A satisfying and insightful, if overlong, picture of a solitary writer who never stopped being a family man.
There are times reading this new biography by Niven (Swimming Lessons: Life Lessons from the Pool, from Diving in to Treading Water, 2004, etc.) when readers may wonder why a book about Thornton Wilder (1897–1975) is so inordinately concerned with the lives of his siblings. Biographical overkill, or is there some kind of a point? Both. For Niven, understanding Wilder’s family is simply vital to understanding Wilder, whose books and plays dig away at how people become who they are. His loving but repressive father, Amos, raised five children all over the world (while serving as President Taft’s consul to China) and micromanaged their lives every step of the way; they in turn bore the burden of his influence. At one extreme is Thornton; the son from whom Amos expected the least became a three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and playwright whose major dramas, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, are anchored by families as hopeful and anxiety-ridden as his own. At the other is sister Charlotte, an esteemed poet whose artistic life was cut short by tormented lesbian desires and schizophrenia. Wilder’s own sex life is a mystery; like Henry James, he left only scant evidence that he ever had one. He had other things on his mind, as Niven ably sums up: “How do you live? How do you bear the unbearable? How do you handle the various dimensions of love, of faith, of the human condition? How do universal elements forge every unique, individual life? And where does the family fit in the cosmic scheme of things?” For Wilder, the old questions were the only ones worth considering.
Although at times overwhelmed by her own research, Niven creates a perceptive, indispensable portrait of a productive and restlessly intellectual life.