Today in History

Today in History: April 17

Thornton Wilder

This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.

Thornton Wilder, Our Town, Act 1

Thornton Wilder
Thornton Wilder as Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Your [Our] Teeth,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer, August 18, 1948.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964

Thornton Niven Wilder was born April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin. Arguably one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century, Wilder is the only writer to win Pulitzer Prizes (external link) for both literature and drama.

Son of a U.S. diplomat, Wilder spent part of his childhood in China. After serving in the Coast Guard during World War I, he earned his B.A. at Yale University in 1920. Six years later, his first novel, The Cabala was published. In 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey brought commercial success and his first Pulitzer Prize. From 1930 to 1937 he taught at the University of Chicago.

Wilder's dramatic works include the Pulitzer Prize winning plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Set in fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, Our Town (1938) employs a choric narrator called the "Stage Manager," and a minimalist set to underscore the universality of human experience. The Skin of Our Teeth debuted in 1942 with Frederic March and Talullah Bankhead in the lead roles. The themes are familiar—war, pestilence, economic depression, and fire. Ignoring the limits of time and space, just four main characters and three acts are used to review the history of mankind.

Wilder authored seven novels, three major full-length plays, as well as a variety of shorter works including essays, one-act plays, and scholarly articles. Greatly transformed, his play The Matchmaker became the Broadway and film hit Hello, Dolly!. His last novel, Theophilus North, was published in 1973. Wilder died in his sleep on December 7, 1975.

Church at Lancaster, New Hampshire,
Arthur Rothstein, photographer, February 1936.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945