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The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder

The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder

by Thornton Wilder

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The author of such classics as Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder was a born storyteller and dramatist—rare talents on glorious display in this volume of more than three hundred letters he penned to a vast array of famous friends and beloved relatives. Through Wilder's correspondence, readers can eavesdrop on his


The author of such classics as Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder was a born storyteller and dramatist—rare talents on glorious display in this volume of more than three hundred letters he penned to a vast array of famous friends and beloved relatives. Through Wilder's correspondence, readers can eavesdrop on his conversations with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Noël Coward, Gene Tunney, Laurence Olivier, Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith, Leonard Bernstein, Edward Albee, and Mia Farrow. Equally absorbing are Wilder's intimate letters to his family.

Wilder tells of roller-skating with Walt Disney, remembers an inaugural reception for FDR at the White House, describes his life as a soldier in two World Wars, and recalls dining out with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. In these pages, Thornton Wilder speaks for himself in his own unique, enduring voice—informing, encouraging, instructing, and entertaining with his characteristic wit, heart, and exuberance.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Wilder and Bryer provide considerable insight into a protean American novelist and playwright. As a man of the theater, Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) is not typically counted among experimentalists. Yet Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth are works of high modernism. This essential gathering of letters, carefully edited and abundantly annotated by independent historian Wilder (the writer's niece by marriage) and Bryer (editor of Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill), indicates a man of sophistication, immense energy yet with a curious detachment. He was at home with classical, Far Eastern and 20th-century literature as well as popular culture. In this generous selection, Wilder's abiding friendships from the worlds of literature and the arts count, among many others, Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Max Reinhardt, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and Mia Farrow. Like the best collections of correspondence in the hands of sensitive editors, this one peels away the quotidian to reveal the underlying personality of its subject. 38 b&w photos. (Oct. 7)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Pulitzer Prize winner Wilder (Our Town; The Bridge of San Luis Rey) was not only one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century but also an avid letter writer. Described as a man who knew everyone, Wilder corresponded with nearly all the important literary and artistic figures of his day-Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Aaron Copeland, and Laurence Olivier, to name a few. Robin Wilder, the author's niece and an archival scholar, and Bryer (English, emeritus, Univ. of Maryland) have created the first comprehensive collection of Wilder's correspondence, selecting over 300 personal letters from the nearly 7000 written throughout his life. This epistolary output is divided into six chapters, each preceded by a short (somewhat dry) biography of Wilder for that time period. Through Wilder's letters, readers may meet Wilder's unusual family and know the thoughts and impressions he shared with close friends. Some letters also advise aspiring writers, including Noël Coward and Edward Albee. Students and devotees of Wilder will find this a useful companion to his literary work.
—Nedra Crowe-Evers

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The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder

By Thornton Wilder
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008

Thornton Wilder
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060765071

Chapter One

Beginnings: 1909-1920

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.


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Meet 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 [1943] 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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