Back “A foretaste of heaven”: Thornton Wilder’s childhood in China

Our latest Story of the Week, a previously unpublished chapter from Thornton Wilder’s unfinished autobiography, describes the period of his childhood when he and his family lived in China. (Three excerpts from the memoir appear in the new Library of America volume Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings.) Wilder actually lived in China twice: first as a nine-year-old in Hong Kong in 1906 and five years later in Chefoo, where he and his sister boarded at a missionary school—while his father stayed 450 miles to the south in Shanghai, his older brother went to school in California, and his mother and two youngest sisters moved to Switzerland. Wilder wrote, “like a chess-player [Thornton’s father] moved his wife and five children about the world.”

A number of images and other artifacts from this period are included among Wilder’s papers at Yale University. Below is a photograph, taken in Hong Kong, of Thornton (the boy on the left) with his mother Isabella, sisters Isabel and Charlotte, brother Amos, and father Amos Sr. The two girls are seated on a sedan chair that, hoisted by men (one of whom stands behind the family), served as a dominant mode of transportation for Western residents through the crowded streets of the city, then a British territory.

Another photograph, from 1912, shows the boys and teachers at the China Inland Mission School in Chefoo. “It was a good school,” Thornton wrote. “All the teachers and administrators were English or Scottish. Of the one hundred and twenty students in the Boys’ School one hundred were English, about a dozen were American; there were a few Scandinavians. Much attention was given to religion, but there was none of the “hell-fire” evangelism that I was later to encounter occasionally at Oberlin College and even at Yale.” One of Thornton’s classmates was Henry Luce, the founder of Time Inc.

Here is Thornton’s final report card from Chefoo, dated July 1912, before he returned with his father to California. His scores, which were unremarkable, range from a 72 in English, German, and Euclid and an 80 in Scripture down to a 46 in Algebra, a 50 in Dictation, and a 56 in Arithmetic. The summary on the lines for Conduct reads in part, “His conduct during the time he has been at the school has been exemplary . . . both teachers and fellow pupils regret that the time has come for his departure.”

Above images courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Reprinted by permission of the Wilder Family, LLC.

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