Born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1897, Thornton was the second son in the prolific Wilder family. From his literary works as well as his extensive correspondences, it is evident that Thornton’s family was of the utmost significance to him, especially his father.
Amos Parker Wilder, a newspaper editor and US diplomat, was a deeply religious, rigidly strict man, severely critical of his children, particularly Thornton. A dominating presence in Thornton’s life, Amos sent the “effeminate” Thornton to work manual labor on a farm during the summers, which Thornton dutifully did, even into his twenties. Thornton’s strained relationship with his father is evident in much of his writing. George’s scenes with his father in Our Town, the plotline of a son killing his father in his novel, The Eighth Day, and especially the showdown between Mr. Antrobus and his son Henry in The Skin of Our Teeth all paint a vivid portrait of Thornton, working through a fraught relationship with his father, always attempting to distance himself from that over-critical, misunderstanding presence in his life.
But where his father was critical, his mother, a poet, was understanding. His sister Isabel wrote that both parents “recognized Thornton’s talents, but to him they had to be protected; to our mother, they had to be fed.” Wilder began writing plays as a teenager at The Thatcher School, where he never fit in. A classmate of his said about Thornton, “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.”
A self-proclaimed teacher first, writer second, Wilder taught at several universities, including University of Chicago, where he taught Classics in Translation and Composition. Between stints at universities, Wilder spent much of his time in Europe, associating with many famous writers, including Ernest Hemingway and Glenway Wescott. It was during one of these stretches abroad that Wilder fell in love, but was rejected. He wrote a lot about this experience, and while much of it was shrouded in vague ambiguities, it was clear that he’d fallen in love with another man. Thornton’s homosexuality was always kept a secret, and he never publicly acknowledged it. The only outside account we have concerning Thornton’s sexuality is from a former lover, Samuel Steward, introduced to Wilder by mutual friend Gertrude Stein. It appears Thornton’s father’s Puritan mentality seeped into young Thornton’s sex life, as Steward said in an interview in 1993 that Thornton seemed “afraid of sex.” Wilder never married, keeping his sexuality firmly out of the public sphere.
In 1936, Wilder resigned from the University of Chicago to pursue playwriting full time. Wilder completed his first theatrical masterpiece, Our Town in 1938, which made him the only writer ever to win the Pulitzer for both drama and fiction. Our Town propelled Wilder to the forefront of American theater and transformed him into a celebrity of sorts, now corresponding with what seems like every significant writer or artist of the time (these correspondences can be found in his “Selected Letters”).
In 1942, Wilder’s next epic theatrical classic, The Skin of Our Teeth, opened, winning Wilder his third Pulitzer prize. When the play hit Broadway, Wilder couldn’t even attend opening night, as he was fighting in World War II. An accomplished military man, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Force, receiving a Bronze Star.
After The Skin of Our Teeth’s massive success, the rest of Wilder’s career was spent alternating between writing fiction and drama (even a screenplay collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock,Shadow of a Doubt). In 1948, he released The Ides of March, a novel comparing Benito Mussolini to Julius Caesar. Seven years later, he published The Matchmaker, a play which inspired the popular musical, Hello, Dolly! His second-to-last novel, The Eighth Day (1967), is a sprawling, midwestern family epic.
From the 1950s to the end of his life in 1975, Wilder traveled constantly, never staying in one place for too long, perpetually captivated by two giant research projects--dating the numerous plays of Spanish playwright Lope de Vega and decoding James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake--both of which he eventually recognized as an unhealthy obsessions and forced himself to abandon.
For nearly fifty years, Wilder kept a home for his family in Hamden, Connecticut where his sister Isabel lived. Though Thornton never spent very much time there, he continued to return to that house, until he died there in his sleep at the age of 78.
Wilder’s impact on American drama and fiction is mammoth. His large body of work focusing on the universality of human experience has stood the test of time and remains as compelling now as they were the day they were written.
He attended Oberlin College, and then Yale, his father’s alma mater, but not without taking an eight month break to serve in World War I, in the Coast Artillery Corps. After his undergraduate career, he took a year to study abroad in Rome, focusing on archaeology and Italian. Wilder was a talented linguist, fluent in many languages, and even translated many works of Sartre, Ibsen, and Obey. After he received his graduate degree in French Literature from Princeton in 1926,
Thornton burst onto the national literary scene in 1928 with his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, selling 200,000 copies and delivering Wilder his first Pulitzer Prize. This novel focused on the stories of 5 individuals, who die in the collapse of a Peruvian bridge and made clear that Wilder had an intuition for expressing the universality of human experience through struggle or tragedy. The novel received a second wind of popularity after British Prime Minister Tony Blair quoted it in response to the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Remy Bumppo Field Guide @ 2018