Thornton Wilder

By: Sara Kula, Elizabeth Hull, and Leann Tulisiak

"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

Background and Life

  • Thornton Wilder was born on April 17, 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin
  • He was supposed to be a twin but his brother was stillborn.
  • Thornton's ancestors came from Shiplake, England. In the mid-1600s Wilder’s ancestors settled in Hingham, Massachusetts.
  • Thornton went to China Island Mission Boy’s School at age 13. He was shocked that a lot of the missionaries regarded the Chinese as primitive people.
  • As a child, he did not live in any place for a long time and did not have an attached place to consider home.
  • When Wilder first began writing as a child he wrote plays that would be acted out by his sisters, his friends, and himself.
  • Wilder's father chose Oberlin College for his son to "save" him from shock of going to Yale because it was such a socially lofty school. Two years later, Wilder transferred to Yale, his father's alma mater, where he wrote for the school's literary magazine, the Lit. During his junior year, he spent eight months in the coast artillery of WWI.
  • Throughout his time in college, Wilder wrote three minute plays meant for three actors. By the time he had graduated, he had over 40 plays written.
  • Wilder was very private and kept himself out of the public's eye. There was no obvious or apparent sustained intimacy with another human, except his sister and Gertrude Stein.
  • His sister was the buffer between him and the world, since she handled any letters, dealt with aspiring authors looking for aid, and watched over any of the productions of his plays.
  • Wilder died December 7, 1975 (age 78) in his sleep.

Did You Know?

… that Wilder served in the Army's Coast Artillery Corps in World War I, and volunteered for service in World War II in 1942, at the age of 45? For his World War II service as an Army Air Force Intelligence officer, he received the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the Chevalier Legion d’Honneur, and an honorary officership in the Military Order of the British Empire.

How Wilder's Background Influenced His Writing

  • Since Wilder’s childhood was not associated with one place, his writing did not include specific places. Wilder’s writing creates a person’s community or home in the imagination and is not reliant on places or times.
  • Wilder also frequently traveled which prevented places from having an impact on his identity.
  • Religion influenced Wilder’s writing because his family was devoutly Protestant. His parents were involved in church education and his brother became a professor of theology at Harvard. When Wilder lived in China, he attended a mission school. His first long play The Trumpet Shall Sound almost seems like a sermon.
  • Wilder wrote about twins several times in his work, which was influenced by his stillborn twin brother.

Did You Know?

… that Wilder was the survivor of a stillborn twin brother, was passionately interested in twins, and wrote about twins in his fiction and drama? Twins are mentioned in such Wilder’s plays as Our Town and Such Things Happen Only in Books, but appear perhaps most notably in his fiction in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and in Theophilus North, which he saw in part as the fictionalized story of his dead twin.

Wilder's Writing and Personality

  • A classmate of Wilder’s at Oberlin, who later became chairman of Oberlin’s history department, said of Wilder,“What a fantastic freshman he was. He spoke in an excited and exotic manner, highly punctuated with epigrams. Everything about him - appearance, dress, speech, and manner, - was precise, even precious."
  • In Wilder’s writings, characters are created to convey ideas which makes some of his characters symbols.
  • Wilder’s plays all have an anecdote, but the anecdote is only hinted at by Wilder through clues. Many of the anecdotes convey a moral or religious perception.
  • Characters from Wilder’s story have a daily life that is ordinary and common in order to relate to the audience.
  • He was a novelist of morals: standards that determine the relations of individuals with other individuals, answers found by individuals to the old problems of faith, hope, charity, or love, art, duty, submission to one’s fate… and hence they are relatively universal
  • Wilder was inspired by music and considered theater to be "the greatest of all art forms" which led to his interest in writing plays.

Did You Know?

… that Wilder was a talented musician, studying piano, organ and violin; he sang in choral groups and church choirs; and over the course of his lifetime, he read musical scores as an avocation? He also wrote the librettos for two operas based on his work–The Long Christmas Dinner and The Alcestiad.

Collection of Works


  • The Cabala (1926)
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)- Received a Pulitzer Prize
  • Heaven's My Destination (1934)
  • The Eighth Day (1967)
  • Theophilus North (1973)


  • An Angel That Troubled Waters and Other Plays (1928)
  • The Woman of Andros (1930)
  • Our Town (1938)- Received a Pulitzer Prize
  • The Merchant of Yonkers (1938)
  • The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)- Received a Pulitzer Prize
  • The Matchmaker (1954)
  • Plays for Bleeker Street (1962)
  • Hello Dolly! (1964)


  • Shadow of Doubt (1943) (collaboration)

Comparison to Other Members of the Lost Generation


  • Took an early delight in reading
  • Literary reputation was gained in college (Yale literary magazine)
  • Wartime service in the army (coast artillery of WWI)
  • Spent a year in Europe as a spectator of greatness and decay
  • First book was recognized critically and second book was a popular success
  • Events portray a coming of age, falling in love, getting married, and dying


  • Two of his boyhood years were spent in China, which had a somewhat negative effect on his work
  • Never belonged to a "conspiracy of youth" or a "rebellion against middle age."
  • Was not one of "all the sad young men," as Fitzgerald had called the Lost Generation. He described himself as "fundamentally a happy person."
  • Never fell in love with the city of Paris like the other Lost Generation authors.
  • Likes to find the goodness or greatness in people and books, optimistic by instinct, in the fashion of an older America.

Did you know?

… that besides acting in his own plays in summer stock - and once even briefly on Broadway--Wilder was at home on the stage as a nationally celebrated teacher, lecturer and cultural emissary in Europe and Latin America?

Should Wilder Be In the Lost Generation?


  • Wilder's expansive literary career began in college when he wrote for Yale's literary magazine. Many other members of the Lost Generation also began their writing careers during their schooling. These included William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • Thornton Wilder dedicated a few years (beginning during his junior year at Yale) to wartime service in the army. Although he was not an ambulance driver during World War I like many of the Lost Generation members, he served in the coast artillery. His military experiences affected his writing, just as many Lost Generation members were affected by their experiences
  • After the War, Wilder spent about a year abroad in Europe in order to experience a different aspect of life. Here, he saw both greatness and decay. His travels to Europe created a much more pleasant influence on his writings than did his time spent in China.
  • Wilder's first book, The Cabala, was critically acclaimed. Then, when his second book was published, it quickly became a popular success. This is similar to several other Lost Generation members, such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

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