Book Discussion – October 2017

Date/Time: Monday, October 2, 7:00 pm
Reading Selections from: Our Town (1938)
by Thornton Niven Wilder

Special Note: The discussion of the play will be conducted as a sort of “reader’s theater” or “dramatic reading” where excerpts from the play will be read by groups of members who will individually assume the parts of the characters for that excerpt.

The Play

Our Town was first produced and published in 1938 to wide acclaim. This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of life in the small village of Grover’s Corners, an allegorical representation of all life, has become a classic. It is Thornton Wilder’s most renowned and most frequently performed play.”

Source: Amazon [Accessed September 13, 2017]

More Information about the play can be found at Our Town: Plot Summary and Critical Analysis.

Quote from Our Town

“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” Source: goodreads [Accessed September 13, 2017]

Comment

“Taking as his material three periods in the history of a placid New Hampshire town, Mr. Wilder has transformed the simple events of human life into universal reverie. He has given familiar facts a deeply moving, philosophical perspective…Our Town is one of the finest achievements of the current stage.” — Brooks Atkinson

Source: Amazon’s Thornton Wilder Page [Accessed September 14, 2017]

Awards

“Thornton Wilder (1897–1975) was a pivotal figure in the literary history of the twentieth-century. He is the only writer to win Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and drama. …”

Wilder’s honors include:

  • Pulitzer for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)
  • Pulitzer for the play Our Town (1938)
  • Pulitzer for the play The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)
  • Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1952)
  • Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (1957)
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963)
  • National Book Award for Fiction for The Eighth Day (1968)
  • Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Revival for Our Town (2009)
  • US Postal Service issued the Thornton Wilder 32-cent stamp on April 17, 1997, the centenary of his birth.

[Source: http://www.thorntonwilder.com/about-wilder/biography/ Accessed: 09-17-2017.]
[Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thornton_Wilder Accessed: 09-17-2017.]

Biography

Thornton Wilder led a productive and varied life from beginning to the end.

“Quote:

“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest
of us are in great danger of contagion.”
—Thornton Wilder

Synopsis

Born April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin, Thornton Wilder released his debut novel, The Cabala, in 1926. Later novels included The Woman of Andros, The Ides of March and The Eighth Day. He won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, as well as the 1938 and 1943 awards in drama for Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, respectively. He died on December 7, 1975, in Hamden, Connecticut.


Early Years

“Thornton Niven Wilder, … the second child of Amos and Isabella Wilder, … grew up in a highly educated and accomplished family. His father was a newspaper owner and editor and was a powerful public speaker. His mother was well-educated, cultured and a successful poet. Both parents instilled a love of the classics and intellectual curiosity in all their children.

In 1906, the family moved to Hong Kong when Amos was appointed American consul general. There Thornton attended an English-speaking school, but soon returned to America with his mother and siblings when political conditions in China grew unstable. While in high school in California, Thornton became interested in theater and writing. Upon graduating, he enrolled at Oberlin College and then transferred to Yale University in 1917.

When the United States was drawn into World War I, Wilder volunteered for the 1st Coast Artillery in Rhode Island [Ft. Adams]. After the war, he received a bachelor’s degree from Yale and published his first play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, in the Yale Literary Magazine.

Writing in Several Genres

During the 1920s, Thornton Wilder moved between extensively teaching, writing and continuing his education. He taught French and English at various schools and wrote scripts for silent films. Throughout his life, he read widely in English, French and German and spoke in Italian and Spanish. His first novel, The Cabala, was published in 1926 and received lukewarm reviews. However, his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, proved immensely popular and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1928.

In the 1930s, Thornton Wilder began writing plays for Broadway. His first scripts were translations of the works of European playwrights, such as Andre Obey’s Lucrece (1932) and A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (1937). In 1938, Wilder’s reputation as a dramatist soared with the production of Our Town. Set in the fictitious hamlet of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, the play traces the childhood, courtship, marriage and death of Emily Webb and George Gibbs. The production broke ground with its bare stage setting and use of a narrator to move the audience through the different time periods.

 

Just before America’s entry into World War II, Thornton Wilder wrote the screen play for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 classic psycho-thriller Shadow of a Doubt and received another Pulitzer Prize for his play The Skin of Our Teeth. Wilder joined the war effort, enlisting in the U.S. Army and rising to lieutenant colonel, serving as an Air Force intelligence officer [in the U.S. Army Air Force] and earning the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star. [He served in both Africa and Italy.

 

 

Later Years

After the war, Thornton Wilder wrote plays and lectured at various universities. While living in Chicago, he became friends with Gertrude Stein. Wilder never referred to his homosexuality, but it is believed that he had one or two affairs with younger men and a male lover in his later years. Publicly, he was more renowned for his wide circle of friends, which included Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and Montgomery Clift. In 1955, Wilder rewrote his 1938 play The Merchant of Yonkers under a new title, The Matchmaker, and it enjoyed a long run on Broadway. It became the basis for the 1964 musical Hello Dolly, which made Wilder internationally famous.

Thornton Wilder died in his sleep on December 7, 1975, of an apparent heart attack in Hamden, Connecticut where he lived for many years with his sister Isabel. He was 78 years old.”

Source: Thornton Wilder Biography.com by Biography.com Editors, A&E Television Networks November 11, 2015. [Accessed September 13, 2017]

Biographical Addendum: Chefoo, China

A very interesting short excerpt has been made available for classroom and educational use by the Library of America from its volume titled, Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings.  It is offered here as an insight into the young mind of a future great thinker and writer who also accomplished a multitude of other things.

During the late 1960s Wilder worked on a memoir, which he never finished, and left among his papers about twenty manuscript pages titled Chefoo, China. Blending memory and fact with fictional flourishes, this previously unpublished piece appears with two other unpublished excerpts in the new LOA volume, Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings.  Another excerpt from the memoirs is titled, A foretaste of heaven: Thornton Wilder’s childhood in China.

The picture below is ” … a photograph, taken in Hong Kong [c. 1906], of Thornton (the boy on the left) with his mother Isabella, sisters Isabel and Charlotte, brother Amos, and father Amos Sr. The two girls are seated on a sedan chair that, hoisted by men, served as a dominant mode of transportation for Western residents through the crowded streets of [the] city, then a British territory.”

[Source: http://blog.loa.org/2012/02/foretaste-of-heaven-thornton-wilder.html Library of America Volume titled, “A foretaste of heaven”: Thornton Wilder’s childhood in China; Wilder’s papers at Yale University. Accessed: 09-18-2017.1]

“Eighth Day” opens with a perceptive description of the luxurious life afforded to Western residents in China, who were not “entirely unaware of the ocean of suffering around them.” The account then offers a portrait of one of his schoolmates, “a seasoned veteran in that unremitting war” against the “unfairness of adults.”

If you would like to read this short memoire, go to the link, Chefoo, China.

[Source:  http://storyoftheweek.loa.org/2012/02/chefoo-china.html  Accessed:  09-10-2017.]

Additional Information

If you are interested in further reading about Wilder, the links below may be of interest to you.

A Chronology of Thornton Wilder’s Life and Works.

A list of works by Thornton Wilder in chronological order within genre containing links to further information about each work along with additional biographical information and teaching materials can be found at the Thornton Wilder Society page.

To learn more about Wilder’s time at Berkeley and his longtime frienship with Gertrude Stein, visit the Archives at the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley and go to the People & Events page.

 


 

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