By LEO ROBSON
Near the beginning of this large book, Penelope Niven records that while traveling on the SS Siberia from San Francisco to Hong Kong in 1905, Thornton Wilder missed the whole of his eighth birthday when the ship crossed the international date line. The impression created by details such as this, and by Ms. Niven's copious and conscientious footnotes, is of a figure whose experiences, from a young age, have been not just amply documented but diligently preserved and of a biographer eager to hand on every particle. (Ms. Niven confesses that she has taken "a virtual microscope" to Wilder's early years.)
It is hardly unexpected that the author of "Our Town," a favorite on both Broadway and the amateur stage, and of novels including the absorbing "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" found a home for his personal papers and those of his family. But it is refreshing and reassuring and ever so slightly strange that, at a time when Wilder's work is about as unfashionable as the 800-page literary biography, somebody would not only trouble to work her way through the papers—many unavailable to previous biographers—but succeed in persuading a publisher to act as go-between for quite so many findings.
Thornton Wilder: A Life
By Penelope Niven
Harper, 832 pages, $39.99
The size of Wilder's freshman class at Oberlin, his father's decision to start signing letters with his first name and middle initial, the success and otherwise of his younger sister's poetry collections: There is no end to Ms. Niven's diligence or to her faith in the reader's taste for trivia. And there are pleasures to be derived from the less obviously substantial archival material, such as letters from Thornton's father, a diplomat, to the headmaster of a school that Thornton attended. Thornton arrived, he wrote, as the "last word in high browism" but had soon developed "a fair chest" and "a firm handshake." We learn that Wilder, having been moved across continents (from North America to Southeast Asia and back again) as a child, passed the rest of his life peripatetically, traveling in Europe and South America—even, in the early 1960s, settling in Douglas, Ariz., for 20 months, after his Thunderbird stalled on a cross-country road trip. (Wilder's adult response to the temperance pledge forced on him as a boy was altogether more counter-reactive.)
When Wilder died in 1975, at the age of 78, he was famous "around the world" (a phrase used twice on the first page of this book). By stopping at his death, and hewing to chronology along the way, Ms. Niven avoids considering the loss of reputation that Wilder has suffered since. Wilder's friend Edmund Wilson habitually grouped Wilder with other writers of the period, such as Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, whose reputations are nowadays far more stable. A biography, however weighty, is unlikely to provoke a revival on its own, but it can help things along, as was the case with Blake Bailey's 2003 book on Richard Yates. Beyond the implicit statement of writing so large and exacting a book, Ms. Niven makes no case for Wilder's continuing importance; it might be said that she does him every imaginable service except the one he needs most.
The task is admittedly complicated by the fact that Wilder's was in no sense a story of rise and fall. Dido Davies, in her biography of the Anglo-Russian novelist William Gerhardie, was able to explain that his comic novels, popular in the 1920s, fared less well when, after World War II, "England lost her gaiety." Margaret Drabble ended her biography of the British novelist Angus Wilson with reflections on his reputation because he lived long enough to see his work go out of fashion. But even in 1967, 30 years after "Our Town," 40 years after "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," Wilder's "The Eighth Day," an ambitious novel about two families and a murder, won the National Book Award and became a best seller.
Ms. Niven establishes beyond all doubt that Wilder was a novelist and playwright exceptional in his ability to hit upon forms to fit his themes and that he was famous and loved during his lifetime, but the neglect he has suffered over the past quarter-century has hardly emerged in ignorance of these facts. The tale of Wilder's posthumous fortunes is not one of repudiation or backlash or iconoclasm. John Updike, a member of the prize jury that recognized "The Eighth Day," didn't appear to have revised his opinion of the novel downward when he wrote the introduction to a new edition in 2006; the next year, Wilder entered the Library of America; and in 2009 the critic John Lahr claimed that a new production of "Our Town" showed that the play still "speaks as unforgettably as it did back then to the vanity of national despair."
