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.
To the family’s demands on its most gifted member could be added overtures by all sorts of outsiders: theatrical producers (everyone wanted a new play from the author of “Our Town,” “The Skin of Our Teeth” and “The Matchmaker,” especially after this last became the basis for the hit musical “Hello, Dolly”), movie bigwigs (Wilder wrote a brilliant screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” and Hollywood wanted more) and colleges (in letters to friends, Wilder groused about how Harvard ran him ragged when he was on campus to deliver the Norton lectures in 1950).
Wilder’s compliant nature made it difficult for him to say no, and especially during the 1940s and ’50s, he was hard-pressed to find time to write. “My requirement for solitude is high,” he wrote in his journal shortly before lighting out for the West, “and I was leading a flagrantly gregarious life.”
Still other factors limited Wilder’s production to a mere six novels, two of which were really novellas, and the same number of full-length plays in a half-century of professional writing. For one, there was his tendency to lose himself in non-productive work, such as dating the hundreds of plays written by the 17th-century Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega. Wilder also had a fixation on James Joyce’s enigmatic novel “Finnegans Wake,” in which he overindulged to the point that one day he shut the book and swore not to reopen it for five years — a vow he seems to have kept. Then, too, he filled his journals with several million words, sometimes trying out ideas that were to resurface in his drama or fiction, sometimes just fooling around.
Ensconced in Douglas, Wilder found what he was looking for: the chance to work unpestered during the day and to shoot the breeze with salt-of-the-Earth rustics in the local taverns at night. The self-imposed exile allowed him to get started on the masterwork of his old age, his novel “The Eighth Day,” into which he poured his long-fermenting knowledge of the American family.