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Thornton Wilder: A Life Hardcover – October 30, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“The author admits to a ‘decade of close study of . . . primary sources’ in preparation for her biography of distinguished American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. The result, fully displayed on every page of this definitive treatment, is a joyous presentation of detail.” (Booklist (starred review))

“Fast-paced and engaging, this work is essential for academic readers with an interest in American literature and culture. It will also appeal to the more general reader of American biography.” (Library Journal (starred review))

“Lucid, elegantly written...there is just enough shrewd literary analysis to make us understand why this prodigally gifted writer so richly deserves an audience beyond the 12th grade.” (Daily Beast)

“Capacious and authoritative.” (Harper's Magazine)

“Deeply researched and fluidly readable.” (New York Times)

“The best kind of literary biography, one likely to send the reader back (or perhaps for the first time) to the author’s works.” (Washington Post)

“Essential. . . . Studiously researched and measured. . . . The great strength of ‘Thornton Wilder: A Life’ is how well it fuses the early years of the Wilder biography with the themes that informed his works.” (Chicago Tribune)

“Niven complements her own clear, lyrical voice with the eloquent words of Steichen’s contemporaries...” (New York Times Book Review on Carl Sandburg: A Biography)

“Niven complements her own clear, lyrical voice with the eloquent words of Steichen’s contemporaries.” (New York Times Book Review on Steichen: A Biography)

“Almost everybody knows OUR TOWN, but very few people really know Thornton Wilder. Penelope Niven’s fascinating biography changes that once and for all…Meticulously researched, Niven’s book reads like a riveting novel.” (—James Earl Jones)

“This new biography of Wilder -- comprehensive and wisely fashioned -- gives us sufficient view of his methods, his public and private life, and the reaches of his mind…This book is a splendid and long needed work.” (—Edward Albee)

From the Back Cover

Art is confession; art is the secret told. . . . But art is not only the desire to tell one's secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time. And the secret is nothing more than the whole drama of the inner life.
—Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder: A Life, the first biography of the playwright and novelist since 1983, is also the first to be based on thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts, and other documentary evidence of Wilder's life, work, and times. For more than a decade, biographer Penelope Niven has worked with unprecedented access to Wilder's papers, including his family's private journals and records, searching for the secrets that illuminate Wilder's public life and work, as well as the hidden inner self sometimes concealed and sometimes revealed in his art and in his papers.

Thornton Wilder was a multifaceted man: a teacher, novelist, playwright, lecturer, actor, musician, soldier, man of letters, outspoken citizen, and international public figure. He was also an enigmatic, intensely private man. He belonged to a close-knit, complicated family—two brilliant parents, four gifted siblings, and the specter of his twin brother lost at birth. His biography is also a compelling family saga, starring Thornton Wilder, with strong supporting roles played by his father, mother, brother, and sisters.

He was a gypsy, wandering the world, writing, he said, for and about everybody—a fact international audiences still embrace. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Eighth Day, and his other novels are still read in the United States and abroad. His plays, especially the iconic Our Town and the revolutionary Skin of Our Teeth, are still performed on stages around the globe.

Yet despite the international fame and visibility of Wilder the writer, far too little has been known or understood about Wilder the man—until now. Comprehensively researched and richly detailed, Thornton Wilder: A Life brings the private man center stage and sheds new light on his published and unpublished work.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1St Edition edition (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060831367
  • ISBN-13: 979-0060831362
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,096,554 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Penelope Niven is the author of critically acclaimed biographies of poet Carl Sandburg and photographer Edward Steichen. Her books include CARL SANDBURG: A BIOGRAPHY; STEICHEN: A BIOGRAPHY; VOICES AND SILENCES, co-authored with the actor James Earl Jones, and praised as a classic on acting; and SWIMMING LESSONS, a memoir. Her Steichen biography has just been translated into Chinese. CARL SANDBURG: ADVENTURES OF A POET, her biography for children, was awarded an International Reading Association Prize "for exceptionally distinguished literature for children," one of six books honored among publications from 99 countries. She is presently working on a biography of Thornton Wilder, to be published in October 2012 by HarperCollins.

