Born Thornton Niven Wilder in Madison, WI, in 1897, he was the son of Amos Parker Wilder, a newspaper editor and diplomat, and the former Isabella Thornton Niven. He was raised in Madison in his early years, but when he was nine, his father received an appointment as consul general in Hong Kong, where the family resided for part of that year. His mother, however, was wary of the political violence sweeping China and she and the children returned to America; the family went back to Hong Kong in 1910, following the cessation of the turmoil. He was educated at the Kaiser Wilhelm School and the China Inland Missionary Boys' School, before returning with his family to America in 1913, at the end of his father's appointment. Wilder spent the remainder of his youth in Berkeley, CA, attending Berkeley High School, where his interests in theater and playwriting first manifested themselves. He studied next at Oberlin College and Yale University, earning his B.A. in 1920, along with accolades from his professors for his potential as a writer.
Over the next several years, Wilder taught, traveled a bit, and wrote his first novel, The Cabala, inspired by his summer in Rome. Published in 1926, the book was reviewed enthusiastically, though it was hardly a bestseller. In 1927, he published his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The book, a story set in the 18th century and dealing with issues of faith, tolerance, and love, all confronted through the prism of a seemingly random instance of cruel fate, was received with universal enthusiasm by critics and the public, winning the Pulitzer Prize and instantly earning a permanent place on high school and college reading lists for decades to come. A film adaptation followed in 1929, produced by MGM, and the story was adapted to the screen in 1944, from independent producer Benedict Bogeaus and director Rowland V. Lee. The earlier film was an awkward partial talkie, done during the transition to sound, while the 1940s version is usually regarded as an unsatisfactory film in most respects and has been seen very seldom on television since the 1960s. In 1928, Wilder published a new book, The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays, a volume of writing dating back to his days at Oberlin, which was more of a publication of a sketchbook of ideas than a representation of his current work. His 1930 novel The Woman of Andros, set in ancient Greece and dealing with the conflict between pagan and Christian morality, was reviewed unevenly, declared a masterpiece by some critics and a failure by others.
It was five years before Wilder published another novel, but that book, Heaven's My Destination, was a deep and moving reflection of his vision of life and the best ways to live it in Depression-era America, told from the point of view of an itinerant salesman of religious books and the people he meets and interacts with. In 1938, Wilder published the work for which he is best known, the play Our Town. Set in Grovers Corners -- which was modeled after Petersborough, NH, which he had visited in 1924 -- the play told of the cycles of life, small and large, intimate and cosmic, from the point-of-view of two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs. The play was Wilder's second great success, winning a Pulitzer Prize and immediately getting taken up by companies all over the country. The film rights were purchased by producer Sol Lesser, who brought the play to the screen in 1940 under the direction of Sam Wood. It was criticized for altering the ending, making Emily's death a dream, a change that Wilder himself had insisted upon, in close consultation with the producer, because of his recognition that a movie of Our Town was fundamentally different from a play. The movie, which starred Martha Scott and a young William Holden, and featured production design by William Cameron Menzies and a widely acclaimed score by Aaron Copland, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and has continued to be highly regarded over the decades since. Wilder's next play, The Merchant of Yonkers (1939), was less than a success in its original form, although he later reworked it under the title of The Matchmaker, which was filmed under that title and later transformed into the musical Hello, Dolly!, which became one of the longest running shows on Broadway up to that time.
Wilder himself exerted his greatest direct influence on movies at the end of the 1930s and the outset of the 1940s. His reputation was so substantial in 1940 that Hollywood was eager for any input that he could provide and that they could afford. That year, he was given the task of adapting a short story entitled Uncle Charlie, written by Gordon McDonell, into a screen treatment. What Wilder delivered, with dialogue by Sally Benson, became the script for Shadow of a Doubt, which is regarded by most critics as Alfred Hitchcock's first seriously penetrating American thriller. That film and its setting was almost a macabre inversion of the small-town Americana of Wilder's Our Town, a Norman Rockwell vision with fangs and psychosis added. Wilder's next play, The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), was inspired by the events surrounding the American entry into the Second World War. A daring attempt to interweave the history of humankind from prehistoric times to the conflict at hand, it earned Wilder his third Pulitzer Prize. He returned to writing fiction after World War II with The Ides of March, by which time he was one of the most renowned authors in the world. His later works, which included novels and plays, were somewhat anticlimactic compared with his three successes of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.
Our Town remained as popular in the 1950s as it had been in the late '30s and '40s, and in 1955, was even musicalized by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn in a television production starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint; Frank Sinatra played the Stage Manager, introducing the songs "Love and Marriage" and "The Impatient Years." The Matchmaker was filmed in 1958, and eventually turned into Hello, Dolly!, the stage version of which was breaking box-office records for most of the 1960s. Collections of his plays were interspersed with new works, among them the play The Alcestiad (1977) and the novels The Eighth Day (1967) and Theophilus North (written in 1973, and filmed as Mr. North in 1988). The latter was as close to an autobiographical work as Wilder ever came, dealing with a character who had lived in China and attended Yale, as well as having a summer in Rome behind him. Wilder passed away in 1975 at the age of 78, by which time his work had become part of the intellectual and cultural landscape of the United States.
It was after his death that Wilder became somewhat controversial, both personally and professionally, in a most unexpected way, amid the odd flow of ideological currents running through American life. The emergence of the aggressive gay rights movement during the mid-'70s, coupled with the lingering drug use and freer overall sexual mores of the 1960s, along with the presidential battle between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, and the ascent of Jimmy Carter to the presidency, had all served to inflame the reactionary right. The latter, focused through newly combative religious reactionaries, began aiming at targets across society, including school reading lists -- Our Town, with its mystical overtones, became a subject of controversy all by itself.
The play, however, remains one of the most well known ever written, sufficiently so that it was capable of being used as the key plot element of a 1989 episode of the popular sitcom Cheers entitled "Two Girls For Every Boyd," with no concern that audiences would not recognize it.