In 1962, at the age of 65, Thornton Wilder made a dramatic getaway, driving alone from the East Coast to Douglas, Ariz. He didn’t so much choose Douglas as let it choose him — his car died there — but he liked it enough to stick around for 20 months.

What sent one of the greatest living American authors — the first to win Pulitzer Prizes in fiction (“The Bridge of San Luis Rey”) and drama (“Our Town”) — to a nowhere town where he didn’t know a soul? A case of excessive sociability.

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).

"Thornton Wilder: A Life" by Penelope Niven (Harper)

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.

“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.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.


A Life

By Penelope Niven

Harper. 832 pp. $39.99