Despite the three Pulitzer prizes awarded him, Thornton Wilder may very well [have turned] out to be one of the few enduring writers of our time...There have been countless other authors who in his day have been far more "discussed." That was inevitable for a man who has neither hastened to follow nor troubled to oppose the current mode, who has gone his own way, and who has clearly never sought the popularity which has periodically been his (Unger 355).
The key to his significance is his extraordinary ability to combine his philosophy and ethics with his personal experiences in perhaps one of the greatest paradoxical plays ever written.
Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin on the twenty-seventh of April in 1897. His father, Amos Parker Wilder, was a strict Calvinist who combined strong economic interests with politics (Block and Shedd 959) in his work as the editor, owner, and publisher of a newspaper. Isabella Thornton Niven, his mother, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. They were to influence their son\'s works greatly. Wilder also had a sister, Isabel, who was to become a distinguished novelist in her own right.
Wilder\'s early education began in Hong Kong, where his father was serving as American consul general in Shanghai (Goldstone 11). He was then schooled at Berkeley, California; Chefoo, China; and Ojai, California before completing high school back at Berkeley in 1915. He studied the classics at Oberlin College and Yale University, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1919 (Unger 356). Wilder spent a year as a resident of the American Academy at Rome, where he began writing The Cabala. Back in the United States he taught French at Lawrenceville High School in New Jersey from 1921-1928 and began doing graduate work at Princeton, where he took his Master of Arts degree in 1926. The Cabala was issued as a novel that year, but was largely ignored by the critics.
"Although over-age when America entered World War II, Wilder sought military assignment...and served in Air Force Intelligence in the United States, North Africa and Italy" (Block and Shedd 959). America\'s involvement in World War II changed Wilder\'s perspective. "He had too clear an idea of man\'s limited possibilities..." (Papajewski 109). Wilder wrote, "When you\'re at war you think about a better life; when you\'re at peace you think about a more comfortable one" (Papajewski 109). Wilder wrote his best works with this very theme while in the service.
A mere glance at the titles of Thornton Wilder\'s writings is enough to establish the wide variety of his accomplishment. Variety there is- "...unlike the work of such contemporaries of his who were content to write the same book over and over under a series of new titles..." (Unger 357) -yet throughout his entire career there can be distinguished the mind and temperament of the author. Whether Wilder takes the reader to ancient Rome, to New Hampshire in modern times, or on a dizzying whirl through the centuries, his hand is everywhere evident.
The Skin of Our Teeth was the center of a great controversy in Wilder\'s career when Joseph Campbell accused its author of plagiarizing Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce (Unger 370). Joyce\'s influence appears clearly in The Skin Of Our Teeth, and Wilder has since acknowledged this (Papajewski 110).
"[The Skin Of Our Teeth] was written," its author states, "on the eve of our entrance into the war and under strong emotion" (Wilder 164). He might have added: and with inspired imagination (Unger 370). The work is vast in both dimension and scope; its lines bounce with energy, sparkle with wit, and exult in the joy of living. Here at length, Wilder\'s military experiences and background is capitalized upon in a marvelous and complicated unity (Goldstone 174). His religious knowledge and training are explicitly displayed. These influences are dramatically presented in the dilemma of normal humanity faced with the recurrent brutalities of fascism, nazism and communism (Unger 370). Henry, the voice of such systems, cries, "I\'m going to be free even if I have to kill half the world for it" (Wilder 196). At the sight of him, normal humanity exclaims: "War\'s a pleasure compared to what faces us now: trying to build up a peacetime with you in