"I want my epitaph to testify that I have been a loving mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend; and I have taught, written, and lived with joy."
— Penelope Niven

Edward Albee (Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony Award-winning playwright),in the Foreword to Thornton Wilder: A Life

This new biography of Wilder, comprehensive and wisely fashioned, gives us sufficient view of his methods, his public and private life, and the reaches of his mind to begin to understand with what intellectual and creative sourcings he was able to write so persuasively about things that greatly matter.

This book is a splendid and long needed work.

The New York Times

Ms. Niven's deeply researched and fluidly readable book spends much of its first third delving into the relationships among the members of the remarkable family Wilder came from, and to which he remained close throughout his life. Some of the book's most engrossing passages chart the peregrinations of the Wilders during the writer's formative years — years that prepared him, she persuasively argues, for the humane, literate and searching novelist and playwright he would become. The man who emerges from Ms. Niven's fine-grained, sympathetic portrait is remarkable for his easygoing nature, his loyal affections, his generosity of spirit and above all his boundless, enthusiastic foraging in the fields of art and literature.

It cannot be easy to write a biography of a man who lived most deeply inside his questing mind. Yet with the aid of Wilder's journals and letters Ms. Niven is able to make his continuing education a journey that often outshines the more superficially engaging aspects of his career, including friendships with an amazingly disparate array of figures: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the English society hostess Sibyl Colefax, the actress Ruth Gordon, Jean-Paul Sartre and even the prizefighter Gene Tunney, with whom Wilder trekked through Europe when both were more or less at the height of their fame. Few writers have emerged from the crucible of the biographer's attentions in recent years with their reputations as honorable human beings intact. Wilder does. He was not just a great artist, he seems to have been a great man too, in matters both large and small.

Harper's Magazine

As Penelope Niven demonstrates in her capacious and authoritative Thornton Wilder: A Life, Wilder was in fact among the most cosmopolitan of men, a writer who never repeated himself, a fastidious stylist with a flair for every kind of comedy, from the most ironic to the most farcical. . . .

Penelope Niven, best known for her biographies of Carl Sandburg and Edward Steichen, opens her life with a brief account of her subject's austere New England ancestors. . . .

Niven's biography, the first to draw in depth from the Wilder family archives, underscores how much its subject regarded himself as part of "the little republic of Wilders." Niven portrays a man not so much riven as energized by opposing impulses.

The Washington Post

Penelope Niven's rich life of Wilder, which draws upon archives unavailable to previous biographers, situates him firmly in his family: old New England Puritan stock, with all the sexual repression that suggests; not much money; a domineering father, who tried to manipulate his children like a puppeteer; an artistic mother. There were five children in all, each with artistic leanings of one kind or another. Even the oldest, Amos, who was destined to be a clergyman, published a volume in the Yale Younger Poets series. Thornton's designated role, once he'd withstood his father's disdain for his alleged impractical nature and become a best-selling author, was to support them all, financially and emotionally, as needed. . . .

Niven, who has also written biographies of poet Carl Sandburg and photographer Edward Steichen, does not solve the mystery of Wilder's sexuality. "A case can be made," she cautiously sums up after sifting through the evidence, "that Wilder was bisexual in his emotional affinities, celibate by choice and circumstance more often than not, and private about his sexual relationships." In any case, his work contains plenty of eros, if very little overt sex. (He never married, and the only family this bard of the family knew firsthand was the one in which he grew up.)

Thornton Wilder: A Life is the best kind of literary biography, one likely to send the reader back (or perhaps for the first time) to the author's works. In Wilder's case, this might bring a surprise or two. For the most part, Niven eschews literary criticism, which means she says nothing about Wilder's chief fault as a writer: sententiousness. Wilder seems to have recognized this tendency in himself. In a letter written near the end of his life, he endorsed a saying of Chekhov's: "It is not the business of writers... to answer the great questions (let the theologians and philosophers do that if they feel they must) but 'to state the questions correctly.'"

As for Niven, she has admirably done what Chekhov and Wilder identified as a writer's business, even if Wilder himself did not always succeed in doing it: stated the great questions about her subject correctly.

The Daily Beast

"This Week's Hot Reads for December 24, 2012"

If we bump into Thornton Wilder at all in our lives, it is probably in high school, where his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey is still taught because it has "themes" and raises philosophical and theological questions that can be discussed in exams and term papers. Or we witness and perhaps take a role in Our Town, a mainstay of high- school drama clubs because it has enough parts for just about the whole club. After that, sadly, we may never give this fine writer another thought. So don't feel too bad if you open Penelope Niven's lucid, elegantly written biography and find yourself slightly shocked by Edward Albee's foreword, in which he says, "If I were asked to name what I consider to be the finest serious American play, I would immediately say Our Town." So maybe we have some reassessing to do. Niven's biography — admiring but never fawning and precisely the sort of scrupulous life her subject deserves — certainly gives us good reason to think so. Her portrait of this amiable loner who belonged to no literary school or style is packed with colorful detail. And there is just enough shrewd literary analysis to make us understand why this prodigally gifted writer so richly deserves an audience beyond the 12th grade. The Library of America has just finished publishing three volumes of Wilder's fiction and drama; together with the Niven biography, they make a wonderful introduction to a great writer who's been hiding in plain sight for far too long.

Dallas Morning News

A great literary biography commands our attention. It sends us back to the texts and compels us to look at them again for the first time. Penelope Niven's biography of Thornton Wilder startles us into renewed appreciation for a great American writer.

