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Thornton Wilder

1887-1975

 

Few people today would confuse Berkeley with Grover’s Corners, but for several years during the childhood of Thornton Wilder, Berkeley was “Our Town” to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright. He was the son of Amos Parker Wilder, a newspaper editor who in 1906 was appointed as American Consul General in Hong Kong. While the Wilder family at first accompanied the diplomat to China, they stayed only six months, and then Isabella Wilder returned to the United States with her children. In 1911, when the Mr. Wilder was transferred to Shanghai, the family briefly rejoined him, but eventually returned to settle in Berkeley.

Thornton Wilder attended Emerson Grammar School (in the Elmwood District), and began high school at the exclusive Thacher School in Ojai. He found boarding school to be a lonely and isolating place. He cared little for the rough-and-tumble of sports-crazy adolescents, and his classmates teased him for being “artistic” and overly-intellectual; he was known as a “freak.” A former classmate recalled: “We left him alone, just left him alone. And he would retire to the library, his hideaway, learning to distance himself from humiliation and indifference.” In 1913 he transferred to Berkeley High for his junior and senior years, so that he could live at home with his mother and sisters.

Amos Wilder was a stern, teetotaling Congregationalist who expected his son to be scholar-athlete and a muscular Christian. When Thornton announced that he had been cast as Lady Bracknell in a school production of The Importance of Being Earnest, the senior Wilder informed him that he would rather that Thornton not play female roles. Papa would not absolutely forbid it, but he assumed that his son would want to honor his father’s wishes. Thornton reluctantly conceded, but later wrote to his father in China, “When you have changed your mind as to it, please notify.”

Unlike her husband, Isabella Wilder was artistic and worldly, and she made certain that she and her children took full advantage of the benefits of living in a university town. “In Berkeley,” writes Malcolm Goldstein, “she found opportunities to study informally by attending lectures at the University of California and by participating in foreign-language discussion groups. She was fully aware that her husband, were he present, would not approve, but she encouraged her children, nevertheless, in their independent, extracurricular search for knowledge.” Isabella saw to it that the children were given walk-on parts in plays presented in the Greek Theatre, and even sewed their costumes for them.

Thornton Wilder began writing stories and plays while a student at the Thacher School, and continued at Berkeley High. Of the experience he later wrote: “It is a discouraging business to be an author at sixteen years of age. Such an author is all aspiration and no fulfillment. He is drunk on an imaginary kinship with the writers he most admires, and yet his poor overblotted notebooks show nothing to prove to others, or to himself, that the claim is justified.... An artist is one who knows how life should be lived at its best and is always aware of how badly he is doing it. An artist is one who knows he is failing in living and feeds his remorse by making something fair, and a layman is one who suspects he is failing in living but is consoled by his successes in golf, or in love, or in business.” Wilder wrote a short play which was performed as part of a student vaudeville production at Berkeley High School. Perhaps in reaction to his father’s disapproval of Lady Bracknell, he cast himself in the role of “Mr. Lydia Pinkham.”

Theatre became his passion, and he spent hours in the Doe Library reading European newspapers to learn more about the modern expressionist movement. “The way other kids would follow baseball scores,” his nephew related, “Thornton’s hobby was reading German newspapers so he could read up on German Theater and great German directors like Max Reinhardt.”

Wilder left Berkeley to attend Oberlin College, and then transferred to Yale. He earned a Masters Degree in French from Princeton University in 1926. His first novel, The Cabala was published the same year, and in 1927 his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In 1938 he won another Pulitzer, this time for his play Our Town and again in 1942, for his play The Skin of Our Teeth.

He formed a close, fervent and life-long friendship with Gertrude Stein, but his shyness and natural reserve kept him from acknowledging their shared homosexuality. In the introduction to his collection of letters from Stein, writer Samuel Steward records the reticence which kept this close circle of friends deeply in the closet — even to one another:

Suddenly she grabbed my knee. “Sammy,” she said, “do you think that Alice and I are lesbians?” I had a genuine hot curl of fire up my spine. “I don’t see that it’s anybody’s business one way or another,” I said. “Do you care whether we are,” she asked. “Not in the least,” I said. I was suddenly dripping wet. “Are you queer or gay or different or ‘of it’ as the French say or whatever they are calling it nowadays,” she said, looking narrowly at me. I waggled my hand sidewise. “Both ways,” I said. “I don’t see why I should go through life limping on just one leg to satisfy a so-called norm.” “It bothers a lot of people,” Gertrude said. “But like you said, it’s nobody’s business, it came from the Judeo-Christian ethos, especially Saint Paul the bastard, but he was complaining about youngsters who were not really that way, they did it for money, everybody suspects us or knows but nobody says anything about it. Did Thornie tell you?” “Only when I asked him a direct question and then he didn’t want to answer, he didn’t want to at all. He said yes he supposed in the beginning but that it was all over now.” Gertrude laughed. “How could he know. He doesn’t know what love is. And that’s just like Thornie.”

Wilder and Steward were lovers for a brief period, but it was not a happy nor easy relationship. “If one accepts the essentials of Steward’s story....,” writes Gilbert A. Harrison, “the sexual act was so hurried and reticent, so barren of embrace, tenderness or passion that it might never have happened. Steward felt that for Thornton the act was literally ‘unspeakable’.” If Wilder ever experienced a deep and lasting relationship with another man, it has not been recorded.

Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town has become a staple of high school drama departments, attractive perhaps more for its economical lack of scenery and props than for its sad story of love, loss and regret. There has been speculation that the character of Simon Stimson, the town drunk and organist for the Congregational Church who eventually commits suicide, represents a closeted gay man destroyed by life in a small town.

The isolation which he felt as a schoolboy in Berkeley evidently never left the playwright. In The Journals of Thornton Wilder he speculates about the damaging effects of a lonely childhood:

Starved of the environment of love: hence forever after exhibiting so greedy and omnivorous an expectation of love that no affection they receive is adequate, and (what is worse) their affection for others is not truly love but a demand and command to be loved. I am more and more willing to agree with certain authorities that homosexuality is negative — that it is, even when apparently aggressive, a submission to solicitations. These solicitations are not necessarily those coming from the outside; they come from within also, from an exorbitant need for tenderness, i.e., to be valued by another.

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Read More About It

  • Thornton Wilder, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays (New York : Coward-McCann, 1928), p. xi-xvi
  • ----------, The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961 (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1985)
  • Malcolm Goldstein, The Art of Thornton Wilder (Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 1965)
  • Gilbert A. Harrison, The Enthusiast: a Life of Thornton Wilder (New Haven : Ticknor & Fields, 1983)
  • Samuel Steward, Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1977).
 
 

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Copyright 2002 Regents of the University of California. Email: benemann@law.berkeley.edu.