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Thornton Wilder | Biography

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Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897. His early life was shaped by his parents' high expectations and by extensive travel. Wilder was the second of five children in an accomplished family. He spent much of his youth in Hong Kong and Shanghai, where his father was the Consul General of the United States. During the family's periods in the United States, Wilder attended California public schools.

Wilder's entire family was high-achieving. His mother was the first woman elected to public office in Hamden, Connecticut. His older brother was a nationally ranked tennis player and a New Testament scholar; his oldest sister was an English professor and award-winning poet; his middle sister wrote three novels and was the curator of Yale University's theater archive; and his youngest sister was a biology professor and an environmentalist.

Wilder's domineering father sent Thornton to work on farms in the summer, hoping that this would rid the boy of "his peculiar gait and certain effeminate ways." Mr. Wilder also chose the five children's colleges, deciding that Oberlin in Ohio would best suit Thornton—who disagreed and transferred to Yale. After graduating from Yale in 1920, Wilder spent a year at the American Academy in Rome. He returned to the United States to teach French at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. Next he went to Princeton for graduate studies in French. His first novel, The Cabala, was published in 1926, the same year that Wilder obtained a master's degree—and the same year his first play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, was produced in New York City.

Wilder was as proficient as he was talented. He was teaching French in Chicago when his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), won him the first of three Pulitzer Prizes. He wrote two more novels and two more plays before Our Town first appeared on Broadway in 1938. (The Merchant of Yonkers, also written by Wilder, appeared on Broadway in the same year. Although it was not a success, Wilder later refashioned it into The Matchmaker, a hit play on which the musical Hello, Dolly! was based.) In a newspaper interview, Wilder explained that Our Town was "an attempt at complete immersion into everything about a New Hampshire village which, I hope, is gradually felt by the audience to be an allegorical representation of all life."

In its pre-Broadway performances, Our Town had not been a hit. When it opened in Boston, Wilder wrote, the play "had such bad reviews that a second week was canceled, and the manager engaged a New York Theater which was free for only a week and a half." The wife of the Governor of Massachusetts telephoned the theater to say that the last act was "too upsetting." Once on Broadway, however, Our Town was a critical and popular success, running for 366 performances and earning Wilder a second Pulitzer. After the opening night performance, theater reviewer Alexander Woollcott was seen sitting on a curb and weeping. Wilder thus became the only American author to win the prize for both a novel and a play.

Three years later, in 1942, Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth brought him a third Pulitzer. The same year saw the release of the Alfred Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder had written the screenplay. By then the United States had entered World War II, and Wilder spent 1942–45 in the Army Air Force Intelligence. After the war, he immediately returned to writing. In 1948 his novel The Ides of March was a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection; The Victors, his translation of a play by French philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre, opened off-Broadway.

Wilder spent the academic year of 1950-51 at Harvard University, where he had been appointed to the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry. Previous Norton Professors had included Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. In his role as Norton Professor, Wilder delivered a series of lectures titled "The American Characteristics of Classical American Literature." After his time at Harvard, Wilder's literary productivity declined—although his output might have been considered prodigious in another writer, especially because Hello, Dolly! had made him rich enough that he no longer needed to work for a living. His historical novel The Ides of March, about Julius Caesar, was published in 1948, and his 1967 novel The Eighth Day won a National Book Award.

In 1965 Wilder was awarded the first National Medal of Literature. He died a decade later on December 7, 1975, at his home in Hamden, Connecticut.

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