The cover of Thornton Wilder: A Life. Image used courtesy of HarperCollins
This week, Penelope Niven’s new biography of Thornton Wilder hit the shelves, the first biography of the author and playwright to be published since 1983. Drawing on Wilder’s letters, journals, manuscripts, and personal papers, many of which had previously been kept within the family, Thornton Wilder: A Life sheds new light on a man whose personal privacy remained intact despite his highly visible, widely celebrated body of work.
Niven, who spent a decade researching and writing her latest volume, is no stranger to immersing herself in the worlds of others. She has written biographies of poet Carl Sandburg and his brother-in-law, photographer Edward Steichen, and also worked with actor James Earl Jones on a book about his own life. The Big Read recently had the opportunity to chat with the fascinating Niven, who told us about how the joys of researching Wilder outweighed the challenges of biography.
NEA: Do you remember your first experience reading Wilder, or seeing his work performed?
PENELOPE NIVEN: Yes, I remember very well. I was probably 16 years old; I was in high school in a very small town called Waxhaw, North Carolina. We were reading Our Town. First of all, I loved that play, and I was convinced it had been written about Waxhaw, about my town. I think that's the experience that so many people have had with this play. We do feel it is in our town, wherever our town happens to be.
The other thing I was fascinated with was that the playwright's name was Thornton Niven Wilder, and my last name is Niven. And I thought, "I wonder if I could possibly be related to Thornton Niven Wilder?" What I've come to see in a kind of symbolic way is that one reason that play resonates with so many people is because we are all in one way or another related to Thornton Niven Wilder. We all understand these universal passages of life that we see in the play. As it turns out, as I will explain in my book, there is actually a family connection, I was delighted to discover.
NEA: When did you decide Wilder was a personality that you really wanted to research and write about?
NIVEN: When I was asked if I might be interested in writing a biography of Wilder, I immediately turned to what I knew of his published work, then I began to look into his unpublished work---the letters for examples. He had written some of the letters at the Beinecke [Rare Book and Manuscript] Library at Yale University and I was absolutely fascinated, just mesmerized by what I was reading. There was such an exciting new opportunity to work on Wilder because his nephew [Tappan Wilder] had become his literary executor. He's just a remarkable person, first of all, but he's a particularly remarkable literary executor. He essentially granted me complete access to all the papers, the ones that are in public repositories and the ones that are still in the family archives. He said you can look at all these, and use all of these. And at the same time, he said I'm not going to look over your shoulder. And he never has. I had complete access and complete independence, and that is the ideal situation for a biographer.
Somebody asked me several years ago if there was some theme in the subjects I've chosen to write about. I hadn't really stopped to think about that, but as I stepped back to look at Sandburg and Steichen and Jones and Wilder, I could see that they have so much in common. They are mavericks, they have innovated so much in the artistic forms they've chosen to use. They've broken boundaries, they've set new standards and new pathways. And Wilder is very much that way. I realized that more and more the longer I've worked with Wilder, his papers and manuscripts in particular. He was never satisfied to do the same thing over and over again. He didn't want to write Our Town again after he had written Our Town once. So you look at his plays, they're all just extraordinarily different in structure and subject matter, yet they have remarkable resemblances and themes. His novels are all different. He didn't write another Bridge of San Luis Rey; he wanted to try something quite new and different. I admire that a great deal about him. I've found that exciting in his work, while at the same time, it's been a challenge to try and put that into context.
NEA: You mentioned that all of your biographical subjects have been mavericks, and on a more basic level, they're all artists. What's the attraction for you in writing about people in the creative field?
NIVEN: I'm fascinated with the whole creative process and the question of where that creativity comes from: how it evolves in an individual, what kind of impact it makes in that individual's life, and on the lives of other people, what kind of impact it has on our national life, and the fabric of our culture. It was interesting to me to discover that Thornton Wilder said several times that the most interesting thing to explore, he thought, is that question of creativity and the imagination, the memory, where the creativity comes from. And by extension, what happens when that creative energy and power is invested in a positive way, and what happens when it's invested in a negative way. So that whole question I find compelling, and particularly in the artists that I've been privileged to work with.
NEA: Do you think Thornton Wilder: A Life will inform the way a person experiences his plays or novels?
NIVEN: It's hard to answer that for other people. I hope that my biography will provide a context for Wilder's work that simply has not been available before. There are earlier biographies of Thornton Wilder, but they were written many, many years ago without access to all of the papers that Tappan Wilder has made available. All of the unpublished manuscripts, the unpublished journals---all of that material sheds so much light on how Wilder worked, and I think that's a very interesting question to try and answer about any artist. How did he do his work? How did he come to it? Why did he do his work? What was his intention in doing his work?
Wilder's life is just a constant kind of technicolor movie in that he lived all over the world, and worked all over the world. He was so much at home wherever he seemed to be, and at the same time wasn't at home in any particular place. So I think knowing those external circumstances of the work will be interesting to people. So many people asked him after he published The Bridge of San Luis Rey when he had gone to Peru. He'd never been to Peru at that point. He went to Peru in his imagination and through the historical research that he did. And then he wrote Our Town, this play that has been called such an authentically, uniquely American play, at the same time that it's such a wonderfully universal play. He wrote that play all over the place. A lot of the work was done in Switzerland for example. So I hope all of that context will at least illuminate Wilder's work, and shed some light here and there that I hope will be useful to readers.
In terms of reading Wilder in different ways, so many people have said to me, "I read Our Town one way when I was in high school, I read it another way when I was a mature adult, and now that I'm in my 70s or 80s or 90s, that third act carries an impact I never, ever felt when I read it as a younger person.” So it's almost like we can grow older with Wilder, and he speaks to us at all these different ages and stages of our lives.
