Thornton Wilder: A Life
by Penelope Niven
Harper, 832 pp., $39.99
Thornton Niven Wilder, author of seven novels and nine plays, was born in 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin, the grandson of a Presbyterian clergyman, and the son of a government diplomat who later became a newspaper editor. Best known for Our Town, a homespun story of domestic life in a small New England village, he has always been considered a quintessential middle-American writer.
But as Penelope Niven’s painstaking new biography, Thornton Wilder: A Life, helps make clear, Wilder, though fiercely loyal to his country, his family, and his wide circle of American friends, was a man with powerful literary ambitions who felt more affinity with European classics and the contemporary avant-garde than with anything in the native canon. Among his primary literary and philosophical influences were not Emerson, Longfellow, and Frost, as one might expect of such an intrinsically New England figure, but Kierkegaard, Nietszche, Kafka, Proust, and Joyce; and he was also deeply indebted to the drama of the Greeks and the Spanish Golden Age (Wilder once devoted years of precious writing time, ten hours a day, to dating the five hundred plays of Lope de Vega).
He was a small-town boy who traveled widely in the world after spending his early years in China. In his trips abroad he became friendly with some of the leading international figures of the period, including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Freud, Mann, Picasso, Ezra Pound, Edmund Wilson, and Gertrude Stein. At the same time, he was cultivating friendships with a host of American luminaries from Alexander Woollcott to Henry Luce, from Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago (where he taught), to the heavyweight champion of the world, Gene Tunney. (He also became friendly with the eighteen-year-old Orson Welles, who always claimed that Wilder had discovered him.)
These relationships and influences are reflected in the relatively radical forms of his books and plays. He experimented for a while with Dada and fell under the spell of existentialism. The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) is so heavily indebted to Finnegans Wake that the Joyce scholars Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, authors of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, once charged him, in a two-part article in The Saturday Review of Literature, with plagiarism. Our Town (1938), with its bare stage and direct address, its expository Stage Manager, and its experimentation with theatrical space and time, owes a significant debt to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. The Merchant of Yonkers (1938; an adaptation that mutated first into The Matchmaker (1955)and later into the spectacularly successful musical Hello, Dolly!) is based on a nineteenth-century Austrian farce by Johann Nestroy with additional scenes from Molière. Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) was inspired by the nineteenth-century French playwright and short-story writer Prosper Merimée. His novel The Woman of Andros (1930) and his trilogy The Alcestiad (1955 …