Thornton Wilder

Wilder, Thornton Niven

Thornton Niven Wilder, 1897–1975, American playwright and novelist, b. Madison, Wis., grad. Yale (B.A., 1920), Princeton (M.A., 1925). He received most of his early education in China, where his father was the U.S. consul-general in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Wilder taught in colleges and universities in the United States and Europe; he was (1950–51) Charles E. Norton professor of poetry at Harvard. A serious and highly original dramatist, Wilder often employed nonrealistic theatrical techniques, i.e., scrambled time sequences, minimal stage sets, characters speaking directly to the audience, and the use of a narrator. His plays, like his novels, usually maintain that true meaning and beauty are found in ordinary experience.

Wilder's first important literary work was the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927; Pulitzer Prize), which probes the lives of victims of a bridge disaster in Peru. Among his other novels are The Cabala (1926); The Woman of Andros (1930); Heaven's My Destination (1934); The Ides of March (1948); The Eighth Day (1967), an old-fashioned saga about two families that is also a mystery story and an exploration of chance and human destiny; and Theophilus North (1973), a comic account of the experiences of an unusual young man living in Newport, R.I., during the summer of 1929.

Although he had written one-act plays, published in The Angel That Troubled the Waters (1928) and The Long Christmas Dinner (1931), Wilder did not achieve critical recognition as a playwright until the production of Our Town (1938; Pulitzer Prize). Perhaps the most familiar and most frequently produced of all American plays, it relates a panoramic story of unexceptional, yet universally recognizable people in Grover's Corners, N.H. The Skin of Our Teeth (1942; Pulitzer Prize) has affinities to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939); it treats the unending human struggle to survive. Wilder's other plays include The Merchant of Yonkers (1938), which was revised as The Matchmaker (1954) and adapted, by others, into the musical Hello Dolly! (1963); and Plays for Bleecker Street (1962), one-act plays from his projected "Seven Ages of Man" and "Seven Deadly Sins" cycles. In 1965, Wilder was awarded the first National Medal for Literature.

See Collected Plays & Writings on Theater (ed. by J. D. McClatchy, 2007); biographies by G. A. Harrison (1983) and P. Niven (2012); R. H. Goldstone, Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait (1975); studies by D. Haberman (1967), M. C. Kuner (1972), R. J. Burbank (1978), A. N. Wilder (1980), D. Castronovo (1986), P. Lifton (1995), M. Blank (1996; as ed., 1999), H. Bloom (2003), and L. Konkle (2006); annotated bibliography by R. H. Goldstone and G. Anderson (1982).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Thornton Wilder: Selected full-text books and articles

The Art of Thornton Wilder By Malcolm Goldstein University of Nebraska Press, 1965
Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition By Lincoln Konkle University of Missouri Press, 2006
The Oxford Anthology of American Literature By William Rose Benet; Norman Holmes Pearson Oxford University Press, 1938
Broadway Scrapbook By Brooks Atkinson Theatre Arts, 1947
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 19 "Our Town"
America's 93 Greatest Living Authors Present This Is My Best: Over 150 Self-Chosen and Complete Masterpieces, Together with Their Reasons for Their Selections By Whit Burnett Dial Press, 1942
Librarian’s tip: Includes "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" by Thornton Wilder
Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism By Glenway Wescott Harper & Row, 1962
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Talks with Thornton Wilder"
American Bypaths: Essays in Honor of E. Hudson Long By Robert G. Collmer; Jack W. Herring Baylor University Press, 1980
Librarian’s tip: "Thornton Wilder: Neglected Novelist?" begins on p. 213
The Simple Stage: Its Origins in the Modern American Theater By Arthur Feinsod Greenwood Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Thornton Wilder and the Playwright's Initiative"
Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition By William W. Demastes University of Alabama Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Thornton Wilder, the Real, and Theatrical Realism"
Cavalcade of the American Novel: From the Birth of the Nation to the Middle of the Twentieth Century By Edward Wagenknecht Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1952
Librarian’s tip: "Romance and Fantasy: Elinor Wylie, Robert Nathan and Thornton Wilder" begins on p. 396
Family, Drama, and American Dreams By Tom Scanlan Greenwood Press, 1978
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "The Family World of American Drama"
Crosscurrents in the Drama: East and West By Stanley Vincent Longman University of Alabama Press, vol.6, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Thornton Wilder's Minimalist Plays: Mingling Eastern and Western Traditions" begins on p. 76
I Hear America ...: Literature in the United States since 1900 By Vernon Loggins Biblo and Tannen, 1967
Librarian’s tip: "Thornton Wilder" begins on p. 97
Freud on Broadway: A History of Psychoanalysis and the American Drama By W. David Sievers Hermitage House, 1955
Librarian’s tip: Chap. X "Freudian Fraternity of the Thirties"
Guide to Great Plays By Joseph T. Shipley Public Affairs Press, 1956
Librarian’s tip: "Our Town" begins on p. 825 and "The Skin of Our Teeth" begins on p. 826
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