NEA: You mentioned that Wilder could not write in a “familiar” setting. I had read that, and thought that was really interesting.
NIVEN: You're absolutely right. He wrote all over the place. On the one hand, he didn't think he could write in certain places, but on the other hand, he managed to write wherever he was, particularly in transit. He built a house for his family [in Hamden, Connecticut,] from the royalties of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. So from about 1930-onward, that was the official home. However, he often traveled---Tappan tabulated it---more than 200 days a year. And he often wrote to other people that he just couldn't write at home because there was so much going on. [There were] sisters on the telephone, and hubbub, and neighbors coming in and out. So he tended to take himself away to write, take himself to Europe, take himself to Arizona, to California, to the MacDowell Colony. He wrote all over the map, and he said several times that he was most at home writing on boats. He did a lot of his writing aboard ships to and fro as he was traveling to Europe or back home again…. He had a nice study at home, he's been photographed in it, but he had to go into a sort of solitude to do a sustained piece of work.
NEA: How long did it take you to write and research this book?
NIVEN: I would say from starting the research until finishing the manuscript, it took ten, 12 years. But I wrote two other books during this time. I had detours in my own life. You live your own life while you're writing that other life, and you sometimes take time away for family needs and other experiences. So it's been a long time. However, it's been a constant pleasure. It's been a truly marvelous journey to work on this book.
NEA: That's something interesting that you brought up: as a biographer, you become so involved in someone else's life---someone that you've never met, and will never meet. What is that like?
NIVEN: It's a fascinating process. You have to first of all walk a tight wire as you're writing a biography because you of course want to be involved in the life and in the lives of other people who are a part of that life. At the same time, you have to try and maintain a certain level of objectivity. But you get so steeped in the lives, and so lost in the research sometimes, that you forget what year it is, what day it is.
I have sometimes been asked if I loved the people I write about, and my answer is yes, I have grown to love all of these people I've written about. The more important thing perhaps than loving them is that I deeply respect the people I've written about. I respect the fact that their lives have been remarkable, that there have been triumphs, but that there have also been great struggles and losses and hardships, and that they've managed to transcend those.
Over the years, I've been over offered the opportunity to write about other individuals, and I've done the preliminary research, and I've said I cannot do that, I cannot live with this person for five or ten years, however long it's going to take. I can't do this because I do not respect that person, that individual. So for me it comes down to that kind of true respect for the integrity of that subject. They say that you are what you eat. I think you can also easily become what you write. You take that life experience into your own life and your own mind and your own spirit, so you have to choose carefully.
NEA: Since you have done over a decade of research into Wilder's life, are you left with any unanswered questions about him?
NIVEN: Oh yes. I've always found that to be true of biographies. There are questions that are just impossible to answer for a variety of reasons, often coming down to the fact that there is simply not the documentary evidence that you need to be able to answer that question.
Somebody asked Sandburg, who I think was a really fine biographer, when he was going to finish his biography of Abraham Lincoln. And he said you never finish a biography; you just have to know when to stop. And I think that is the truth. Most of the time it's your editor, your publisher who says it's time to stop, you've got to deliver this book. But that also gives me some consolation because I've found in every book I've written, that yes, there are questions that you just cannot answer. My hope is that somebody down the road is going to be able to answer some of those questions in part because I've been able to lay a foundation that may help lead somebody else to the answer.
NEA: Do you have any favorite anecdotes from your experience writing this biography?
NIVEN: The thing about Wilder is there are so many wonderful things. I like to quote Carl Sandburg, who wrote a six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. Somebody [asked him,] "Why would you do that, Carl?" And he said, “Because Abraham Lincoln was such good company.” And that is exactly descriptive of Thornton Wilder. He's such good company. The sense of humor is just wonderful, and even in the days when I was exhausted and thought I'd never finish the book, Wilder could make me laugh at least three times a day, every day. I love the fact that he wrote wonderfully funny and thoughtful letters to his own niece and nephew, Tappan Wilder and his sister Dixie Wilder Guiles. But he also had a lot of surrogate nieces and nephews. It's just quite charming to look at the letters that he wrote to children.
The sense of humor is a constant with Wilder, in his work and his private life. A lot of people miss that about him, I think. He believed, as so many great artists and writers have believed, that this kind of robust sense of humor was the other side of the coin if you have this great capacity for sorrow, for empathy, for compassion. You may also on that other side of that coin have that gift of humor, which can help to balance the dark times and the bright times.
NEA: Is there anything you wished I had asked? Or that you’d like to add?
NIVEN: Let's see, what do I wish you might have asked me. Probably I would have responded in great detail if you had asked me what kind of reader Wilder was.
NEA: That’s a great question. Let's pretend I asked it.
NIVEN: I would say Thornton Wilder, first of all, was read to. His parents read to him and his siblings from the time they were tiny children, and as soon as he learned to read, he read voraciously. He read everything you could imagine. He wrote a wonderful letter to his father about his reading. His father oversaw the children's reading in great detail, as did the mother. So from the time he was nine or ten, he was writing and reporting to his parents about books he had read. But he read so intensively all of his life. He kept records of his reading, which I very much appreciated because I tried to read at least parts of the works he identified as books that had shaped a certain work, or influenced him at a certain time. He believed, as most writers do, that reading is a key to writing. That to be a good, productive writer, you need to be a good, productive reader.
I think what impressed me so too was that while he read translations of other people's work, he truly wanted to read the work in the original [language]. He could do that in Latin and he could do that in German, he could do that in French. He worked on Spanish just particularly so he could read Lope de Vega in Spanish and not have to rely on the filter of a translation, no matter how good that translation may be.