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Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder as Mr. Antrobus
in The Skin of Our Teeth,
photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 18 August 1948
Born Thornton Niven Wilder
17 April 1897(1897-04-17)
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Died 7 December 1975 (aged 78)
Hamden, Connecticut, USA
Occupation Playwright, novelist
Notable award(s) Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (1927), Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1938, 1942), National Book Award for Fiction (1968)
Partner(s) Samuel Steward

Thornton Niven Wilder (April 17, 1897 – December 7, 1975) was an American playwright and novelist. He received three Pulitzer Prizes, one for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and two for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and a National Book Award for his novel The Eighth Day.

Contents

Biography

Early years

Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and was the son of Amos Parker Wilder, a U.S. diplomat, and Isabella Niven Wilder. All of the Wilder children spent part of their childhood in China due to their father's work.

Thornton Wilder's older brother, Amos Niven Wilder, was Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, a noted poet, and foundational to the development of the field theopoetics. Amos was also a nationally-ranked tennis player who competed at the Wimbledon tennis championships in 1922. His youngest sister, Isabel Wilder, was an accomplished writer. Both of his other sisters, Charlotte Wilder (a noted poet) and Janet Wilder Dakin (a zoologist), attended Mount Holyoke College and were excellent students. Additionally, Wilder had a sister and a twin brother, who died at birth.

Education

Wilder began writing plays while at The Thacher School in Ojai, California, where he did not fit in and was teased by classmates as overly intellectual. According to a classmate, “We left him alone, just left him alone. And he would retire at the library, his hideaway, learning to distance himself from humiliation and indifference.” His family lived for a time in China, where his sister Janet was born in 1910. He attended the English China Inland Mission Chefoo School at Yantai but returned with his mother and siblings to California in 1912 because of the unstable political conditions in China at the time. Thornton also attended Creekside Middle School in Berkeley, and graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915. Wilder also studied law for two years before dropping out of Purdue University, Indianapolis.

After serving in the United States Coast Guard during World War I, he attended Oberlin College before earning his B.A. at Yale University in 1920, where he refined his writing skills as a member of the Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity, a literary society. He earned his M.A. in French from Princeton University in 1926.

Career

After graduating, Wilder studied in Rome and then taught French at Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. In 1926 Wilder's first novel, The Cabala, was published. In 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey brought him commercial success and his first Pulitzer Prize in 1928. He resigned from Lawrenceville School in 1928. From 1930 to 1937 he taught at the University of Chicago. In 1938 he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play Our Town and he won the prize again in 1942 for his play The Skin of Our Teeth. World War II saw him rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Force Intelligence, first in Africa, then in Italy until 1945. He received several awards. He went on to be a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii and to teach poetry at Harvard, where he served for a year as the Charles Eliot Norton professor. Though he considered himself a teacher first and a writer second, he continued to write all his life, receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1957 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In 1967 he won the National Book Award for his novel The Eighth Day.

Wilder translated plays by André Obey and Jean-Paul Sartre, and wrote the libretti to two operas, Paul Hindemith's The Long Christmas Dinner and Louise Talma's The Alcestiad, based on his own play. Also, Alfred Hitchcock, whom he admired, asked him to write the screenplay to his thriller, Shadow of a Doubt.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) tells the story of several unrelated people who happen to be on a bridge in Peru when it collapses, killing them. Philosophically, the book explores the problem of evil, or the question, of why unfortunate events occur to people who seem "innocent" or "undeserving". It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, and in 1998 it was selected by the editorial board of the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century. The book was quoted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the memorial service for victims of the September 11 attacks in 2001.[1] Since then its popularity has grown enormously. The book is the progenitor of the modern disaster epic in literature and film-making, where a single disaster intertwines the victims, whose lives are then explored by means of flashbacks to events before the disaster.

Wilder was the author of Our Town, a popular play (and later film) set in fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. It was inspired by his friend Gertrude Stein's novel The Making of Americans, and many elements of Stein's deconstructive style can be found throughout the work. Wilder suffered from severe writer's block while writing the final act. Our Town employs a choric narrator called the "Stage Manager" and a minimalist set to underscore the human experience. Wilder himself played the Stage Manager on Broadway for two weeks and later in summer stock productions. Following the daily lives of the Gibbs and Webb families, as well as the other inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, Wilder illustrates the importance of the universality of the simple, yet meaningful lives of all people in the world in order to demonstrate the value of appreciating life. The play won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize.

In 1938, Max Reinhardt directed a Broadway production of The Merchant of Yonkers, which Wilder had adapted from Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy's Einen Jux will er sich machen (1842). It was a failure, closing after just 39 performances.

