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Thornton Wilder

Born in the city called the Berkley of the Midwest, Thornton Wilder introduced himself to the world in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897.  He became famous as a novelist and playwright and is best known for writing The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Our Town, and The Skin of Our TeethHis twin brother died at birth, and Wilder grew up with an older brother, Amos Niven, and three younger sisters, Charlotte, Isabel, and Janet. 

As a member of a talented and industrious family, Wilder lived for a while in China.  Amos Parker Wilder, a newspaper owner and editor, was U.S. consul general to Hong Kong and Shanghai, while Wilder's older brother, Amos Niven, was a well regarded professor of New Testament scholarship, an inspirational essayist, and a distinguished poet.  He was also well regarded by the ladies around the tennis courts.

Of Wilder's sisters, Charlotte became a professor of English and an award-winning poet.  Isabel was the author of three popular novels and the curator of Yale University's theater archive.  The youngest Wilder sibling, Janet Wilder Dakin, was a professor of biology, an author, and a noted environmentalist. 

As a boy, young Wilder grew up near a university theater that performed Greek dramas, and his mother let him participate as a member of the chorus.  He never forgot the experience and vowed that someday he would write for the theater.

When he finished high school after moving to California, Wilder attended Oberlin College in Ohio, after which he received his undergraduate degree at Yale and his graduate degree at Princeton.  He wrote his first play, The Trumpet Shall Sound (1926), while he was still a Yalie.

After being graduated from college, Wilder's father sent his son to Rome, where he worked on an archaeological dig at the site of ancient Roman ruins.  He later said, "Once you have swung a pickax that will reveal the curve of a street four thousand years covered over which was once an active, much-traveled highway, you are never quite the same again."  The experience inspired him to begin writing fiction about characters caught up in the forces of fate and history.  His second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), was about a group of unrelated characters who are all killed by the collapse of a bridge in Peru.  It was a roaring critical success, and it earned him the Pulitzer Prize.

While Wilder was working at the University of Chicago, he began experimenting with a series of one-act plays that used nearly no scenery or props.  They included a muse-like character called the Stage Manager who knew everything about the story and characters.  In 1938, Wilder produced the play for which he is best known, Our Town, one of the first major Broadway plays to use minimal scenery so that the audience had to imagine the world in which the characters lived.  Wilder said, "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in 'scenery'....[A play] needs only five square feet of boarding and a passion to know what life means to us."

Our Town is about the New England village of Grover's Corners, where characters George Gibbs and Emily Webb grow up, fall in love at the local soda fountain, and marry.  As Emily lies dying while giving birth to their first child, she relives the day of her twelfth birthday and realizes how little she cherished life while she was alive: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it,—every, every minute?"  The play ran for 336 performances on Broadway and won another Pulitzer Prize.

Wilder went on to write numerous plays, screenplays, and novels.  Near the end of his life, he realized that he might not be remembered as well as some writers who had written darker stories, but he said, "My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate."

By the time Thornton Wilder died on December 7, 1975, at his home in Hamden, Connecticut, he was already an American icon, an internationally famous playwright, and a novelist.  To this day, his works are read, performed, and appreciated by audiences worldwide.

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