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Spanning his entire life, The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder is a comprehensive and fascinating collection of the great American writer’s correspondence. In these letters, Wilder, the author of Our Town, draws on his vast reservoir of learning and his incessant reading to inform, encourage, instruct, and entertain.
About the Author
Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) was an accomplished novelist and playwright whose works, exploring the connection between the commonplace and cosmic dimensions of human experience, continue to be read and produced around the world. His Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of seven novels, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, as did two of his four full-length dramas, Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1943). Wilder's The Matchmaker was adapted as the musical Hello, Dolly!. He also enjoyed enormous success with many other forms of the written and spoken word, among them teaching, acting, the opera, and films. (His screenplay for Hitchcock's Shadow of Doubt  remains a classic psycho-thriller to this day.) Wilder's many honors include the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Book Committee's Medal for Literature.
Jackson R. Bryer is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland. He is the coeditor of Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill and of Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Robin G. Wilder is an independent scholar with a Ph.D. in history who specializes in archival research. She is the niece by marriage of Thornton Wilder and knew him well.
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The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder
By Thornton Wilder
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897. His twin brother died at birth, and, according to family lore, Wilder himself was so frail that he was carried around on a pillow for the first months of his life. At the time of Wilder's birth, his father, Amos Parker Wilder, was editor and part owner of the Wisconsin State Journal. By 1901, when Thornton was four years old, his father had acquired a controlling interest in the paper and was well-known in Wisconsin political circles.
Because his parents exerted an unusually strong influence on their children, a brief account of their backgrounds is necessary here. Amos Parker Wilder was born in Maine in 1862, grew up in the state capital of Augusta, and graduated from Yale College, where he was a scholar, singer, orator, editor of one of Yale's literary magazines, the Courant, and a member of a senior secret society. After graduating in 1884, he taught for two years and then became a journalist, working first as a reporter in Philadelphia. He returned to New Haven to edit the New Haven Palladium, while also working on a doctorate at Yale. He wrote his dissertation on the difficulties and possible solutions of governing American cities, and received his Ph.D. in 1892.When he lost his editorship at the Palladium for attacking political figures who had a financial interest in that newspaper, he left New Haven for a position as an editorial writer on a New York City paper. In 1894, he traveled to the Midwest, intent on finding a newspaper to invest in and work on. He realized his ambition in the university town of Madison, Wisconsin, where, with his savings augmented by loans from friends, he bought a one-quarter interest in the Wisconsin State Journal.
Before the year was out, another important change occurred in his life: twenty-one-year-old Isabella Thornton Niven of Dobbs Ferry, New York, accepted his proposal of marriage, and on December 3, 1894, they married and returned to Madison to live. Isabella was the daughter of the minister of the Presbyterian church in Dobbs Ferry. Her maternal grandfather was Arthur Tappan, cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, who, with his brother Lewis, did much to support the antislavery movement. Both men were also prominent in backing the Oberlin Collegiate Institution and probably ensured its survival as Oberlin College. Isabella was a graduate of the Misses Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, where she published poems in the school paper and studied languages, piano, art, and literature. Before her marriage, she attended concerts, the theater, and lectures in New York City and was attuned to the cultural offerings of the day.
The literary interests of Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Niven Wilder were reflected in their habit of regularly reading aloud classics and Scripture during the childhood of the four children who were born during the next five years: Amos Niven (September 18, 1895), Thornton Niven (April 17, 1897), Charlotte Elizabeth (August 28, 1898), and Isabel (January 13, 1900). Amos Parker Wilder, an active Congregational layman, was also very concerned with his family's religious life and with the cause of temperance.
During the first years of their marriage, because of the loans on the newspaper that Amos Wilder had to repay, money was scarce. Nonetheless, in 1901, they managed to build a cottage on the shores of Lake Mendota in Maple Bluff, just outside the city of Madison, where the family lived each year from early spring until late fall, and Isabella Wilder was able to take a European trip with Madison friends. Amos Parker Wilder almost certainly supplemented his income with lectures on municipal government at the University of Wisconsin, and, as he was becoming a well-known speaker, with engagements on similar subjects around the state. His eloquence was often grounded in his moral certainties, which sometimes strained relationships with political allies. In 1903, this occurred when he changed his paper's editorial policy from support for the "progressive" wing of the Wisconsin Republican party to the more conservative "stalwarts." Around this time, he began to explore professional opportunities outside the newspaper business.
In 1906, he sought a position in the consular service, and with the support of Yale friends within the Republican party, he received an appointment as U.S. consul general in Hong Kong. After twelve years of residence in Madison, the Wilder family sailed for Hong Kong from San Francisco only days before the earthquake there. They arrived in Hong Kong on May 7, 1906, shortly after Thornton's ninth birthday. Life in Hong Kong offered a complete change from the neighborliness of Madison and the activities associated with its homes, shops, and public schools.
Just five months after their arrival in China, the new consul general and his wife decided that Hong Kong was not a good place to rear and educate their children. On October 30, 1906, Isabella Niven Wilder and the four children left Hong Kong, returned to San Francisco, and settled in Berkeley, California, another university town, where the children were enrolled in the local public schools. Their father sent money to support them, supervised their upbringing long-distance through detailed instructions in letters, and saw them on home leaves. Their mother supervised their daily lives and kept Papa informed of their progress; his children wrote to him regularly about their activities and thoughts.
In early spring 1909, Consul General Wilder was promoted and transferred from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Before taking up his new post on June 1, 1909, he paid a short visit to his family in Berkeley. In the fall, he made another trip from Shanghai to California, with a plan for reuniting his family in Shanghai, because he believed it would be a better situation for them than Hong Kong had been. The family reunion did not take place until more than a year later, for Janet Frances, the fifth and final Wilder sibling, was born on June 3, 1910.
Excerpted from The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder by Thornton Wilder Copyright © 2008 by Thornton Wilder. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Editors' Note xiii
Foreward Scott Donaldson xxi
Part 1 Beginning: 1909-1920 1
Part 2 Bridges: 1920-1929 125
Part 3 Rôles: 1929-1939 229
Part 4 War and After: 1939-1949 355
Part 5 Honors: 1950-1960 479
Part 6 Journeys: 1961-1975 581