorton Wilder by Penelope Niven. Copyright © 2012 by Penelope Niven. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword xi

Preface: "The History of a Writer" xiii

1 "Godly Folk" 1

2 "A Foretaste of Heaven" 15

3 "Being Left" 32

4 Foreign Devils 50

5 "Parental Expectation" 64

6 "All Aspiration" 77

7 "Literary Development" 94

8 "The Art of Writing" 106

9 Distant Sons 124

10 "Flowering into Literature" 138

11 "Heroes" 154

12 His Own Tune 173

13 "Choice Souls" 193

14 "All My Faults and Virtues" 212

15 "Millstones" 228

16 "The 'Way Within'" 246

17 "My Real Vocation" 268

18 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 289

19 "The Finest Bridge in All Peru" 305

20 Preparation and Circumstance 324

21 "Variety, Variety" 341

22 "Home" 362

23 "Strands and Threads" 382

24 Our Living and Our Dying 402

25 The Village and the Stars 422

26 "Chalk … or Fire" 443

27 "Perseverance" 467

28 "Seeing, Knowing and Telling" 490

29 "The Eternal Family" 510

30 "The Closing of the Door" 529

31 "Wartime" 550

32 "Post-war Adjustment Exercise" 570

33 Searching for the Right Way 593

34 Kaleidoscopic Views 615

35 "The Human Adventure" 637

36 "Tapestry" 662

37 "Life and Death" 681

Epilogue 701

Guide to Notes and Sources 705

Notes 713

Acknowledgments 805

Permissions 811

Index 813

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