Playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder is a familiar figure to anyone who has ever watched a clock tick in an American high school. His novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” was once required reading, and almost 75 years after its debut, his masterpiece, “Our Town,” remains one of the most produced American plays of all time. But despite his longevity on stage and in classrooms, Wilder himself remains an enigma. The winner of three Pulitzer Prizes (two for drama, one for fiction) was an intensely private man.
But the curtain on his personal life is lifted in Penelope Niven’s prodigious biography “Thornton Wilder: A Life,” which portrays a man who was conflicted by his simultaneous desire for solitude and companionship. Niven, who has chronicled the lives of poet Carl Sandburg and photographer Edward Steichen, digs deep into the voluminous stock of letters, journals, and manuscripts in the Wilder family archives to produce this portrait.
Born in 1897, Wilder was the product of a loveless marriage between a self-righteous and overbearing father and an affectionate mother who doted on her complicated and creative children. The second of five siblings, Wilder had a twin brother who was stillborn, and he carried the burden of survivor’s guilt all of his life. Niven focuses her lens on all seven of the Wilders, which makes for slow reading at first, but it soon becomes clear that the story of Wilder is inseparable from that of his family, despite his own celebrity and success. His whole life, in fact, was a search for that thing called home.
His father, Amos Parker Wilder, was a diplomat sent to China, and the family spent many years in various degrees of separation, leaving the young writer lonely and homesick in boarding schools while his mother and some siblings went off to Europe and California.
He was shaped from an early age by his father’s constant criticism: In letters quoted throughout the biography, the older man says his son “lacks application” and “needs a little virility.” In his father’s eyes, Wilder was “[s]ensitive” and “[s]elf-conscious,” even “hopeless,” especially when it came to finances.
Given his peripatetic childhood, Wilder’s later life is full of seeming contradictions. He traveled the world yet yearned for home. He was a teacher at various prep schools and universities, even though his friends told him, “Never teach.”
He was also a loner whose list of friends reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century literature and culture: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ruth Gordon, Sigmund Freud, to name just a few. Despite this roster of intimate friendships, he described himself in his later life as “a growly-smily grouching-chuckling old humbug curmudgeon,” adding, “I don’t hate people. I merely hate to be in groups of over four.”
While Niven is clear that her book is not a work of literary criticism, she does chronicle the progress of Wilder’s prose and plays, giving an almost day-by-day account of his writing and his pioneering experimentation with time and place. Several times, she sums up his work as a series of questions: “How do we live? How do we love? How do we cope? How do we bear the unbearable?”
Unlike such other works as “The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder,” this biography does not skirt the question of Wilder’s sexuality, and Niven addresses the subject gingerly and respectfully. A minor literary figure and provocateur named Samuel Steward publicly “outed” the playwright after Wilder’s death, and Niven weighs the evidence, which she deems inconclusive. (Curiously, she does not liberally quote Wilder’s letters to Steward, which are stored in the Yale archives, yet have not been published.)
That this biography is meticulously researched is undeniable and is, at times, a fault. At more than 800 pages, it is too long, and the reading can be ponderous, including every minor detail. Which makes it all the more curious that what is missing is a sense of place. Niven takes time to tell readers the number of passengers in three classes on an ocean liner but fails to provide detailed interior descriptions of either the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. (the famed locale of “Our Town”) or the interior of the house that Wilder built for his family in Connecticut. We read snippets from hundreds of family letters, but don’t get vivid visual images of Wilder’s siblings, parents, or friends.
We do, however, get a sweeping look into the life of a man who left an indelible mark on the American theater. By focusing on the minute details of Wilder’s early years, Niven painstakingly reveals the ties that bond — and the scars they form.
While this biography may be too long, it represents a vital work of scholarship that drives home what Wilder himself once wrote in a letter to his older brother. “The bane of family life is advice,’’ he wrote. “We were all but strangled with it.”Patti Hartigan, a former Globe reporter, writes frequently about theater and education. She can be reached at pattihartigan