Book of the Times Review: A Life Captured With Luster Left Intact

December 11, 2012

'Thornton Wilder: A Life,' by Penelope Niven

By Charles Isherwood

01BOOK-popup.jpg"Art is confession; art is the secret told," Thornton Wilder wrote shortly after fame and the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes had come to him in his early 30s. "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." That suggestive formulation is as evocative today as it was when Wilder penned it in 1928. But now we are more likely to associate specific literary genres with the heart's hidden truths: the ever-billowing genre of memoir is confession, we might say, and biography is the secret told.

It's probably unnecessary to add that the revelations such books traffic in are likely to be of the sensational variety, tales of turbulent relationships and dogged addictions.

Among the refreshing aspects of Penelope Niven's new biography, "Thornton Wilder: A Life," is its startling sexlessness, the paucity of the kind of dish that sometimes has seemed to drive the market in literary biography in recent decades. Ms. Niven, the author of books about Carl Sandburg and Edward Steichen, has dug deeply into the copiously documented life of her subject, drawing on access to substantial troves of previously undisclosed family papers. And yet, setting aside the dubious testimony of a single man who claims to have gone to bed with Wilder, "Thornton Wilder: A Life" tells of a life lived without the sexual relationships and romantic attachments that we sometimes falsely assume to be the most momentous passages in an artist's -- or anyone's -- life.

In a quotation from an essay that Ms. Niven uses as an epigraph for the book's preface, Wilder wrote that "the history of a writer is his search for his own subject, his myth-theme, hidden from him, but prepared for him in every hour of his life." She has taken her cue from this aphorism, giving an appraisal of Wilder's experience that places equal emphasis on the public man and the private thinker, the literary celebrity and the son and brother. The hours Wilder spent in hard study and grinding work are examined with the same attention as the hours of literary hobnobbing that filled his later years, when his best-selling novels and popular plays brought him worldwide fame.

Ms. Niven's deeply researched and fluidly readable book spends much of its first third delving into the relationships among the members of the remarkable family Wilder came from, and to which he remained close throughout his life. Some of the book's most engrossing passages chart the peregrinations of the Wilders during the writer's formative years -- years that prepared him, she persuasively argues, for the humane, literate and searching novelist and playwright he would become.

Thornton was the second of five siblings born to Amos Parker Wilder, a domineering father of deeply held Puritan beliefs (including a staunch allegiance to teetotaling) that would sometimes prove troublesome to his peripatetic career. After years as the editor of a financially precarious Wisconsin newspaper, Amos gained a diplomatic appointment in Hong Kong through his Yale connections. But caring for a large family on a diplomat's salary proved difficult, and for much of Thornton Wilder's youth the family was never together for long stretches; often a lack of funds meant even holidays were spent apart.

Letter writing became a tethering lifeline for the family. Along with Amos Parker Wilder's obsessive fussing over his children's education, this early epistolary training surely contributed to one singular development: All five Wilder children became published writers. Amos and Charlotte were primarily poets, Isabel a novelist and the zoologist Janet wrote a book about raising a horse. Only Thornton would become a renowned figure -- Charlotte's failing struggle to earn her living by her pen, which ultimately resulted in a psychological breakdown, makes for painful reading -- and when his second novel, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," became an international phenomenon (winning the first of his Pulitzers) he would eventually take over his father's role as the family's chief breadwinner, supporting his mother, Isabella, and two of his sisters throughout much of their later lives.

Without quite acquiring the glow of a saint -- bucking his father's admonitions, Wilder became a steady if not a self-destructive drinker, and he often liked to keep his distance from his family members, love them though he did -- the man who emerges from Ms. Niven's fine-grained, sympathetic portrait is remarkable for his easygoing nature, his loyal affections, his generosity of spirit and above all his boundless, enthusiastic foraging in the fields of art and literature.

Wilder's learning was prodigious. He taught Latin and French early in his career and was fluent in German and Italian. Although he is best known today for his theatrical masterworks "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth," his novels in particular -- some set in 18th-century Peru, or ancient Rome and Greece -- bespeak a man of thorough classical learning. Late in life, when he might more fruitfully have spent time on his own writings, or basked in the perquisites that rained down on a popular author, he became a virtual expert on decoding James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," and spent endless hours devoted to dating definitively the plays of the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega.

It cannot be easy to write a biography of a man who lived most deeply inside his questing mind. Yet with the aid of Wilder's journals and letters Ms. Niven is able to make his continuing education a journey that often outshines the more superficially engaging aspects of his career, including friendships with an amazingly disparate array of figures: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the English society hostess Sibyl Colefax, the actress Ruth Gordon, Jean-Paul Sartre and even the prizefighter Gene Tunney, with whom Wilder trekked through Europe when both were more or less at the height of their fame.

Orson Welles and Edward Albee (who provides a brief, kindly foreword) are among the many famous figures who make cameo appearances, along with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Reading biographies like this one gets the sense that every well-known figure of the 20th century eventually ran into every other well-known figure of the 20th century.)

Perhaps understandably in a book this big (800-plus pages) about a life this wide ranging, Ms. Niven's biography flags a bit in the late going, as Wilder's literary output wanes, and is occasionally marred by repetition. Of his novels "Heaven's My Destination" and "Our Town," written in near proximity, she writes that the predominant "myth-themes" are: "How do you live? How do you bear the unbearable? How do you handle the various dimensions of love, of faith, of the human condition? How do universal elements forge every unique, individual human life? And where does the family fit in the cosmic scheme of things?" That doesn't seem to leave much out, aside from maybe the question of how you rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time.

But while it has become commonplace to harp on the universality of great works of literature, Wilder's theatrical masterworks in particular still have the power to inspire awe for the economy with which they do indeed bring together the mundane and the cosmic, the specific, homely detail and the overarching truth.

Few writers have emerged from the crucible of the biographer's attentions in recent years with their reputations as honorable human beings intact. Wilder does. He was not just a great artist, he seems to have been a great man too, in matters both large and small.

Take this beautiful passage from a letter to his sister Isabel, after she had been dropped by the man she had expected to marry and felt her hopes for her life reduced to ashes: "We're all People, before we're anything else. People, even before we're artists. The role of being a Person is sufficient to have lived and died for." He added a bit more mundane but no less generous advice: "Better take a trip to Europe. There's plenty of money."

Our Town 75th Anniversary Events

Our Town 75th Anniversary Events
Our Town 75th Anniversary Events
Thornton Wilder on FacebookThornton Wilder @ Twitter

Thornton Wilder A Life

Did You Know...

Wilder Wit and Wisdom