In a quiet corner of Thorton Wilder’s hometown library in Hamden, Conn., sits Wilder’s worn oak desk. A pile of papers, a full wastebasket (a writer’s best friend, according to Wilder), loaded bookshelves and a sharpened pencil make it look as if Wilder has just stepped out for a moment. This sense of immediacy, of a life lived, is sharply evoked in Gilbert Harrison’s The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. Unlike Richard Goldstone’s 1975 biography, which was not authorized by the Wilder family, Harrison’s Life takes advantage of letters and personal papers previously unavailable.
Several of these family letters, in fact, sound themes which reverberate throughout the biography. Wilder’s father writes: “I hope you are reading Pilgrim’s Progress…Character is the thing in life to strive for.” Thornton to his brother: “I am happiest in loving and being loved by human people and next to that in writing words and being commended for them. I am perpetually enthusiastic over some composition or book, some person or some friend.” And there are Thornton’s letters to his mother, his “Dear Wun,” his feminine ideal, who would appear in various incarnations in The Long Christmas Dinner, Happy Journey to Camden and Trenton, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Although Wilder was a life-long bachelor, he celebrated the mystery of the home in his work. He extended this sense of family to his friends, becoming “everybody’s uncle,” offering advice, encouragement and financial help. His life and his art could not be separated.
Harrison sees Wilder as “a fabulist, a teller of tales that are meant to enforce a useful moral lesson…a writer who narrates the journey of pilgrims through adversity.” The Enthusiast, too, is a richly detailed moral fable. As Wilder did in his work, Harrison attempts to “find a value above all price for the smallest events of daily life.” The biographer’s extensive research and careful selection of detail are admirable—but the sheer weight of particulars sometimes obscures the book’s paradoxical and contradictory subject. The careful reader is eventually rewarded, however, with the telling quote or the vividly dramatized experience which illuminates the man.
Harrison chronicles Wilder’s “pilgrim’s progress” from a childhood in Madison, Wisc., to a school in mainland China, to Berkeley, Calif., and through college years at Oberlin, Yale and Princeton. In and out of the classroom, he was a gifted teacher, schoolmasterish in appearance, but in action a “one-man band.” His happiest years were spent teaching and writing at the University of Chicago; a later stint at Harvard (when he was in his early 50s) and his drive to “do everything” brought on a breakdown. His touchstone was his home on Deepwood Drive in Hamden, but he was relentlessly on the go, lecturing, researching, writing at the McDowell Colony or more often in Europe.
From the time of his first book, The Cabala, through the success of The Bridge of San Luis Rey and the late novel The Eighth Day, Wilder was recognized as a superb stylist. But he wanted to be known as a writer who revealed “the notation of the heart.” Critics often dismissed him as a sentimental positivist, yet his writing won worldwide acceptance and three Pulitzer Prizes. And, unlike many writers of his generation, Wilder’s career had a third act: When Theophilus North was accepted for publication by Harper and Row, he exclaimed, “Not bad at 75, wot?”
Wilder was a friend of many of the major writers and figures of the 20th century, and, like a good novelist, Harrison shows these “characters” in action: Hemingway berating his wife for “making a fool of him”, a drunken Scott Fitzgerald accidentally firing a gun, the bullet just missing Thornton; his special friend, Gertrude Stein, urging, “…now will you oh Thornton will you will you collaborate on Ida the Novel, we must do it together.” Wilder met Freud in Vienna in 1935 and recorded their conversation in his journal. He noted that Freud, “no seeker of God,” had filled his room with “images of dieties—Greek, Chinese, African Egyptian.” After their meeting, Wilder always spoke of himself as a Freudian.
From an early age Wilder was passionate about the theatre. He wrote and produced scenes for his brothers and sisters and his mother encouraged his theatre-going and community theatre involvement. He saw many of the great actors of the early 1900s. Harrison devotes a chapter to the grueling, often hilarious process of mounting the first production of Our Town. Battles with director Jed Harris were exhausting and led to years of estrangement and acrimony between the two men. In typical Wilder fashion, however, years later Thornton invited Harris for a drink and the old enemies reconciled. His World War Il military service was interrupted repeatedly to referee disputes among members of the Skin of Our Teeth company, primarily Tailulah Bankhead and producer Michael Myerberg. Wilder made his Broadway acting debut when Harris persuaded him to take the role of the Our Town Stage Manager while Frank Craven was off for two weeks. Wilder agreed, provided that Harris would not be present at the rehearsals. (The New York Times said Wilder was “no ball of fire.”) Our Town remains the most produced play on Samuel French’s list, a testament to Wilders simplicity, humanity and knowledge of the theatre.
Harrison reports Wilder’s homosexual encounters, which often left him discomfited and remorseful; male friends who knew Wilder well, he also notes, felt that he was asexual, even antisexual. He loved all that was “lofty and sublime in women, but his female relationships usually halted at the first threat of intimacy. It was a pattern that persisted throughout his life-an inability to share his innermost feelings, except through his work.
So, in a Life packed with incident—events, correspondence, travel, professional accomplishment—Wilder manages to remain something of a mystery. At the end of his life, Wilder would exclaim, “How wonderful it is that people die.” Harrison’s biography will take its place alongside Wilder’s art to keep the voice “which quivers with pain and still proclaims joy” alive.
Helen Sheehy, a dramaturg at Hartford Stage Company, lives in Thornton Wilder’s home town.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!