Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder by Penelope Niven

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Authors: Penelope Niven
    W henever I’m in a theater group and the discussion turns to the essential American playwrights—the ones whose accomplishments define our culture—I’m always startled and confused that Thornton Wilder’s name comes to the fore so infrequently.
    Eugene O’Neill is there, of course, in spite of his frequent tin ear. Long Day’s Journey into Night is a great play, perhaps the only one of his in which everything comes together fully—the mind and the ear—in a way the other best ones only occasionally approach.
    Tennessee Williams is there, naturally, for the poetry of his language, the intensity of his dramatic structure, and the three-dimensionality of his characterizations.
    Arthur Miller is included as well, as much as anything for the sociological and political importance of his dramatic concerns.
    But why is Thornton Wilder so infrequently placed up there where he belongs?
    If I were asked to name what I consider to be the finest serious American play, I would immediately say Our Town —not for its giant Americanness but because it is a superbly written, gloriously observed, tough, and breathtaking statement of what it is to be alive, the wonder and hopeless loss of the space between birth and the grave.
    While I prefer The Skin of Our Teeth —another first-rate play—to most of Wilder’s novels, he was no slouch there either.
    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 to begin to understand with what intellectual and creative sourcings he was able to write so persuasively about things that greatly matter.
    This book is a splendid and long-needed work.
    A side note: I was a twenty-two-year-old very mediocre poet when I met Thornton Wilder at the MacDowell Colony. I forced my poetry on him. He read it and took me to a small lake where he plied me with bourbon and told me to stop writing poetry, that it was no good. He suggested perhaps I start writing plays instead.
    I wonder if he knew that one day I’d write forewords as well.
    Edward Albee
    New York City, 2011

    The history of a writer is his search for his own subject, his myth-theme, hidden from him, but prepared for him in every hour of his life, his Gulliver’s Travels, his Robinson Crusoe.
    â€œJames Joyce, 1882–1941”
    W hen he was in his seventies, Thornton Niven Wilder wrote a story about an American teenager running alone through the countryside near the school in Chefoo, China, where he had been sent to live and study. The boy had sought special permission to run long distances by himself outside the China Inland Mission School boundaries, near the Bohai Sea. Awkward at the competitive team sports the other boys enjoyed, he was an outsider, a misfit in a crowd. He was most at home in books and his imagination, and these solitary runs freed him to think and to daydream.
    This unfinished, unpublished self-portrait was a fusion of memory and imagination, fiction and fact. “Already at that age I had the notion I would be a writer,” Wilder reflected many years later, after he had written books and plays that resonated for countless people in the United States and around the world. 1
    His history as a writer spans three-quarters of the twentieth century, and he left behind a tantalizing trail of evidence—thousands of letters, journal entries, manuscript drafts, and documents that reveal his evolution as a person and an artist. “Art is confession; art is the secret told . . . ,” he said when he was thirty-one and suddenly famous around the world as a novelist. “But art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time. And the secret is nothing more than the whole drama of the inner

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