Skip links

“A Biographical Sketch of a Great American Playwright and Novelist, a Writer for Me of All Time and for Generations, Thornton Wilder”

Today I will write and speak of one of the greatest of American writers, novelists and playwrights, Thornton Wilder, and will report on his life and most excellent and outstanding literary works. In these pages I have spoken with great pleasure of some of my favorite English and American prose writers, poets and novelists whom I love and treasure. I have written of the life and works of such poets as T.S. Eliot, Shelley, Keats, and Byron; and such novelists as E.M. Forster, Kipling, Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Conrad, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck and many others. None of these great world-thought and literature giants are far from my thoughts and bedside and all are my daily companions and will never be far from me to the very end and conclusion of my life.

Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, the son of a newspaper editor and later diplomat. He had five brothers and sisters. The Wilder family spent part of their childhood in China where his father was stationed as US Consul General. His elder brother Amos became a professor at Harvard Divinity School and was a noted poet, his sister Isabel was an accomplished writer, and his two other sisters were a poet and a zoologist.

He began writing plays while attending the Thatcher School in California where the family lived for a time. In China he attended the English China Inland Mission Chefoo School at Yantai but returned to California in 1912 and graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915. He served a three-month enlistment in the army in World War I. He attended Oberlin College before earning his BA in 1920 from Yale University, and a Master of Arts degree in French literature from Princeton University in 1926. After graduating he went to Italy as part of an eight-month residency at The American Academy in Rome and then taught French at the Lawrenceville School beginning in 1921. He published his first novel, The Cabala, in 1926 and in 1927 his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey brought him commercial success and his first Pulitzer Prize in 1928. He then resigned from the Lawrenceville School in 1928 and from 1930 to 1937 he taught at the University of Chicago. In Chicago he became famous as a lecturer and was featured on the celebrity pages. In 1938 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play “Our Town” and again in 1943 for his play “The Skin of Our Teeth.” He served in World War II in the US Army Air Force until 1945 and then served for a year as a visiting professor at Harvard University.

He continued to write all his life but considered himself a teacher first and writer second. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and the National Book Award for his novel The Eighth Day. Being proficient in four languages, he translated plays and wrote libretti to two operas.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey tells the story of several unrelated people who happen to be on a bridge in Peru when it collapses, killing three of them. The book explores the question of why unfortunate events occur to people who seem innocent and undeserving of such a fate. It won won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928.

Wilder wrote “Our Town,” a very popular play and later a film set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. “Our Town” employs a narrator, which the play calls the stage manager. The play follows the daily lives of the Gibbs and Webb families as well as other inhabitants of the town. The play depicts the simple and meaningful lives of all people in the world. The play won the Pulitzer prize in 1938. His play “The Skin of Our Teeth” opened in New York in 1942 and its themes are the timeless human condition and history, literature, philosophy and religion as the basis of American culture. It dramatizes the travails of the Antrobus family, allegorizing the alternate history of mankind. In 1962 and 1963 he lived twenty months in the town of Douglas, Arizona apart from family and friends. There he started his longest novel, The Eighth Day, which went on to win the National Book Award. His last novel, Theophilus North, was published in 1973. The Library of America published all his novels and six early short stories.

Wilder may have had homosexual leanings and had a wide circle of friends, including many writers. In 1930 he built a house for his family in Hamden, Conn. and died in 1975 in that house of heart failure.

My dear friends, I have always enjoyed the novels and plays of Mr. Wilder, in particular his play, “Our Town,” which I had the privilege and honor of seeing performed and was greatly and duly impressed. The same can be said of his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which when I took it up I could not stop reading. He is one of our greats and an outstanding literary figure in all forms he undertook to write, both plays and novels. I will never forget him and will always return to him and his work with pleasure and benefit. I urge you all to go to your local library, take out his work, and go to your bookstores and purchase his work and, if not available, go to Amazon and Better World Books and buy his works. You, both children and adults, will not regret the effort and in reading will be raised up immeasurably in thought and consciousness, both mind and spirit.

Much of the material in this essay come from the Wikipedia essay on Wilder and his work.