The idea of a play or novel having something direct or urgent to say to the public is repeatedly invoked by Ms. Niven to explain Wilder's success. Ms. Niven writes that "Our Town" "spoke to theater audiences during the Depression" and that the film adaptation "resonated with the American audience in what Wilder described to friends as that time of 'vast and terrible events.' " The film "Hello, Dolly!," adapted from Wilder's play "The Matchmaker," is said to have offered "hope for the future" during the civil rights era. (Of his Depression-set fourth novel, "Heaven's My Destination" (1935), Wilder wrote: "I hope it will be somehow useful to a lot of troubled young people.") It isn't the case that Wilder's work has nothing to say—Tony Blair quoted the final words of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," which tells the individual stories of those killed in a disaster, at the service for the British victims of 9/11—but that the reigning presumption is that it doesn't.
The irony and the misfortune is that Wilder was concerned, in his plays and novels, with constancy—with such things as the enduring core of human nature. "We all know that something is eternal," the Stage Manager tells the audience in "Our Town" (not only the most popular of his plays but also his accomplished, along with the 1942 century-hopping allegory "The Skin of Our Teeth"). "And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars." He decides that there's "something way down deep that's eternal about every human being," and to the extent that Wilder's other work diverges from this view, it does so to say that there's something eternal about humanity in general. Wilder, defending himself against Marxist critics, told an interviewer of his belief that "fundamental emotions, love, hate, fear, anger, surprise are common to all mankind, in any milieu, in any age." And his work was expected to last: "Wilder," announced a review of his third novel, "The Women of Andros" (1943), "is writing for the ages."
The biographer Scott Donaldson, in his foreword to a recent selection of Wilder's letters, considers the question of Wilder's neglect but doesn't stay for an answer, at least, not a thoughtful one. He blames the critics for whom starvation is viewed as "a precondition of artistic excellence"—as if critics were Wilder's enemy—and the resentful left who disdained Wilder for his avoidance of proletarian propaganda. In any case, if critics or commentators have some effect on writers' reputations, it is historical forces that perform the preparatory work of establishing what thrives or survives and what doesn't. (The only critic who might have had a real effect on the reputation of Wilder's work, its perceived ambitions and affiliations, was Dwight Macdonald, who damned "Our Town" as "midcult," surely on the grounds of its reception rather than the—essentially Brechtian—style of its dramaturgy.)
Instead of pointing the finger elsewhere, Mr. Donaldson, who has written lives of Hemingway, John Cheever and Archibald MacLeish, among others, might have considered why none of his own books have taken Wilder as their subject. The answer might serve to explain why other popular biographers and literary historians have experienced a similar lack of attraction. Wilder had no great rivalry (Mr. Donaldson is the author of a book on Hemingway and Fitzgerald), isn't associated with a movement, genre, or even decade, and there is no "lore" attached to his name. The writer who said that the history of literature was a serial "torch race" rather than a "furious dispute among heirs" has had no prominent followers. (He did have prominent admirers, such as John Guare, and did aid some prominent younger writers, including Edward Albee and Orson Welles). Wilder is also unlikely, due to the continuing popular appeal of his best-known work, to benefit from underdog rescue missions. Ms. Niven doesn't note, even in passing, that Wilder lacks a position in American literary history commensurate with a charmed and prosperous life in which he received praise from Freud and Einstein, skated with Walt Disney, picnicked with the Roosevelts and took tea with T.S. Eliot.
It might be the case that a future generation will find greater use for Wilder, but it would require broader cultural changes. As things stand, authors whose work is thought to invite and reward interpretation are guaranteed some kind of afterlife in universities, but Wilder, were he studied at all, would doubtless be found too straight-shooting in his use of fable and allegory and archetype.
Ms. Niven has delivered a swift-moving historical narrative, replete with vivid encounters but devoid of wider exploration, in which all too little attention is paid to those facets—Wilder's sense of the past, his modernist or proto-postmodernist experiments with literary form, his existentially inflected Christianity—that could help to reinvent him as a plausible modern figure with the ability to flatter, provoke or console.—Mr. Robson is a regular contributor to the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement.