Categories: Great Depression and World War II, Hamden, Literature

Hamden’s Literary Legend

One of the most distinguished authors and playwrights of the 20th century called Hamden home. Thornton Wilder, author of such renowned works as Our Town, The Matchmaker, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, lived in Hamden for much of his life, leaving an indelible mark on the town that is still celebrated today.

Yale graduation photograph of Thornton Wilder

Detail from Yale graduation photograph of Thornton Wilder, ca. 1920 – Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1897. He spent much of his youth traveling to the Far East where his father served as the United States Consul General to Hong Kong and Shanghai. In 1917, his family moved to New Haven and Wilder enrolled at Yale. After briefly leaving school to serve as a corporal in the Coast Artillery Corps during World War I, he graduated from Yale in 1920. From there he went on to study architecture in Rome and then received a master’s degree in French literature from Princeton in 1926. He spent a great deal of his life teaching poetry and literature at the University of Chicago, Harvard, and the University of Hawaii.

Award-Winning Works

A writer at heart, Wilder’s breakthrough novel came in 1927 with the publication of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The book examined the fate of five travelers who fall to their deaths from a bridge in Peru. It earned Wilder his first Pulitzer Prize. The Broadway opening of Our Town in 1938, a story about the ordinary lives of people in fictitious Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, earned Wilder his second Pulitzer and made him the only American author to win the award for both fiction and drama.

During World War II, Wilder served his country as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Force Intelligence service, earning the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star. After the death of his mother in 1946—his father had passed away 10 years earlier—Wilder and his sister Isabel (herself a successful author), moved into their parents’ home in Hamden. Here, Wilder continued to write, penning such notable works as 1954’s The Matchmaker, a play made into a film in 1958 that starred Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins, and Shirley MacLaine. In 1964, the story was adapted yet again and became the basis for the smash Broadway hit Hello, Dolly!

Thornton Wilder died in Hamden on December 7, 1975. The town celebrates his literary legacy through Thornton Wilder Hall in the Miller Memorial Central Library and Cultural Complex, The Thornton Wilder Study at the Miller Memorial Central Library, and an annual Thornton Wilder Writing Competition for area high school students sponsored by the Friends of the Hamden Library.

LEARN MORE

Places

“Miller Memorial Central Library.” Hamden Public Library, 2015. Link.

Documents

“Guide to the Thornton Wilder Papers.” Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 2012. Link.

Books

Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New Haven, CT: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
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