Chicago makes a claim on many writers — Nelson Algren, David Mamet, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg — even if those scribes spent only a portion of their lives within its sweet confines. But Thornton Wilder, the author of such iconic plays as “Our Town” and “The Skin of Our Teeth” and such novels as “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” and “The Eighth Day,” is not generally on that list. Wilder, one of the close-knit brood born to the journalist, diplomat and general literary striver Amos Parker Wilder, had a sophisticated and peripatetic, if perennially impecunious, youth. His father, somewhat of a benign control freak, dragged Thornton and his siblings (Amos, Charlotte, Isabel and, eventually, Janet) from Madison, Wis., to Hong Kong, to Berkeley, Calif., to Shanghai. And being a stickler for high moral and practical values along with literary sophistication, he made them spend some of their summers learning how to live on a farm. Wilder was partly schooled in Chefoo, China. He frequently described himself as a wandering gypsy. His father feared his youngest son would one day wake up and find himself little more than an "interesting derelict."
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But Penelope Niven's essential and exhaustive 800-page biography, "Thornton Wilder: A Life," makes it clear that it was in Chicago in the early 1930s that Wilder, by then one of the most famous writers in America, finally began to outgrow his early years as a "shy, awkward boy" under his father's watchful eye and finally feel connected to a place and thus, by extension, to himself. Teaching at the University of Chicago, Wilder morphed from a wandering, insecure lecturer and writer into a Chicago and American celebrity. When he lectured at the university's downtown outpost at the Art Institute of Chicago, Niven tells us, "his topic — 'Sophocles for English readers' — was advertised on billboards all over the city." Who knew Sophocles could pull a crowd in 1930s Chicago?
Actually, it was probably Wilder — who had not yet written "Our Town" — who was the main draw. His name would show up in Chicago gossip columns, linked to various eligible singles. He hung out with Fanny Butcher, the Tribune's literary editor. He would trip up to Ten Chimneys to hang out, sometimes in the nude, with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. And at one point, Niven recounts, Wilder wrote to a friend of his pleasure at dining with Edith Rockefeller McCormick on one night — after having supped, at 4 a.m. on the previous morning, with Jack McGurn, the "chief representative and lieutenant" of one Al Capone.
Wilder, a man who, thanks to "Our Town," is known as the poet laureate of small-town America and yet who prided himself on embracing "variety, variety," drank from pretty much all the waters his adopted city had to give. "He carried on a love-hate relationship with Paris and Los Angeles, charmed by some facets of those cities, repelled by others," Niven writes. "He felt at home in certain German cities, especially Munich and Berlin, and the Swiss-German city of Zurich. There were towns and villages he loved — New Haven and Hamden, Peterborough, Juan-les-Pins, Martha's Vineyard, Monhegan Island. But all in all, there was probably no city he loved more than he loved Chicago."
For Wilder, it seems, Chicago was just the right combination of familiar Midwestern values and landscapes with additional specialties: a lake, great architecture, writers and gangsters. Coming in the heart of this biography, it is easy to see the city as an extension, or maybe a manifestation, of the writer himself.
Amos Parker Wilder was frequently apart from his wife, Isabella, and his children, which partly accounts for the massive amounts of familial correspondence upon which Niven based much of her studiously researched and measured — perhaps measured to a fault — account of Wilder's life. Even without their geographic separations, though, the Wilders were unstoppable writers, and Niven, who had more access to more papers than previous biographers, takes pains to place Thornton Wilder very much in the context of his childhood and all of the other young Wilders whom Amos, Niven tells us, moved around as if they were chess pieces on the board of his master plan.
Amos does not come off here as a tyrant or a huge success: In the end, he was financially dependent on the son in whom he had displayed the least amount of confidence. And he certainly shaped Thornton in ways he did not intend. But Niven makes the case that you cannot understand Wilder or his works without understanding both the richness of his childhood education (Isabella read her kids "Ulysses") and also how strongly his father tried to pull the strings of a life quite different from his own. Indeed, 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.
Niven, whose style is forthright and quite sober (although eminently readable) does not delve much into Wilder's sex life, justifying the omission with an assertion that Wilder was either asexual for many years or took enormous pains to conceal his own sexual tracks — or both. Even though Sigmund Freud apparently tried to set Wilder up with his daughter, Anna (his sexual orientation must have fooled one whom, presumably, was hard to fool), one gets the sense that Wilder probably was gay throughout his life, although Niven effects a certain disgust for any salacious content and casts doubts on one of the very few Wilder lovers to tell tales out of bed.
About the only point in this huge book in which she references her own biographical preferences and methodology is when she notes that "it is arguable" whether a writer's sex life is anyone's business unless that writer made it so. Fair enough. But, aside from its confusion of the rules of soccer and cricket (both of which Wilder encountered as a kid in China), one of the few flaws of this very fine biography is a certain discomfort with Wilder's adult proclivities. Niven is more interested in how the child made the man and the writer.
That interest, though, produces many compelling revelations. In China, where eyes were always upon him, Wilder was already aware of the complexity of the relationship between the individual and the community, a constant theme in his work. As a college freshman, he already was noting that "great plays need great, but natural language," a signature aspect of his own dramas. Niven closely tracks the competing religious and mystical forces vying for young Wilder's allegiance, which would spill out all over the pages of his novels. And it was in a letter to his sister Charlotte that Wilder the explorer wrote one of the best descriptions of his own brilliance: "The art of writing is a matter of alpine climbing — peak to peak, and let the chasms snatch the fearful."
Chris Jones is the Tribune's theater critic.
"Thornton Wilder: A Life"
By Penelope Niven, Harper, 848 pages, $39.99Copyright © 2015, RedEye