“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. I remembered “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” as beautifully written but rather pious, perhaps because it was so enthusiastically assigned at my Jesuit high school. On second reading, the novel seems to walk a fine line between faith and doubt, and Brother Juniper, the earnest friar who makes charts and diagrams in an effort to discern God’s will in the bridge’s collapse, ends up being a comic figure.
In a journal entry from roughly the time of the book’s composition, Wilder put his finger on one of the chief objections to faith: “There is [a] mood in which one distrusts religion because it so exactly fulfills one’s needs. You feel as though you had created religion because you wanted it so badly, instead of that it created you.”
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.)
For the most part, Niven eschews literary criticism, which means she says nothing about Wilder’s chief fault as a writer: sententiousness. Even the famous last line of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” — “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning” — may work better as a proverb than as a fitting conclusion to the story of five lives lost in an accident.
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.
is a contributing editor of Book World.