His play The Skin of Our Teeth opened in New York on November 18, 1942 with Fredric March and Tallulah Bankhead in the lead roles. Again, the themes are familiar—the timeless human condition; history as progressive, cyclical, or entropic; literature, philosophy, and religion as the touchstones of civilization. Three acts dramatize the travails of the Antrobus family, allegorizing the alternate history of mankind. It was claimed by Joseph Campbell and Robert Morton Robinson, authors of A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake, that much of the play was the result of unacknowledged borrowing from Joyce's last work.[2]

In his novel, The Ides of March (1948), dedicated to an anti-fascist Italian writer, Lauro de Bosis, he reflected on parallels between Benito Mussolini and Caesar. He had met Jean-Paul Sartre on a U.S. lecture tour after the war, and was under the influence of existentialism, rejecting its atheist implications.[3]

In 1955, Tyrone Guthrie encouraged Wilder to rework The Merchant of Yonkers into The Matchmaker. This time the play enjoyed a healthy Broadway run of 486 performances with Ruth Gordon in the title role, winning a Tony Award for Guthrie, its director. It later became the basis for the hit 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!, with a book by Michael Stewart and score by Jerry Herman.

In 1962, he lived temporarily in the small town of Douglas, AZ where he started to pen his longest novel The Eighth Day. The book went on to win the National Book Award.[4]

His last novel, Theophilus North, was published in 1973. In 2009, the Library of America republished the first five novels, six early stories, and four essays on fiction in one volume.[5] Later novels are to be in a forthcoming volume.

Personal life

Although Wilder never discussed being gay publicly or in his writings, his close friend Samuel Steward is generally acknowledged to have been a lover. Wilder was introduced to Steward by Gertrude Stein, who at the time regularly corresponded with the both of them. The third act of Our Town was famously drafted during a brief affair with Steward in Zurich on their first meeting.[6]

Wilder had a wide circle of friends and enjoyed mingling with other famous people, including Ernest Hemingway, Russel Wright, Willa Cather, and Montgomery Clift. On December 7, 1975 he died in Hamden, Connecticut, where he lived for many years with his sister, Isabel. He was interred at Hamden's Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Bibliography

Plays

  • The Trumpet Shall Sound (1926)
  • An Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays (1928)
  • The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act (1931):
    • The Long Christmas Dinner
    • Queens of France
    • Pullman Car Hiawatha
    • Love and How to Cure It
    • Such Things Only Happen in Books
    • The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden
  • Our Town (1938) – Pulitzer Prize
  • The Merchant of Yonkers (1938)
  • The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) – Pulitzer Prize
  • The Matchmaker (1954) (revised from The Merchant of Yonkers)
  • The Alcestiad: Or, A Life In The Sun (1955)
  • Childhood (1960)
  • Infancy (1960)
  • Plays for Bleecker Street (1962)
  • The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder Volume I (1997):
    • The Long Christmas Dinner
    • Queens of France
    • Pullman Car Hiawatha
    • Love and How to Cure It
    • Such Things Only Happen in Books
    • The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden
    • The Drunken Sisters
    • Bernice
    • The Wreck on the Five-Twenty-Five
    • A Ringing of Doorbells
    • In Shakespeare and the Bible
    • Someone from Assisi
    • Cement Hands
    • Infancy
    • Childhood
    • Youth
    • The Rivers Under the Earth

Novels

Collections

  • Wilder, Thornton; McClatchy, J. D., ed. (2007). Thornton Wilder, Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. Library of America. vol. 172. New York: Library of America. ISBN 9781598530032. 
  • Wilder, Thornton; McClatchy, J. D., ed. (2009). Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948. Library of America. vol. 194. New York: Library of America. ISBN 9781598530452. 

References

  1. ^ "Text of Tony Blair's reading in New York". New York: The Guardian. 2001-09-21. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/sep/21/september11.usa11. Retrieved 2009-06-03. 
  2. ^ Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson published a pair of reviews-cum-denunciations, both entitled "The Skin of Whose Teeth?" in The Saturday Review immediately after the play's debut; these created a huge uproar at the time. For the texts of these articles and a discussion of the fallout to the controversy, see Joseph Campbell, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, New World Library, 2004, pp. 257–266 and Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss, New World Library, 2005, pp. 121–123.
  3. ^ Malcolm Goldstein. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 19-20.
  4. ^ Template:Cite periodical
  5. ^ Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948. ISBN 978-1-59853-045-2. http://www.loa.org/volume.jsp?RequestID=306. 
  6. ^ Steward, Samuel; Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas (1977). Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas. Houghton Mifflin. p. 32. ISBN 0395253403. 

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for.

Thornton Niven Wilder (1897-04-171975-12-07) was an American author and playwright.

Contents

Sourced

  • Literature is the orchestration of platitudes.
    • TIME magazine (12 January 1953)
  • I would love to be the poet laureate of Coney Island.
    • New York Journal-American (11 November 1955)
  • Many plays — certainly mine — are like blank checks. The actors and directors put their own signatures on them.
    • The New York Mirror (13 July 1956)
  • Love is an energy which exists of itself. It is its own value.
    • TIME magazine (3 February 1958)
  • Many who have spent a lifetime in it can tell us less of love than the child that lost a dog yesterday.
    • As quoted in "The Notation of the Heart" by Edmund Fuller, in The American Scholar Reader (1960) edited by Hiram Hayden and Betsy Saunders.
  • Love, though it expends itself in generosity and thoughtfulness, though it gives birth to visions and to great poetry, remains among the sharpest expressions of self-interest. Not until it has passed through a long servitude, through its own self-hatred, through mockery, through great doubts, can it take its place among the loyalties.
    • As quoted in "The Notation of the Heart" by Edmund Fuller, in The American Scholar Reader (1960) edited by Hiram Hayden and Betsy Saunders.
  • I am not interested in the ephemeral — such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions.
    • The New York Times (6 November 1961)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

  • Like all the rich he could not bring himself to believe that the poor (look at their houses, look at their clothes!) could really suffer. Like all the cultivated he believed that only the widely read could be said to know that they were unhappy.
  • Soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
  • Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world.

