- - Wednesday, January 2, 2013

By Penelope Niven
HarperCollins, $39.95, 832 pages, illustrated

Once a staple of required high school reading — and performance — in the United States, the works of Thornton Wilder have faded from view. But in the middle decades of the 20th century, he was indubitably one of the most popular and esteemed writers.

Winner of no fewer than three Pulitzer Prizes — for his novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” in 1928 and for the plays “Our Town” 10 years later and “The Skin of Our Teeth” in 1943 — he was still going strong enough in his 70s to win the National Book Award for “The Eighth Day” in 1968. In this new century, however, despite the fact that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was moved to cite “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” in a speech after Sept. 11, Wilder’s particular brand of philosophical speculation wrapped up in literary devices bordering on the hokey just doesn’t appeal.

Wilder’s latest biographer, Penelope Niven, is nothing if not assiduous in her wide-ranging research, but despite the excellence of her writing and the scrupulousness of her method, her lengthy account cannot really bring him to life. She encapsulates the difficulty of her task at the outset:

“How to revivify such a life? Much of the drama took place in Wilder’s mind and spirit — ‘the inward life’ he called it. [H]e left behind countless ‘signposts, footprints, clues’ that can lead us deep within his extraordinary mind and spirit. He was a refined gypsy, wandering the world, writing he said for and about ‘Everybody.’ Within the circumference of his creative work there stands the person, his private, inward self, sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed in his art and in his papers.”

She has mined deep into all he left behind, but despite her sympathy with Wilder and his way of thinking, her advocacy does not convince. For she is up against a deeply defended personality and, as anyone who has read previous biographies or his published letters will, alas, already know, one burdened with an amoebalike capacity for spreading dullness.

Ms. Niven shows Wilder to be cosmopolitan in his outlook, well-educated, cultivated in his tastes, someone who was constantly thinking and ruminating. He had many interesting friends, ranging from Gene Tunney to Gertrude Stein, yet one is left with the feeling that he never really engaged with others. His existence was essentially solipsistic, although he could take on other people’s ideas — Sartre’s existentialism, for instance. What the Wilder oeuvre lacked was rooted in this inability to make the kind of intimate connection with another person that most of us do.

Even his biographer, who is admirably judicious in her approach to her subject’s sexuality, puts her finger on this quality of being a loner, something that may indeed be linked to his sexual pathology but that extends far, far beyond it. Essentially celibate, living amiably with his sister, Wilder had to be more of an observer than a participant as he swam through life, and this detachment weakened his work.

It’s not only that quality that makes Wilder’s works wear thin. Although it’s certainly true that he takes on big subjects — the meaning of life, the cyclical nature of human history, free will versus determinism — he does so in such a woolly manner as to leave us more puzzled than enlightened. Wilder intended “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” to leave open-ended the question of whether there was a pattern to life that led those victims to their doom on the collapsing bridge. Yet the account of the priest who narrates the novel is such that many will simply read it his way.

Similarly, the intellectual construct of “The Skin of Our Teeth” is marred by its obvious staginess and manipulative qualities, also seen in the cloying devices of “Our Town.” There is an unreality about the characters throughout Wilder’s oeuvre, and perhaps Ms. Niven’s greatest success as a biographer is, despite herself, to show why the life and nature of the man made this so.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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