Thornton Wilder: A Life

Penelope Niven, Author
Penelope Niven. Harper, $34.99 (848p) ISBN 978-0-06-083136-3
Reviewed on: 06/11/2012
Release date: 10/01/2012
Paperback - 832 pages - 978-0-06-083137-0
Ebook - 864 pages - 978-0-06-209777-4
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Fans and scholars of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder will delight in Niven’s comprehensive and engaging biography. Niven (Carl Sandburg: A Biography) combed through the author’s many published and unpublished personal writings (including letters, manuscripts, journals, and family records) to create a “substantial scaffolding of facts that shape and support a narrative of his life and work.” A bookish second son, Wilder was painfully micromanaged by an overbearing father who was distressed by Wilder’s theatrical and literary inclinations—though such inclinations allowed him to take full financial responsibility for his parents and sisters once he found commercial success with the publication of The Bridge of San Luis Ray in 1928. “Wilder once called himself the poet laureate of the family,” and Niven gives ample evidence that this title was deserved. He never married (questions remain about his sexuality; it was one of the few subjects he didn’t write about), but remained devoted to his immediate family and close friends. Through Wilder’s own words, the reader is privy to his arrogant thrills and frequent bouts of self-doubt. Chronicling Wilder’s successes and failures in various literary forms (novels, plays, lectures), Niven includes brief criticism and reviews with each of his major works. The real value of her extensive research comes in the seamless weaving of letters and journals that make up the full tapestry of the writer’s life. Photos. Agent: Barbara Hogenson, the Barbara Hogensen Agency. (Oct.)
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