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Who is Thornton Wilder?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Thornton Wilder was an American playwright and novelist. He was born in 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin, and died in 1975 at the age of 78. Over the course of his life he published seven novels, and more than ten plays, including a number of one act plays. Thornton Wilder won three Pulitzer Prizes over the course of his life, one for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Ray, and two for his plays, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth.

Thornton Wilder came from an intellectual family. His father was a diplomat for the United States, and the family spent some time in China during his early years. His older brother, Amos Wilder, was a poet of some renown, and his sister Charlotte Wilder was also a widely published poet. Thornton Wilder attended Berkeley High School, and went on to receive a BA from Yale and a MA from Princeton.

After Princeton, Thornton Wilder began to publish his writing. He published his first novel, The Cabala in 1926. The next year his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey earned him a Pulitzer Prize. At around the same time, in the late 1920s, he began writing plays as well. His most famous play, Our Town was performed in 1938, and won him his second Pulitzer Prize. Four years later, The Skin of Our Teeth earned him a third.

Some other notable works of Thornton Wilder include the novels Heaven’s My Destination and Ides of March, as well as the plays The Merchant of Yonkers, The Matchmaker, and The Long Christmas Dinner. Thornton Wilder published somewhat rarely, sometimes with a decade or more passing between published works, but his novels and plays were always received with a great deal of acclaim.

His early novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey has seen a recent resurgence in popularity, since Prime Minister Tony Blair mentioned it in a speech after September 11, 2001. The novel deals with a random disaster, a bridge collapse, which kills a number of people. It is viewed by many as the forerunner to the disaster epic, and is notable for its device of taking a number of unrelated people and tying their lives together through one central, random event.

Our Town is without a doubt the most popular play of Thornton Wilder. It takes place in rural New Hampshire, in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners. Over its three acts, a narrator character, the Stage Manager, tells of life in the town of Grover’s Corners over more than a decade. The play is interesting in its use of meta devices, with the entire play consisting of a play within a play. Through a simple set and relatively stark dialogue, the play, like much of the writing of Thornton Wilder, shows how the human experience is fundamentally universal. Our Town remains a very widely produced play throughout the United States, and was made into a movie in 1940, and again in 2003. It was also adapted into an opera in 2006.

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