Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin on April 17, 1897, the son of Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Niven Wilder. His twin brother died at birth, and Wilder grew up with an older brother, Amos, and three younger sisters, Charlotte, Isabel, and Janet. This multi-talented family lived in China for a time, where Amos Parker Wilder was U.S. consul general to Hong Kong and Shanghai. Thornton Wilder began writing as a boy. He finished high school in California, attended Oberlin College in Ohio, and received his undergraduate degree at Yale and his graduate degree at Princeton. By the time he died on December 7, 1975, at his home in Hamden, Connecticut, Thornton Wilder was an American icon, and an internationally famous playwright and novelist. To this day, his works are read, performed and appreciated by audiences worldwide.
The Wilder Family
The Wilder family did not just produce one brilliant writer and thinker. The entire family was, by any measure, filled with successful and highly educated and accomplished people. Thornton Wilder’s father, Amos Parker Wilder, was a newspaper owner and editor, a powerful speaker, and the United States Consul General to Hong Kong and Shanghai. His mother, Isabella Niven Wilder, was a cultured, educated woman who instilled a love of literature, drama and languages in her children, and who wrote vivid poetry.
Thornton’s older brother, Amos Niven Wilder, was a highly acclaimed professor of New Testament scholarship, an insightful essayist, and a distinguished poet, as well as a tennis champion. Sister Charlotte was a professor of English and an award-winning poet. Sister Isabel was the author of three popular novels and the curator of Yale University’s theater archive. The youngest Wilder sibling, Janet Wilder Dakin, was a professor of biology, an author, and a noted environmentalist. Indeed, the Wilder family made its mark across generations and in many different fields.
Amos Parker Wilder (1863-1936), Father
Thornton’s father, Amos Parker Wilder (1863-1936), was born in Calais, Maine and grew up in Augusta where his father had an oil cloth factory in a neighboring town. He attended Yale, where he earned a B.A. in 1884 and a Ph.D. in 1892, writing on municipal reform. After short stints of teaching in Connecticut and Minnesota, Wilder became a journalist, working in a variety of places, among them New York, Albany, Philadelphia, and New Haven. In 1894, the year he married, he bought an interest in The Wisconsin State Journal where he remained as editor until 1906. In that year, with the support of his admirer, William Howard Taft, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him consul general in Hong Kong. He remained in the consular service (moving to Shanghai in 1909) until poor health forced him to resign in 1914. He then returned to New Haven where he directed the Yale-in-China Association and returned to journalism. Throughout his life Wilder was a nationally renowned public speaker.
Thornton’s father exerted a commanding role over the early lives of his children, decreeing which schools and colleges they attended, and how they spent their summers. For Thornton and Amos Niven, for example, that meant working on farms and in selected offices during their teenage summers.
Amos Parker Wilder once wrote to young Thornton that he had only a ‘limited admiration’ for art. Instead of art, the father told the son, a person should strive to achieve character. This was his goal for all of his children, and they did not disappoint him.
Isabella Niven Wilder (1873-1946), Mother
Thornton’s mother, Isabella Thornton Niven Wilder (1873-1946) was the daughter of a Scotch Presbyterian clergyman in Dobbs Ferry, New York. She attended the Misses Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, and married Amos Parker Wilder in 1894, when she was twenty-one. Throughout her life, she remained well versed in contemporary authors and dramatists, loved languages — she translated the work of Carducci and Verhaeren — and stood at the center of cultural life in communities where she lived, encouraging her children to do likewise as they grew up. She especially liked poetry and wrote poetry. In 1920 she became the first woman elected to public office in Hamden, Connecticut. Thornton referred to her as being “like one of Shakespeare’s girls — a star danced and under it I was born.”
Amos Niven Wilder (1895-1993), Brother
Thornton’s older brother Amos Niven Wilder (1895-1993) received his B.A., B.D., and Ph.D. from Yale and also studied at Oxford, the University of Brussels, and several other schools in Europe. During World War I, he served with the American Field Service (AFS) in France and Macedonia and as a corporal of artillery with the American Expeditionary Forces. He was ordained a Congregational American minister in 1926. Following a pastorate for several years in North Conway, New Hampshire, he went on to a teaching and scholarly career at Hamilton College, Andover Newton Theologial School, Chicago Theological School, the University of Chicago, and finally Harvard Divinity School, where he became Hollis Professor of Divinity. Amos Wilder was also a prize-winning poet, literary critic, and nationally-ranked tennis player. At the time of his death, he was the oldest living man who had played on center court at Wimbledon. He married Catharine Kerlin in 1935. They had two children, Catharine Dix and Amos Tappan.
Charlotte Wilder (1898-1980), Sister
Thornton Wilder’s oldest sister Charlotte Wilder (1898-1980) was a poet who shared the Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry in 1937 with Ben Belitt. She attended high schools in Berkeley, California, and in China, and graduated from Berkeley High School. She was an outstanding student at Mount Holyoke College, majoring in English, and receiving her degree in 1919, magna cum laude. She was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Later, she received an M.A. degree from Radcliffe, and went on to a teaching career at Wheaton College and Smith College. In 1934, Charlotte moved to New York to devote all her time to writing. In 1941, she suffered a severe nervous breakdown. With the exception of a short period in the early 1950s, she remained in institutions the rest of her life.
Isabel Wilder (1900-1995), Sister
Thornton’s sister Isabel Wilder (1900-1995) attended some thirteen schools by the time she was twenty. As a result she never attended college. She was, however, a member of the first graduating class of the Yale School of Drama (1928) and wrote three successful novels in the 1930s. She never married. Of all the Wilder family members, Isabel was closest to Thornton, remaining his personal agent, spokesperson, hostess and representative in this country and abroad. After 1930, Isabel made her permanent residence with her parents and, following their deaths, with her brother Thornton in the family home in Hamden, Connecticut.
Janet Wilder Dakin (1910-1994), Sister
Thornton Wilder’s youngest sister, Janet Wilder (1910-1994), was the only Wilder child born in Berkeley, California. She attended schools in Berkeley and Oxford, England, and was graduated from New Haven High School in Connecticut. She then went to Mount Holyoke College, where she earned her B.A. degree in 1933, magna cum laude; she was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned an M.A. in biology in 1935, and completed a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Chicago in 1939. She then returned to Mount Holyoke to teach.
In 1941, Janet Wilder married Winthrop Saltonstall (Toby) Dakin, an attorney and civic leader, and they lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. They had no children, and Janet devoted her energy to conservation issues, equestrians affairs, and animal rights. She wrote a book about raising a Morgan horse. At her death in 1994, she was remembered as “The First Lady of Amherst.”