THE BLOG
11/25/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2013

Easy Reader: Thornton Wilder's Biography By Penelope Niven Is a Must Read

In his 1927 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey ("Luis" pronounced "Loo-eess"), Thornton Wilder wrote the eventually much-repeated line "The art of biography is more difficult than is generally supposed."

Confirmation of the comment comes through in full force with Penelope Niven's extraordinarily impressive Thornton Wilder (HarperCollins $39.99, 832pp., illustrations). Indeed, any constant biography reader is challenged to name a more demanding subject than Wilder, a prolific playwright, novelist, essayist, teacher, actor, daily letter-writer to scores (if not hundreds) of recipients, and indefatigable note-taker (especially on Lope de Vega's entire oeuvre and James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake)

Add to that the not insignificant attention Niven understands she must pay to Wilder's parents, Amos Parker and Isabella Wilder, and siblings (brother Amos and sisters Isabel, Charlotte and Janet) -- all of them writers and tireless correspondents. They're further evidence that in order to understand Thornton Wilder, Niven must make her thick volume a family bio as much as a magnifying-glass look at one complex international figure.

Were Thornton Wilder notable for only explicating one thing -- he's notable for many -- it would be the attention Niven pays to perhaps the man's outstanding attribute: the hope for the human race he promotes most prominently, of course, in the 1938 Our Town (arguably the most produced American play of the 20th century and perhaps even eventually the 21st) and the 1942 Pulitzer-Prize-winning Skin of Our Teeth.

Here's Wilder in a letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan, one of his closest confidants, "I have decided the human race as a whole can be given the benefit of the doubt." Here he is writing in his underrated-at-its-1973 publication-but-ineffable Theophilus North, "Hope is a projection of the imagination... hope is an energy and arouses the mind to explore every possibility to combat [ills]."

Those remarks -- whether expressed to a friend or coming from the autobiographical late novel -- are the result of Wilder's life, a 78-year journey that, beginning with a youth spent in Hong Kong and Shanghai where Amos Parker Wilder was General Counsel, became a long, often restless journey to many parts of the United States (two late years in Arizona, writing and befriending the natives) and around the rest of the planet.

Despite his building the family a Hamden, Connecticut home on Deepwood Drive -- with the impressive revenues received from his literary output and lecture tours, salaries at Lawrenceville and the University of Chicago -- he often found it uncomfortable to stay there for lengthy periods of time.

His itch to travel, Niven makes clear, stems from his checkered involvements with his brother, sisters or parents -- maybe not the mother to whom he was devoted but surely from the father, whom he and his siblings found demanding and outwardly unloving. Amos Parker Wilder reprimanded his second son almost from the boy's birth, insisting Thornton remain parsimonious in line with the unlikelihood he'd amount to much -- certainly not if he stuck to writing.

Curiously, when Thornton became an international best-selling author at 29 with The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Amos Parker apparently sent no congratulatory letter. Surely, Niven would have referred at least one if it existed. She does quote from a note Amos Parker sent Charlotte, saying of the blockbuster novel, "I suspect Hawthorne and Geo. Eliot would handle certain aspects differently and shall tell Thornton so though I have not read it in full."

Niven makes it singularly clear that for classics-obsessed Wilder, abiding hope was habitually pitched against despair. The letters are legion in which he claims his writing is not going well and/or contends he's derived insufficient joy from it. Also, the frequency with which he portrays himself as unsuccessful in his public and private life (despite the care he particularly extends to novelist Isabel and eventually mentally disturbed poet Charlotte) is unmistakable. This, in the face of the many awards, citations, honorary degrees he amassed over the decades.

More than that, he seems indisposed to consider as sufficiently meaningful the loyal friends he collected and who are, to cite only a few, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Gene Tunney (with whom he traveled), Orson Welles (who admitted he was "discovered" by Wilder), the English interior decorator Sybil Colefax, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Edward Albee, Tallulah Bankhead, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Vincent Benet, Henry Luce, Jed Harris (the Our Town producer with whom friendship was a sometime thing). Niven also regularly gets around to names less celebrated but still on the receiving ends of Wilder's admiration.

Niven does mention Wilder's much-mooted sexuality, referring to a few early and mysterious disappointing romances. She brings up Samuel Steward, who went on record as a onetime bedmate. But Niven apparently finds no evidence that Wilder was strictly heterosexual or homosexual. And readers will have to make what they will of Wilder's closest female chums almost always being older than he and therefore perhaps mother figures.

Incidentally, Niven reports in a paragraph about Wilder's output various number like 1,250,000 words devoted to his notes on James Joyce and Lope de Vega alone. That statistic--which doesn't begin to cover the studies for and finished eight novels, the full-length and one-act plays and their recurring themes of family life and death -- gives a small idea of what she had to get under her biographer's belt while spending more than 10 years preparing this exemplary work. (Conveniently, The Library of America has just published a three-volume set of Wilder's plays, novels and essays.)

So although Niven repeats herself more than a reader might wish, she can be forgiven either for forgetting what she's already established or assuming readers have forgotten -- or a bit of both. She's written an exemplary biography, maybe worthy of its own Pulitzer Prize.

Full disclosure: When I finished the bio and got to the acknowledgments, I was surprised to find my name there with scores of others. Why, I can't say. I know Penelope Niven and knew her while she was working on this undertaking, but I'm puzzled as to how I might have helped her -- other than to have wished her well, a wish it gives me great pleasure to see she's completely fulfilled.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.