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Who is Thornton Wilder?

Thornton Wilder was a literary titan, whose plays and novels transcended time and place. He captured the human condition with eloquence, earning three Pulitzer Prizes. His masterpiece, "Our Town," remains a poignant reflection on life's fleeting beauty. Discover how Wilder's words still resonate with us today, inviting reflection on our own stories. What will you find in his timeless works?
Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

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.

Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin.
Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin.

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.

Wilder's play, Our Town, was adapted into an opera in 2006.
Wilder's play, Our Town, was adapted into an opera in 2006.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is Thornton Wilder and why is he significant in American literature?

Thornton Wilder was an American playwright and novelist, born on April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin. He is significant for his contributions to American literature, particularly for his unique narrative techniques and exploration of universal themes. Wilder's most famous works include the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Our Town" and the novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." His works delve into the human experience, emphasizing the value of everyday life and the interconnectedness of all people.

What are some of Thornton Wilder's most notable works?

Thornton Wilder's most notable works include the plays "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth," as well as the novels "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" and "The Eighth Day." "Our Town," a play set in the fictional small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," which explores the lives of five individuals who die in a bridge collapse, won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1928.

How many Pulitzer Prizes did Thornton Wilder win, and for which works?

Thornton Wilder was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes during his lifetime. He won his first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1928 for "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." His second and third Pulitzers were for Drama, with "Our Town" in 1938 and "The Skin of Our Teeth" in 1943. These accolades underscore his versatility and mastery in both prose and playwriting, marking him as one of the most decorated American writers of the 20th century.

What themes are commonly explored in Thornton Wilder's writings?

Thornton Wilder's writings commonly explore themes such as the significance of the commonplace, the passage of time, and the interconnectivity of human lives. His works often reflect on the beauty and tragedy of everyday existence, the role of fate and chance in life, and the search for meaning. Wilder's ability to portray these universal concerns in a way that resonates with a wide audience has cemented his place in American literature.

Did Thornton Wilder's work have an impact on theater and literature?

Yes, Thornton Wilder's work had a profound impact on both theater and literature. His innovative use of stage techniques in "Our Town," such as breaking the fourth wall and minimalistic set design, influenced modern theater production. His literary works, with their focus on philosophical and existential themes, paved the way for future writers to explore similar ideas. Wilder's legacy is evident in the continued popularity and study of his works in academic and theatrical settings.

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    • Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin.
      By: soupstock
      Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin.
    • Wilder's play, Our Town, was adapted into an opera in 2006.
      By: Kalim
      Wilder's play, Our Town, was adapted into an opera in 2006.