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Books  >>  Biography

Penelope Niven

Thornton Wilder

Penelope Niven Thornton Wilder A Life
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Main description:

Art is confession; art is the secret told. . . . But art is not only the desire to tell one's secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time. And the secret is nothing more than the whole drama of the inner life.
—Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder: A Life, the first biography of the playwright and novelist since 1983, is also the first to be based on thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts, and other documentary evidence of Wilder's life, work, and times. For more than a decade, biographer Penelope Niven has worked with unprecedented access to Wilder's papers, including his family's private journals and records, searching for the secrets that illuminate Wilder's public life and work, as well as the hidden inner self sometimes concealed and sometimes revealed in his art and in his papers.

Thornton Wilder was a multifaceted man: a teacher, novelist, playwright, lecturer, actor, musician, soldier, man of letters, outspoken citizen, and international public figure. He was also an enigmatic, intensely private man. He belonged to a close-knit, complicated family—two brilliant parents, four gifted siblings, and the specter of his twin brother lost at birth. His biography is also a compelling family saga, starring Thornton Wilder, with strong supporting roles played by his father, mother, brother, and sisters.

He was a gypsy, wandering the world, writing, he said, for and about everybody—a fact international audiences still embrace. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Eighth Day, and his other novels are still read in the United States and abroad. His plays, especially the iconic Our Town and the revolutionary Skin of Our Teeth, are still performed on stages around the globe.

Yet despite the international fame and visibility of Wilder the writer, far too little has been known or understood about Wilder the man—until now. Comprehensively researched and richly detailed, Thornton Wilder: A Life brings the private man center stage and sheds new light on his published and unpublished work.

Review quote:

“Almost everybody knows OUR TOWN, but very few people really know Thornton Wilder. Penelope Niven’s fascinating biography changes that once and for all…Meticulously researched, Niven’s book reads like a riveting novel.”

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“Capacious and authoritative.”

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“Deeply researched and fluidly readable.”

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“Essential. . . . Studiously researched and measured. . . . The great strength of ‘Thornton Wilder: A Life’ is how well it fuses the early years of the Wilder biography with the themes that informed his works.”

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“Fast-paced and engaging, this work is essential for academic readers with an interest in American literature and culture. It will also appeal to the more general reader of American biography.”

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“Lucid, elegantly written...there is just enough shrewd literary analysis to make us understand why this prodigally gifted writer so richly deserves an audience beyond the 12th grade.”

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“Niven complements her own clear, lyrical voice with the eloquent words of Steichen’s contemporaries.”

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“Niven complements her own clear, lyrical voice with the eloquent words of Steichen’s contemporaries...”

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“The author admits to a ‘decade of close study of . . . primary sources’ in preparation for her biography of distinguished American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. The result, fully displayed on every page of this definitive treatment, is a joyous presentation of detail.”

Review

"Thornton Wilder: A Life brings readers face to face with the extraordinary man who made words come alive around the world, on the stage and on the page."
—James Earl Jones, actor

"Comprehensive and wisely fashioned….This book is a splendid and long needed work."
—Edward Albee, playwright

Thornton Wilder—three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, creator of such enduring stage works as Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and beloved novels like Bridge of San Luis Ray and Theophilus North—was much more than a pivotal figure in twentieth century American theater and literature. He was a world-traveler, a student, a teacher, a soldier, an actor, a son, a brother, and a complex, intensely private man who kept his personal life a secret. In Thornton Wilder: A Life, author Penelope Niven pulls back the curtain to present a fascinating, three-dimensional portrait one of America's greatest playwrights, novelists, and literary icons.


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