Thornton Niven Wilder

Early Life

Thornton Niven Wilder, who is widely regarded as a significant literary figure of the 20th century, was born in Madison, California, USA on April 17, 1897. His father, Amos Parker Wilder, was a newspaper editor and diplomat, while his mother, Isabella Niven Wilder, was a homemaker. After he was born, the family moved to China as his father became the U.S. consul general there. Thornton, often called Niven, wasn’t the only talented child in the family. His older brother, Amos Niven Wilder, became a professor, and his sister, Isabel Wilder, became a well-known writer. So, you can see, the Wilder family was full of accomplished and successful individuals!


In 1906, when the family relocated to California, Niven Wilder began his formal education at the English China Inland Mission School located at Cheefoo. Sadly, the family’s plans in China were disrupted by the unstable political climate, prompting their return to California in 1992. He then enrolled at Berkeley High School and completed his education, earning his diploma in 1995. Later, he attended Oberlin College and Yale University and completed his bachelor’s degree in 1920.


The literary world was captivated by Wilder’s overflowing mind, as his pen continued to overflow with witty ideas. However, despite leaving behind a legacy of literary brilliance, this legendary individual met his demise on December 7, 1975 and was laid to rest at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hamden, Connecticut.

Some Important Facts about Him

  1. He is widely recognized for his masterpiece, Our Town, which won various honours and awards for the writer.
  2. He earned Pulitzer Prizes for his remarkable works, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Our Town, and The Skin of Our Teeth.
  3. Wilder also won U.S. National Book Award for the novel The Eighth Day.
  4. During WWII, he served in the air force and was awarded the Legion of Merit Bronze Star.

His Career

Thornton’s career in writing took off with the help of the Yale Literary Magazine. In 1920, his first play, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” was published in the magazine, marking the beginning of his journey as a published writer. The next year, he began working on his novel, “The Cabala,” which he published in 1926. During the same year, he also completed his master’s degree at Princeton University. Building on the success of his previous publications, he wrote another highly regarded work, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” which established him as a talented American writer.

In 1928, his first dramatic work, “The Angel That Troubled the Waters,” was published, making him even more popular. He went on to create notable plays like “Our Town,” “The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays,” “The Long Christmas Dinner,” “Pullman Car Hiawatha,” “The Matchmaker,” and “A Life in the Sun.” Despite his remarkable plays, his reputation mostly rests on his novels, with “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” being a standout achievement.

His Style

Thornton Niven Wilder, a celebrated American figure, is known for his simple and traditional writing style. He incorporates literary devices and techniques like symbolism, imagery, exaggeration, paradox, irony, and sound devices to make his work captivating and meaningful. His plays often revolve around traditional human values drawn from parables, fables, myths, and the influence of literary giants such as Marcel Proust, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound.

In his famous work, “Our Town,” Wilder highlights the interplay of morality and immorality inherent in every human, depicting both the beauty and the darkness of life. His major themes encompass life, love, pain, morality versus immorality, the importance of companionship, and the transient nature of human existence. Through his simple yet profound style, Wilder delves deep into the complexities of the human experience, leaving a lasting impact on readers and audiences.

Some Important Works of Thornton Wilder

  • Best Plays: Some of his important plays include The Trumpet Shall Sound, The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Ac, Such Things Only Happen in Books and Love and How to Cure It.
  • Other Works: Some of his other works include The Cabala, Ides of March, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Woman of Andros and Heaven’s My Destination.

Thornton Niven Wilder’s Impact on Future Literature

Thornton Niven Wilder’s impact on future literature remains profound, with his plays and novels enduring on stages worldwide, long after his passing. His works reflect his exploration of universal truths within human nature, portraying these qualities in his characters to demonstrate that human experiences transcend place and time. Wilder considered the world his home and was dedicated to instigating positive change through his realistic and creative ideas. His ability to articulate his ideas in his works has influenced subsequent writers, who still choose to draw from his unique and distinctive style to shape their own thoughts. Even today, his literary legacy continues to inspire and shape the landscape of literature, bridging the past and the present with enduring relevance.

Important Quotes

  1. “We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” (Our Town)
  2. Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.” (The Bridge of San Luis Rey)
  3. “Some say that we shall never know, and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer’s day, and some say, to the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.” (The Bridge of San Luis Rey)