Niven's biography benefits from the massive amounts of new archival material made available by the Wilder estate and by the generosity of Thornton Wilder's nephew and executor, Tappan Wilder. Biographers are often plagued by "widows and orphans censure." Tappan Wilder's enlightened decision to let Niven write whatever book she chose restores Thornton Wilder to his rightful canonical place in American literature and reminds us of his greatness. He was gay and, typical for his generation, closeted. Niven does not fully address his sexuality but provides all the needed evidence — his father's concern for his effeminate behavior; his early, chaste emotional infatuations with young dancers and actors; and the testimony of Samuel Steward. Niven demolishes Steward's claims that Wilder plagiarized the idea for a book. While showing how Wilder sublimated sex into art, Niven, refreshingly, does not sensationalize it, focusing instead on the development of an artist.

We are left, as we should be, with Wilder's masterpieces, for me in particular with Our Town and Emily's great monologue. Wilder borrowed the idea of the Stage Manager in that play from Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, but Wilder's play is much greater than Pirandello's, whose point is tawdry melodrama. Wilder in Our Town addresses the entire human condition.

With this masterful biography, Niven has concluded her "American Lives" series. She started with her definitive work on the poet and biographer Carl Sandburg, then did an equally definitive biography of his brother-in-law, the photographer Edward Steichen. Surely, she is overdue for a national award.

Huffington Post

"Thornton Wilder's Biography By Penelope Niven Is a Must Read"

In his 1927 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey ("Luis" pronounced "Loo-eess"), Thornton Wilder wrote the eventually much-repeated line "The art of biography is more difficult than is generally supposed."

Confirmation of the comment comes through in full force with Penelope Niven's extraordinarily impressive Thornton Wilder. Indeed, any constant biography reader is challenged to name a more demanding subject than Wilder, a prolific playwright, novelist, essayist, teacher, actor, daily letter-writer to scores (if not hundreds) of recipients, and indefatigable note-taker (especially on Lope de Vega's entire oeuvre and James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake)

Add to that the not insignificant attention Niven understands she must pay to Wilder's parents, Amos Parker and Isabella Wilder, and siblings (brother Amos and sisters Isabel, Charlotte and Janet) -- all of them writers and tireless correspondents. They're further evidence that in order to understand Thornton Wilder, Niven must make her thick volume a family bio as much as a magnifying-glass look at one complex international figure.

Incidentally, Niven reports in a paragraph about Wilder's output various number like 1,250,000 words devoted to his notes on James Joyce and Lope de Vega alone. That statistic — which doesn't begin to cover the studies for and finished eight novels, the full-length and one-act plays and their recurring themes of family life and death — gives a small idea of what she had to get under her biographer's belt while spending more than 10 years preparing this exemplary work. (Conveniently, The Library of America has just published a three-volume set of Wilder's plays, novels and essays.)

Niven has written an exemplary biography, maybe worthy of its own Pulitzer Prize.

Shelf Awareness

When people think of Thornton Wilder these days, it likely involves a vague memory of a high school performance of Our Town. But few know Wilder's other plays or bother to read his seven novels. Thanks to Penelope Niven, this void in American literary biography has been exquisitely filled.

In 1995, "ninety banker's boxes" of Wilder's letters and journals became available through the Yale Beinecke Library, and Niven spent more than a decade studying these primary sources. Thornton Wilder: A Life is biography as biography should be, and as the conservative classicist Wilder would no doubt have wanted. Niven quotes extensively from the Yale papers, the letters of Wilder's many friends, and conversations with his family and colleagues. Except as supported by primary sources, she makes no attempt at psychological speculation and refreshingly avoids any literary criticism of his work except as found in his own letters or as published by critics and friends.

Rather, in straightforward, mostly chronological chapters, Niven taps Wilder's own words to tell much of his remarkable story and that of his equally literary family. The underappreciated rich, thoughtful and generous life of Thornton Wilder is underappreciated no more. Penelope Niven's biography doesn't embellish the facts but lets Wilder's words and accomplishments quietly speak for themselves, fascinating chapter by fascinating chapter.

James Earl Jones (Tony Award-winning, Emmy Award-winning actor)

Almost everybody knows Our Town, but very few people really know Thornton Wilder. Penelope Niven's fascinating biography changes that once and for all. Thornton Wilder: A Life brings readers face-to-face with the extraordinary man hwo made words come alive and the world, on the stage and on the age. Meticulously researched, Niven's book reads like a riveting novel. . . Wilder believed a playwright should have experience as an actor. As an actor who's played the Stage Manager in Our Town, I'm betting that Wilder the actor helped make Wilder the dramatist even better at his craft.

J.D. McClatchy (poet and literary critic)

A rich, revealing, sympathetic, and utterly enthralling portrait of a great writer. Wilder's exuberant artistry and mysterious depths are explored with rare insight. His famous friendships, abiding loneliness, and restless life — it is all here in Penelope Niven's biography. Her long-awaited book is a gratifying and thrilling account of one man's struggle to make a world out of words. A major achievement!

Robert Brustein in The New York Review of Books, November 22, 2012

To navigate the deep chasm between the nature of the writer and the disposition of his writings, Penelope Niven's compendious account of his complicated personality is an indispensable guide.

Booklist (starred review)

The author admits to a 'decade of close study of . . . primary sources' in preparation for her biography of distinguished American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. The result, fully displayed on every page of this definitive treatment, is a joyous presentation of detail.

Library Journal (starred review)

Fast-paced and engaging, this work is essential for academic readers with an interest in American literature and culture. It will also appeal to the more general reader of American biography.

Publishers Weekly

Fans and scholars of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder will delight in Niven's comprehensive and engaging biography. . . . The real value of her extensive research comes in the seamless weaving of letters and journals that make up the full tapestry of the writer's life. [Named one of Publishers Weekly's "Top Ten Literary Biographies, Essays and Criticism" for Fall 2012.]