Thornton Wilder was born prematurely on April 17, 1897; his twin brother, to have been named Theophilus, was stillborn. Throughout his life he was “predisposed to fascination with this relationship,” his brother Amos said. “Indeed one could hazard that he was haunted all his life by this missing alter ego.”
Thornton’s father described him as “[n]ot a good ‘mixer’” in his application for the Thacher School in San Francisco. “He is ‘the boy that is different’—Sensitive—Self-conscious—radiantly happy when with those he likes who understand him—May develop ‘moods.’”
His mother, who was pregnant for fifty-two of the first seventy-two months of her marriage, referred to her wedding to his father, a teetotaling diplomat and newspaperman, as “the worst day that ever befell either of us.”
The family left San Francisco for Thornton’s father’s new posting in Hong Kong on April 7, 1906, ten days before Thornton’s birthday and eleven days before the San Francisco earthquake. His birthday disappeared as they crossed the international dateline.
Wilder joined the military during World War I. “What is being planned for me? I do not know,” he wrote to his grandmother. “I am always at odds with life. I am a personality peculiarly isolated.” He began writing a journal, beginning with a two-part epigraph that quotes Malvolio—“Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy … ’tis with him in standing water, between boy and man”—and an old aphorism: “When enthusiastic—make a note of. For what is not expressed dies.”
Wilder’s second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), earned him fame, recognition, and the Pulitzer Prize. “My life has variety,” he wrote to a friend. “The other night I had supper (4 am) as the guest of Jack McGurn (Capone’s chief representative and lieutenant) and Sam the golf bag killer. Tonight I dine at Mrs. Rockefeller McCormick’s off the gold plate that Napoleon gave Josephine.”
He spent an hour and a half with Freud in 1935. “Religion is the recapitulation and the solution of the problems of one’s first four years that have been covered by amnesia,” the doctor told him.
Two more Pulitzer Prizes would come to Wilder, for Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), the latter of which was the subject of Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s two-part Saturday Review of Literature exposé “The Skin of Whose Teeth?,” in which they claimed that the play was “an Americanized re-creation, thinly disguised, of James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake.’” Wilder, who had spent the summer of 1939 obsessing over Joyce’s final novel, conceded the similarity in the October 1957 issue of Harper’s Magazine. “Literature has always more resembled a torch race than a furious dispute among heirs,” he wrote.
Wilder petitioned for James Joyce to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, was briefly mistaken for an accomplice to German spies, and cowrote the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt (1943), for which another writer received an Academy Award. By 1960 he had become, in his own words, “a growly-smiley grouching-chuckling old humbug curmudgeon,” and two years later he decided to head west to a town called Patagonia. When his Thunderbird stalled near Douglas, Arizona, he decided to stay; other Douglassians knew him as “the professor,” and it was there that he befriended Louie the engineer, Rosie the hotel elevator girl, Gladys the cook at the Palm Grove, and Harry Ames. He left in 1963 with skin cancer, a draft of The Eighth Day (1967), and the premise of the semi-autobiographical Theophilus North (1973), the protagonist of which was named after Wilder’s twin plus an anagram of “Thorn.”
“I think I’m pulling myself together for another piece of work,” Wilder said on December 3, 1973. He passed away four days later.