November 24, 2012 1:55:08 PM
Our Town is a masterpiece, accessible to high school students but full of engrossing, thoughtful, gentle philosophy and moving didacticism that have given it a worldwide appeal. The author, Thornton Wilder, was far from a one-hit wonder; he won, for instance, two Pulitzer prizes for drama and one for a novel. The author himself is far less well known than, say, Faulkner or Fitzgerald. He was a bundle of contradictions, an intensely private man who befriended hundreds within the arts, a devotee and chronicler of family life who never married, a traveler who was constantly on the move so that he could find his own internal space in which to do his work. There is now a splendid, full biography for anyone who wishes to know this enigmatic but influential author better. Thornton Wilder: A Life (Harper) by Penelope Niven (previously a biographer of Carl Sandburg and Edward Steichen) is a nearly perfect biography of a man who was as strange and as lovable as the books and plays he wrote. Much of the book is in Wilder's own words; he wrote thousands of letters to friends and family, many of which have not been available to Wilder scholars until recently.
Much of Niven's book is devoted to Wilder's family because it was all his life the most important force to drive him. He was born in 1897. His mother's affection to her children was manifested by doting on their accomplishments; his father's, by constant hectoring and control and fretting over finances, traits that continued long after Wilder and his five siblings were well into adulthood. Wilder wrote to his brother about their father that his mother and siblings "have lived in a kind of torment trying to shake off his octopus-personality." His father, a self-righteous puritan who was not skillful in his own finances, fretted over the employment prospects of his children, and doubted that Wilder could ever make a living by writing. When Wilder earned an unexpected fortune with the international success of The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1928, his father might have stopped worrying, but instead started expressing skepticism that his son could handle the money properly. As it turned out, Wilder became the family's financial keeper, generous about sharing his income while conscientious about keeping it up. He felt the difficulties of dealing with his father, but was never embittered by them.
His father's inability to handle his own finances as he served as a diplomat in China meant that the large family was never together for long periods. Wilder was sent to boarding school, as were his siblings, and the family was in the United States while the father pursued, often ineffectively, his diplomatic career. Even holidays were spent apart because of lack of money. The separations meant that Wilder's letters from school turned into a letter-writing habit that he kept all his life. As a child he loved seeing letters and words come out on paper when he pushed his father's typewriter's keys (although he was to do his writing longhand). His mother took him to the theater early, and he made up his own plays and beguiled his brothers and sisters and neighborhood children to act in them, "filling their mouths with 'grandiloquent speeches.'" When it came time for college, his father directed Wilder to Oberlin because he thought the young man would there be beyond the distractions of alcohol, actors, and plays. Wilder did not share his father's teetotalism, and found plenty to do with student theatrics in the time before he went on to Yale, where there was still more.
One of the amazing things about Wilder's life is how peripatetic it was, starting from boarding school and all through his life. Even when his finances allowed him to settle the rest of his family down in Connecticut, and even though he was devoted to them, Wilder stayed there only for relatively brief visits. He was always off to Europe or across the country. Late in his life he made himself settle down hermit-like in the desert of Douglas, Arizona, so that he could work on his literary projects, and having done that, he was off on his travels again. He was in Paris in the era when he could room with Hemingway, and he got to be pals with Gertrude Stein; his other friends included Sigmund Freud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Welles (who credited Wilder with discovering him), Ruth Gordon, and many more. He was a good friend, and an entertaining companion, but saw himself as a curmudgeon: "I don't hate people. I merely hate to be in groups of over four."
For all the friendships and the networking and the fame, he was a deeply private man. Not only did he never marry, in all his voluminous letters and journals we don't get a picture of romantic or sexual inclinations. After his death, a minor literary figure, Sam Steward, said that he had been Wilder's lover in Zurich. Niven looks at the evidence, finds it equivocal, and reflects that as important as we often think sexuality is to artistic careers, it must simply have been unimportant to Wilder. His passion was literature, which he loved, reading widely with joyful seriousness. He tried to keep control over his passion. From time to time he devoted great energy to the definitive dating of the hundreds of plays of the Spanish author Lope de Vega. He was one of the first explorers into James Joyce's mystifying Finnegans Wake, and loved it so much that in 1959 he swore off opening the book for five years. It was like a narcotic, he thought, "sapping not only all interest in any writing I might do myself, but the very springs from which come reflection, observation, and my very attention to the people and events about me." It is fascinating to read that Wilder was a terrible driver, and acknowledged that it was simply because his thoughts got in the way. He would see bystanders or contemplate events of the past or the future that would be "dramatized to such an extent that I am, as it were, wrapt up into them."
The seriousness with which he took up literary pursuits meant that he worked relentlessly. Even so, he thought of himself as not getting enough done. "Oh, how badly I run my life," one letter says. The intensity of his efforts might be seen in 1942, when he was preparing for military duty (he had enlisted in World War I, and in World War II he became a Lieutenant Colonel within Army Intelligence, serving in Africa and then in Italy), working on casting and rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth, and writing for Alfred Hitchcock the script of Shadow of a Doubt, which the two of them finished on the train as Wilder headed to his initial military training assignment. His devotion to writing never let up; his last novel, Theophilus North, was published in 1973, and he was writing away until his death two years later.
Niven's text is long, 700 pages, but it is clear that her fascinating subject deserves all the detail. She writes a great deal about all Wilder's family members, and though he detested the idea of being the subject of a biography (to one biographer he wrote, "Go pick on Dreiser or Faulkner. Leave me alone. Write about Arthur Miller."), he would have been pleased that family was so important in this detailed book. Wilder always wrote about families, calling himself the poet laureate of the family. "In Wilder's daily life," Niven writes, "family was an anchor, usually a comfort and help, sometimes a nuisance, and always a responsibility, generously fulfilled." Family and literature: Wilder crammed these loves into a very full life. At the end of Our Town, Emily asks, "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it... every, every minute?" the stage manager (a role Wilder himself acted many times), replies, "No. Saints and poets maybe... they do some." That Wilder must have come close, any reader of this fine biography will have no doubt.