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Wilder, Thornton 1897-1975  
 
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Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright and novelist Thornton Niven Wilder was a prolific writer prominent in twentieth-century literature. A discreet homosexual, his sexual proclivities were kept far out of the limelight.

Wilder's mainstream literary works are landmarks of American literature, but they reveal scant traces of his homosexuality. He can be credited for acting as a behind-the-scenes ambassador for the Lost Generation, making their avant-garde themes accessible to a middle-brow American public.

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Family Background and Education

Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin on April 17, 1897, though he spent most of his boyhood in Berkeley, California. As an adolescent, Wilder isolated himself in academic projects, heeding his father's admonitions for constant self-improvement.

Wilder's entire family was one of achieving, industrious, self-reliant Congregationalists with a strong work ethic. His father was the outspoken editor of a small-town newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1906 he was appointed U. S. consul general to Hong Kong and, later, to Shanghai. After retiring from the foreign service in 1914, he directed the Yale-in-China Association and became known as a popular public speaker.

Wilder's mother, Isabella Nevins Wilder, was especially close to her son and encouraged his literary aspirations. The daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman from Dobbs Ferry, New York, she wrote poetry, was adept at foreign languages, and took a leadership role in civic affairs. In 1920, she became the first woman elected to public office in Hamden, Connecticut.

Wilder's twin brother died at birth, but his other siblings achieved varying levels of prominence. His older brother Amos became a well-known theologian; his sister Charlotte became a poet who, after a promising beginning, suffered a debilitating nervous breakdown that resulted in her being institutionalized for much of her life; his youngest sister Janet became a zoologist. The sibling with whom Wilder was closest was Isabel, who never married; she and Wilder lived together in Hamden, Connecticut after the deaths of their parents.

In his childhood Wilder bridged the cultural gap between his father's private schools in China and his mother's liberal/artistic household in Berkeley. His roving intellectual enthusiasms (James Joyce, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, Lope de Vega, Johann von Goethe, small-town America) blossomed in his adolescence, especially his interest in theater.

At fifteen the budding playwright was cast as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, but his strict father forbade this drag role. Later, Wilder delighted in playing central characters in his own plays, such as the Stage Manager in Our Town and Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth.

Wilder graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915 and then entered Oberlin College, where he studied Greek and Latin. In 1917, he transferred to Yale University. After serving eight months in the Coast Artillery Corps during World War I, he returned to Yale, where he received his B. A. in 1920. In 1926, he was awarded an M. A. in French literature from Princeton.

Wilder's first professional theatrical success was The Trumpet Shall Sound (1926), an allegorical farce about servants taking over their employer's house. This was followed closely by the critical success of his first published novel The Cabala (1926). Inspired by a trip to Italy, the novel details the interwoven lives of privileged aristocrats engaged in power struggles into which the visiting American narrator is recruited to play a crucial role.

Friendships among the Lost Generation

Wilder described himself as "The only writer of the Lost Generation who did not 'go' to Paris," a statement that was not literally true but which expresses his attachment to American life and values even as many of the writers of his generation yearned to escape what they saw as the stifling conformity of small-town life.

Wilder's warmest friendships included Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas whom he met in Chicago in 1934, when he was teaching comparative literature at the University of Chicago. Through them he befriended many of the gay artists in their circle. Like other writers of this period, Wilder's energies were devoted to the production of vibrant artworks that were allusive and symbolic, converting his personal circumstances into universal myths.

Broaching "The Subject"

For all the liberation of the Jazz Age and the period following, homosexuality was only discreetly discussed among writers of the Lost Generation. Samuel Steward (1909-1993), Wilder's friend, recorded a conversation in the 1930s with Gertrude Stein in a rare broaching of "The Subject":

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A 1946 portrait of Thornton Wilder as Mr. Antrobus in his play "The Skin of Our Teeth." Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.
  
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