"Thornton 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." —James Earl Jones, actor
"Comprehensive and wisely fashioned….This book is a splendid and long needed work."—Edward Albee, playwright
Thornton Wilder—three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, creator of such enduring stage works as Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and beloved novels like Bridge of San Luis Ray and Theophilus North—was much more than a pivotal figure in twentieth century American theater and literature. He was a world-traveler, a student, a teacher, a soldier, an actor, a son, a brother, and a complex, intensely private man who kept his personal life a secret. In Thornton Wilder: A Life, author Penelope Niven pulls back the curtain to present a fascinating, three-dimensional portrait one of America's greatest playwrights, novelists, and literary icons.
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About 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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By Penelope Niven
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2012 Penelope Niven
All rights reserved.
"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."
Excerpted from Thorton Wilder by Penelope Niven. Copyright © 2012 by Penelope Niven. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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Table of Contents
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
Guide to Notes and Sources 705
What People are Saying About This
“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.”
“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.”