She has been awarded two honorary doctorates, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Thornton Wilder Visiting Fellowship at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, among other honors. She received the North Carolina Award in Literature, the highest honor the state bestows on an author. During the past twenty years she has lectured across the United States and in Switzerland, Canada and Wales, and has served as an editor for various publications and a consultant for television films on Sandburg, Jones, and Steichen. She has recently retired after twelve years as Writer-in-Residence at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.


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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover
_Our Town_ is a masterpiece, accessible to high school students but full of engrossing, thoughtful, gentle philosophy and moving didacticism that have given it a worldwide appeal. The author, Thornton Wilder, was far from a one-hit wonder; he won, for instance, two Pulitzer prizes for drama and one for a novel. The author himself is far less well known than, say, Faulkner or Fitzgerald. He was a bundle of contradictions, an intensely private man who befriended hundreds within the arts, a devotee and chronicler of family life who never married, a traveler who was constantly on the move so that he could find his own internal space in which to do his work. There is now a splendid, full biography for anyone who wishes to know this enigmatic but influential author better. _Thornton Wilder: A Life_ (Harper) by Penelope Niven (previously a biographer of Carl Sandburg and Edward Steichen) is a nearly perfect biography of a man who was as strange and as lovable as the books and plays he wrote. Much of the book is in Wilder's own words; he wrote thousands of letters to friends and family, many of which have not been available to Wilder scholars until recently.

Much of Niven's book is devoted to Wilder's family because it was all his life the most important force to drive him. He was born in 1897. His mother's affection to her children was manifested by doting on their accomplishments; his father's, by constant hectoring and control and fretting over finances, traits that continued long after Wilder and his five siblings were well into adulthood. Wilder wrote to his brother about their father that his mother and siblings "have lived in a kind of torment trying to shake off his octopus-personality.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Terri S. on May 4, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Niven's meticulous scholarship consistently shines though this detailed account of Wilder's life. This biographer leads us through Wilder's years rich with family, friends, professional colleagues and theater fans. I admire Niven's approach to this important American playwright and predict that this biography will be a source book for many Thornton scholars to come. Above all, Niven gives us an ethical read, completely free from rumor and speculation-- marked, instead, by precise information and detailed notes.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Connecticut Reader on January 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Penelope Niven's latest biography is probably her finest, and she has firmly placed her subject within the context of his times. For those of us who love poetry her first biography, about the poet Carl Sandburg, is excellent. For those of us who love photography her second biography, about the photographer Edward Steichen is even better. Here is her third book, and for those of us who love the theatre and also love reading about the psychodynamics of family life as it impacts on the life of a gifted human being this is a book that is long overdue. There are many pathways. You may, for example, want to throttle Wilder's overbearing and puritanical father. You will be fascinated as Wilder slowly and painfully extricates himself from his father's world view and begins his career. You will be touched at how well he takes care of his family and for how long. Don't look for x-rated stories because Wilder resolutely kept his romantic life private and because this is a biographer who refuses to guess or surmise but deals only with facts that she can back up with hard research. Instead, read between the lines, it's all there: Wilder's family, the American theatre, his fascinating friends, his idiosyncracies and foibles, his successes and his failures. Buy the book and gain a better understanding of one of America's great playwrights and the world he lived in.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I devoured this book. In addition to Thornton Wilder's fascinating life and work, it provides an insightful cultural history of America in the 20th century. Niven's beautiful writing makes 700 pages fly by.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This biography is amazingly well done. Ms. Niven has organized a huge amount of material into a readable and lively book. It's a remarkable undertaking, and it is of necessity very lengthy, but always a pleasure to pick up and continue after reluctantly laying it aside at night. Highly recommended.
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