By Penelope Niven
(Harper, Hardcover, 9780060831363, 848pp.)
Publication Date: October 2012
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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Art is confession; art is the secret told. . . . But art is not only the desire to tell one's secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time. And the secret is nothing more than the whole drama of the inner life.
Thornton Wilder: A Life, the first biography of the playwright and novelist since 1983, is also the first to be based on thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts, and other documentary evidence of Wilder's life, work, and times. For more than a decade, biographer Penelope Niven has worked with unprecedented access to Wilder's papers, including his family's private journals and records, searching for the secrets that illuminate Wilder's public life and work, as well as the hidden inner self sometimes concealed and sometimes revealed in his art and in his papers.
Thornton Wilder was a multifaceted man: a teacher, novelist, playwright, lecturer, actor, musician, soldier, man of letters, outspoken citizen, and international public figure. He was also an enigmatic, intensely private man. He belonged to a close-knit, complicated family—two brilliant parents, four gifted siblings, and the specter of his twin brother lost at birth. His biography is also a compelling family saga, starring Thornton Wilder, with strong supporting roles played by his father, mother, brother, and sisters.
He was a gypsy, wandering the world, writing, he said, for and about everybody—a fact international audiences still embrace. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Eighth Day, and his other novels are still read in the United States and abroad. His plays, especially the iconic Our Town and the revolutionary Skin of Our Teeth, are still performed on stages around the globe.
Yet despite the international fame and visibility of Wilder the writer, far too little has been known or understood about Wilder the man—until now. Comprehensively researched and richly detailed, Thornton Wilder: A Life brings the private man center stage and sheds new light on his published and unpublished work.
Penelope Niven is the author of critically acclaimed biographies of poet Carl Sandburg and photo-grapher Edward Steichen, as well as Swimming Lessons, a memoir, and Voices and Silences, coauthored with the actor James Earl Jones. She is the recipient of three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Thornton Wilder Visiting Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale, and other fellowships and awards. Niven lectures both in the United States and abroad, and she has served as a consultant for television films about Sandburg, Steichen, and Jones. She lives in North Carolina.
In the course of his career, Thornton Wilder wrote plays, novels and essays â?? but none as enduring as Our Town. Wilder biographer Penelope Niven attributes the play's success to its universal setting: a "mythical village" that "incorporates characteristics from every mythical village." More at NPR.org
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“A powerful and much-needed portrayal of a major American writer and social critic.”
-New York Times Book Review on Carl Sandburg: A Biography
“Niven complements her own clear, lyrical voice with the eloquent words of Steichen’s contemporaries.”
-New York Times Book Review on Steichen: A Biography
Almost everybody knows OUR TOWN, but very few people really know Thornton Wilder. Penelope Niven’s fascinating biography changes that once and for all…Meticulously researched, Niven’s book reads like a riveting novel.
-—James Earl Jones
“This new biography of Wilder -- comprehensive and wisely fashioned -- gives us sufficient view of his methods, his public and private life, and the reaches of his mind…This book is a splendid and long needed work.”