Thornton Wilder (1897–1975)
From Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey & Other Novels 1926–1948
Thornton Wilder was born 125 years ago, in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897.
Wilder won three Pulitzer Prizes, one for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (published in 1927), one for the play Our Town (first performed in 1938), and one for the play The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). He remains the only author to win Pulitzers for both drama and fiction. In addition, his novel The Eighth Day (1967) won the National Book Award.
He is, of course, largely remembered for Our Town, one of the most frequently performed plays in America. But Wilder’s novels deserve attention as well. When asked to choose between his plays and his novels, J. D. McClatchy (who wrote the libretto for the operatic adaptation of Our Town) answered, “I realize that, for someone who has worked both sides of the street, declaring a preference for one side isn’t fair. In part, I prefer the novels because they are undervalued. Wilder’s celebrity has always derived mainly from his plays, yet his novels have more amplitude and variety, more cunning and power, and certainly more style than his other work. But I also prefer them for this reason: I am moved by them—I mean entranced, puzzled, laughing, or close to tears—after reading them again and again. I am moved when I see Our Town, but more on the stage than on the page. Wilder brings all his gifts as a playwright to the writing of novels.”
Wilder began writing fiction during his college years, and his early stories appeared in the literary magazines at Oberlin and Yale, where he was an undergraduate. (He transferred after his sophomore year.) Two other Yale students at the time would also go on to win multiple Pulitzer Prizes: fellow undergraduate Stephen Vincent Benét (two Pulitzers in poetry), who edited the college magazine that published several of Wilder’s plays and stories, and law student Archibald MacLeish (three Pulitzers, two in poetry and one in drama). Henry Luce, who would establish the Time-Life empire of magazines, was also a fellow student; remarkably, he and Wilder had been classmates at a missionary school in Chefoo, China.
McClatchy acknowledges that Wilder’s undergraduate publications are “apprentice work”—but they are very good apprentice work, displaying Wilder’s experiments with “ironic situations and sophisticated dialogue” that he would perfect in his later fiction and drama. We present as our Story of the Week selection one of the stories, “Eddy Greater,” about a scholar who coincidentally encounters a former opera singer who apparently has possession of the journals of the poet whose biography he has just written.
More of Library of America’s Thornton Wilder web content is available via the “Explore Further” links below. Visit the official Wilder 125 website for a comprehensive multimedia overview of the author’s life and work.