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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Full Biography of a Life Full of Family and Literature, November 24, 2012
This review is from: Thornton Wilder: A Life (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." His father, a self-righteous puritan who was not skillful in his own finances, fretted over the employment prospects of his children, and doubted that Wilder could ever make a living by writing. When Wilder earned an unexpected fortune with the international success of _The Bridge of San Luis Rey_ in 1928, his father might have stopped worrying, but instead started expressing skepticism that his son could handle the money properly. As it turned out, Wilder became the family's financial keeper, generous about sharing his income while conscientious about keeping it up. He felt the difficulties of dealing with his father, but was never embittered by them. One of the amazing things about Wilder's life is how peripatetic it was, starting from boarding school and all through his life. He was in Paris in the era when he could room with Hemingway, and he got to be pals with Gertrude Stein; his other friends included Sigmund Freud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Welles (who credited Wilder with discovering him), Ruth Gordon, and many more. He was a good friend, and an entertaining companion, but saw himself as a curmudgeon: "I don't hate people. I merely hate to be in groups of over four." The seriousness with which he took up literary pursuits meant that he worked relentlessly. Even so, he thought of himself as not getting enough done. "Oh, how badly I run my life," one letter says. The intensity of his efforts might be seen in 1942, when he was preparing for military duty (he had enlisted in World War I, and in World War II he became a Lieutenant Colonel within Army Intelligence, serving in Africa and then in Italy), working on casting and rehearsals for _The Skin of Our Teeth_, and writing for Alfred Hitchcock the script of _Shadow of a Doubt_, which the two of them finished on the train as Wilder headed to his initial military training assignment. His devotion to writing never let up; his last novel, _Theophilus North_, was published in 1973, and he was writing away until his death two years later.

Niven's text is long, 700 pages, but it is clear that her fascinating subject deserves all the detail. She writes a great deal about all Wilder's family members, and though he detested the idea of being the subject of a biography (to one biographer he wrote, "Go pick on Dreiser or Faulkner. Leave me alone. Write about Arthur Miller."), he would have been pleased that family was so important in this detailed book. Wilder always wrote about families, calling himself the poet laureate of the family. "In Wilder's daily life," Niven writes, "family was an anchor, usually a comfort and help, sometimes a nuisance, and always a responsibility, generously fulfilled." Family and literature: Wilder crammed these loves into a very full life. At the end of _Our Town_, Emily asks, "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it... every, every minute?" the stage manager (a role Wilder himself acted many times), replies, "No. Saints and poets maybe... they do some." That Wilder must have come close, any reader of this fine biography will have no doubt.
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Initial post: Nov 24, 2012 4:28:34 PM PST
Jill Meyer says:
Great review, thorough as usual.
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Rob Hardy
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Location: Columbus, Mississippi USA

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