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Wilder, Thornton 1897-1975  
page: 1  2  3  

Amid this theatrical flurry, Wilder also managed to produce more novels. The Woman of Andros (1930) concerns a courtesan's passionate love for a younger man. In The Ides of March (1947), Julius Caesar is a convenient historical character around whom Wilder weaves his own musings about ultimate power. The Eighth Day (1967) begins as a murder mystery where a man is wrongly convicted of killing a neighbor. The adventures of his escape and the repercussions of the murder become occasions for meditations upon time, identity, and existence.

Because of their folksy storytelling and economic presentation, some of Wilder's works became instant American classics. Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey have joined the canon of high school reading lists.

Although Wilder's plays were considered experimental in their staging and his works often reflect the influence of avant-garde writers and thinkers, his art is packaged with a down-to-earth wholesomeness designed to appeal to middle-class American audiences.

Still, it is a mistake to think that Wilder's works are complacent or unchallenging; he always nudged the American values he depicted with provocative afterthoughts.

"The chief thing to remember about conventions is that they are soothing," Wilder observes in his essay, "American Characteristics"(1950). Behind a mask of soothing conventionality, Wilder hid deliberate suggestions of a dark side.

For example, his one-act-play "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" (1931) purports to be a merry family car outing. But the "journey" turns out to be anything but a "happy" one because the family is visiting an older married daughter who has just given birth to a stillborn baby.

Homosexual Traces

Wilder's plays and novels contain no explicit gay themes. Nor is there substantial gay subtext to decode. His sexuality was so well-closeted that it is scarcely hinted at even "between-the-lines."

It could be speculated that the character of Simon Stimson in Our Town is Wilder's poignant portrayal of a man whose sensitivities and sexuality have been stifled by the enforced conformity of a small town. Stimson is the town drunk and organist for the Congregational Church. The character commits suicide, suggesting that his is the tragedy of a closeted gay man.

The title character in Wilder's last novel Theophilus North (1973) is an older bachelor artist in Newport, Rhode Island. His genteel position as a tutor from the outside world makes him privy to the personal problems of many of the town's elite. Like Wilder's first novel, The Cabala, Theophilus North is an anthology of various characters' stories. North finds himself acting as a pivotal player and advisor to their lives and may reflect Wilder's own experience as a tutor in Newport when he was a young man.


Thornton Wilder died on December 7, 1975. His many honors, in addition to three Pulitzer Prizes, included the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1952), the first Presidential Medal of Freedom (1962), and the National Book Committee's Medal for Literature (1968).

In Wilder's public and personal life, the "love that dared not speak its name" usually remained unspoken. Nevertheless, this devoted acolyte of art spoke volumes about the redeeming power of understanding, hope, and love in all its forms. One can only wonder whether he might have addressed more explicitly the question of homosexuality (and its repression) had he lived in a more tolerant time or place.

Jeff Johnson

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Blank, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.

_____, et al. Thornton Wilder: New Essays. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 1999.

Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986.

Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast. A Life of Thornton Wilder. New Haven and New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.

Keehnen, Owen. "A Very Magical Life: Talking with Samuel Steward." 1993.

Lifton, Paul. Vast Encyclopedia: The Theatre of Thornton Wilder. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1995.

Thornton Wilder Society Webpage.

Wilder, Thornton. The Journals of Thornton Wilder. 1939-1961. Donald Gallup, ed. New Haven and London. Yale University Press. 1985.

_____. American Characteristics and Other Essays. Donald Gallup, ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.


    Citation Information
    Author: Johnson, Jeff  
    Entry Title: Wilder, Thornton  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated May 18, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  


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