Our Town (1938)

  • People are meant to go through life two by two. 'Tain't natural to be lonesome.
    • "Mrs. Gibbs"
  • A man looks pretty small at a wedding, George. All those good women standing shoulder to shoulder, making sure that the knot's tied in a mighty public way.
    • "Mr. Webb"
  • Wherever you come near the human race there's layers and layers of nonsense.
    • "Stage Manager"
  • That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those... of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know — that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.
    • "Simon Stimson"
  • I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by Grover's Corners...Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking...and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths...and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. ...Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? — Every, every minute? ...I'm ready to go back...I should have listened to you. That's all human beings are! Just blind people.
    • "Emily Webb"

The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)

  • I've never forgotten for long at a time that living is struggle. I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for — whether it's a field, or a home, or a country.
    • Antrobus, in Act 3
  • My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate — that's my philosophy.
    • Sabiba, Act One

The Matchmaker (1954)

Later adapted into the musical Hello, Dolly
  • Marriage is a bribe to make a housekeeper think she's a householder.
    • Vandergelder, in Act 1
  • Never support two weaknesses at the same time. It's your combination sinners — your lecherous liars and your miserly drunkards — who dishonor the vices and bring them into bad repute.
    • Malachi, in Act 3
  • Nurse one vice in your bosom. Give it the attention it deserves and let your virtues spring up modestly around it. Then you'll have the miser who's no liar; and the drunkard who's the benefactor of the whole city.
    • Malachi, in Act 3
  • The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself, "Oh, now I've got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home." And the sign that something's wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.
    • Barnaby, in Act 4
  • Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow.
  • The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous...and the difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight.
  • Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion.

Writers at Work interview (1958)

Interview for Writers at Work, First series, edited by Malcolm Cowley
  • The future author is one who discovers that language, the exploration and manipulation of the resources of language, will serve him in winning through to his way.
  • I think myself as a fabulist, not a critic. I realize that every writer is necessarily a critic — that is, each sentence is a skeleton accompanied by enormous activity of rejection; and each selection is governed by general principles concerning truth, force, beauty, and so on. But, as I have just suggested, I believe that the practice of writing consists in more and more relegating all that schematic operation to the subconscious. The critic that is in every fabulist is like the iceberg — nine-tenths of him is underwater.
  • The comic spirit is given to us in order that we may analyze, weigh, and clarify things in us which nettle us, or which we are outgrowing, or trying to reshape.
  • Winning children (who appear so guileless) are children who have discovered how effective charm and modesty and a delicately calculated spontaneity are in winning what they want.
  • On the stage it is always now; the personages are standing on that razor edge, between the past and the future, which is the essential character of conscious being; the words are rising to their lips in immediate spontaneity … The theater is supremely fitted to say: "Behold! These things are."
  • Many great writers have been extraordinarily awkward in daily exchange, but the greatest give the impression that their style was nursed by the closest attention to colloquial speech.
  • A dramatist is one who believes that the pure event, an action involving human beings, is more arresting than any comment that can be made upon it.
  • The theatre is supremely fitted to say: "Behold! These things are." Yet most dramatists employ it to say: "This moral truth can be learned from beholding this action."
  • I am convinced that, except in a few extraordinary cases, one form or another of an unhappy childhood is essential to the formation of exceptional gifts.
  • One of the dangers of the American artist is that he finds himself almost exclusively thrown in with persons more or less in the arts. He lives among them, eats among them, quarrels with them, marries them.

The Eighth Day (1967)

  • It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.
  • Those who are silent, self-effacing and attentive become the recipients of confidences.
  • Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous; it is nothing if it is not ridiculous.
  • A sense of humor judges one's actions and the actions of others from a wider reference and a longer view and finds them incongruous. It dampens enthusiasm; it mocks hope; it pardons shortcomings; it consoles failure. It recommends moderation.
  • We do not choose the day of our birth nor may we choose the day of our death, yet choice is the sovereign faculty of the mind.
  • Man is not an end but a beginning. We are at the beginning of the second week. We are children of the eighth day.
  • The planting of trees is the least self-centered of all that we do. It is a purer act of faith than the procreation of children.
  • When God loves a creature he wants the creature to know the highest happiness and the deepest misery … He wants him to know all that being alive can bring. That is his best gift…. There is no happiness save in understanding the whole.

Theophilus North (1973)

  • Imagination draws on memory. Memory and imagination combined can stage a Servants' Ball or even write a book, if that's what they want to do.

External links

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