Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1897. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio and then transferred to Yale University, graduating in 1920. After spending a year in Rome, he took a job teaching French at a prep school in New Jersey and started writing on the side. Wilder published his first novel, The Cabala, in 1926, but his first real taste of fame came when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927). The royalties from this novel allowed him to quit his teaching job, and he began to write full-time. Wilder quickly became a literary celebrity, keeping company with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.
In the ideologically charged climate of the 1930s, however, Wilder came under attack from critics who branded his work escapist fare that refused to confront the gloomy reality of the Depression. Hurt by this criticism and frustrated by the failure of his 1934 novel Heaven’s My Destination, Wilder turned to playwriting. Our Town, his most celebrated dramatic effort, opened on Broadway in 1938 to rave reviews. Audiences sensed the universality of the themes presented in the play, which enabled virtually every theatergoer to participate in the action onstage and identify with the characters. Our Town eventually won Wilder his second Pulitzer Prize, and went on to become one of the most performed American plays of the twentieth century.
In many ways, Our Town is Wilder’s response to his critics. Major works from other American writers of the time—notably Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—exposed the buried secrets, hypocrisy, and oppression lurking beneath the surface of American small town life. In Our Town, however, Wilder presents a far more celebratory picture of a small town, the fictional hamlet of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Wilder does not deny the fact that the town suffers from social injustice and hypocrisy, and he does not intend to idealize Grover’s Corners as a bastion of uncompromising brotherly love. On the contrary, Wilder makes a point to include in the play characters who criticize small town life, and Grover’s Corners specifically. However, Wilder does not wish to denounce the community simply because it contains some strains of hypocrisy. Instead, he peers into Grover’s Corners in order to find lessons about life in a world that contains both virtue and vice. He tenderly tracks the residents’ day-to-day activities, their triumphs and their sorrows, their casual conversations and their formal traditions—not because he wants to praise New Hampshire, but because he wants to praise humanity. Perhaps a political message in itself, Our Town privileges the study of human life and its complexities over blatantly political works that point fingers, stereotype others, and otherwise divide people from one another.
Wilder’s principal message in Our Town—that people should appreciate the details and interactions of everyday life while they live them—became critical at a time when political troubles were escalating in Europe. World War II was on the horizon when the play hit theaters in 1938. It was a time of tremendous international tension, and citizens across the globe suffered from fear and uncertainty. Our Town directed attention away from these negative aspects of life in the late 1930s and focused instead on the aspects of the human experience that make life precious. Wilder revealed his faith in the stability and constancy of life through his depiction and discussion of the small town of Grover’s Corners, with its “marrying . . . living and . . . dying.”
The 1920s and 1930s proved to be the heyday of Wilder’s career. He enlisted as a soldier and served in Europe during World War II, and though he continued his literary career upon his return to the United States, his output decreased during the next two decades. A later effort to write a novel, The Eighth Day (1967), met with mixed reviews. Wilder died in December 1975 at his home in Connecticut.