Q: I am traveling through Madison, Wisconsin this week. Do you have the street address of Wilder’s home in Madison? I would like to drive by.
A: Linda Simon’s biographyThornton Wilder: His World lists two addresses in Madison where the Wilder family lived:
211 West Gilman St.
140 Langdon St.
When I lived in Madison over 20 years ago, I also made a pilgrimage to Thornton Wilder’s childhood homes. I don’t recall which is which, but I know one address is now the site of a fraternity, although the other house was still standing. It wasn’t impressive as buildings go, but it was a thrill to think that this was where Thornton Wilder spent his formative years.
Madison was then and still is a great city, located on an isthmus between beautiful lakes Mendota and Monona. Several of the University of Wisconsin buildings are right on the shore of Lake Mendota, some of them dating back to when Thornton lived there from birth to age nine. The state capitol building is located on the crown of the isthmus; because there is a city ordinance against the construction of buildings over a certain height, you can see the capitol dome from miles around. Young Thornton would have seen this building at night shining like a magical castle in the distance.
Although it’s hard to imagine now, part of Wilder’s conceptualization of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire was probably based on his childhood home of Madison since he lived there at the same time that the action of Our Town takes place: a few years before and after the turn of the twentieth century. Undoubtedly, Grover’s Corners is an amalgam of a few small towns; Peterborough, New Hampshire claims it is the model, since Wilder wrote part of the play while on a fellowship at the nearby MacDowell Colony. Nevertheless, as Penelope Niven’s recently published biography, Thornton Wilder: A Life, makes clear, when Thornton lived in Madison as a child it was, major university and state capital notwithstanding, a small town surrounded by vast rural country.
Enjoy walking where Wilder walked!