Friday, November 30, 2012

Winston-Salem author pens new Thornton Wilder biography

Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, “Our Town,” was first performed on Broadway in 1938. Today, on the eve of its 75th anniversary, it’s the world’s most-produced American play.

Now, Winston-Salem author Penelope Niven reveals the man behind “Our Town” in a new biography. In “Thornton Wilder: A Life” (HarperCollins, $39.99), Niven explores Wilder, his close-knit family and his life as an artist.

Reviewers are praising her new work. Library Journal calls the book “Fast-paced and engaging.” Publishers Weekly describes it as a “seamless weaving of letters and journals that make up the full tapestry of the writer’s life.”

Niven, 73, grew up in Waxhaw. The town was rich in stories, she says, and the perfect place for a girl who dreamed of becoming a writer. Her other works include biographies of poet Carl Sandburg and photographer Edward Steichen, Sandburg’s brother-in-law. She loves exploring the lives of artists.

Like many readers, she discovered Wilder’s artistry in high school when she read “Our Town,” a simple, profound story of life and death in a small American town.

“I was convinced it was written about Waxhaw,” she told me. “How did Thornton Wilder know about Waxhaw?”

He didn’t, of course. But the fact that Niven saw her own world in the fictional village of Grover’s Corners shows why the play remains so popular.

Wilder, who died in 1978, won three Pulitzer Prizes – for the plays “Our Town” and “Skin of Our Teeth” and the novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”

Niven worked on the story of his life for more than a decade. It’s the first Wilder biography since 1983 and the first to use thousands of pages of journals, letters and records recently made available by Wilder’s estate.

Wilder’s circle of friends included many of the 20th century’s biggest names – Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway. And yet he was also a private person.

Wilder never married, and while he was intensely private and did not speak out for himself, many people believed he was gay. Also interesting: Wilder, whose full name is Thornton Niven Wilder, is related to his new biographer. “Our families come from the same little village on an island off the west coast of Scotland,” Niven said.
As “Our Town” turns 75 next month, expect to hear more about the play, and more from Niven. Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., will host the official anniversary celebration on Feb. 4. Niven, along with Tappan Wilder, Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, will speak there on Feb. 12.