In 2012 Penelope “Penny” Niven (1939-2014) published her fourth and final biography titled “Thornton Wilder: a life”. She began working on the 848-page account as early as 1997 when she pursued a fellowship at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. However, one could say that the process started years, decades really, before Niven made any contacts, proposals, or even an outline. In a speech delivered in 2000, 12 years before the published version, Niven said that she “was a teenage in Waxhaw [NC] when I read Thornton Niven Wilder’s play Our Town for the first time”, and the relatability resonated with her as she felt that it described her hometown. In celebration of Thornton Wilder’s 125th birthday, I visited offsite storage to peruse Niven’s notes on the private, but renowned author and playwright who left behind over 10,000 letters of correspondence between himself, his family, his friends, and adoring fans.
Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with Thornton Wilder’s work, but as a true testament to his legacy, I had a lightbulb moment when I learned that he penned Our Town (1938). Not having seen or read the play, the title struck me because I have watched countless shows and movies that featured someone’s high school or theater group putting on a production of Our Town. Even in my day-to-day work with university records, I have come across photographs from the WFU Theater Department’s performances of the play.
Niven’s biography of Wilder was published nearly four decades after Wilder’s death, but she began reaching out to Wilder’s nephew, and literary executor, Tappan “Tappy” Wilder, who encouraged and supported Niven’s research proposal. Though there had been other Wilder biographies published prior to Niven’s, they were out of print. The uniqueness of Niven’s work is in the fact that she used tens of thousands of letters penned by Wilder and his correspondents and confidants. In her Beinecke Fellowship research proposal, Niven writes, “…until 1996 some crucially important and revealing letters and papers were inaccessible to scholars.” Niven captured and documented Wilder from the perspective of those unpublished words. As noted, Wilder led a private life, but seeing him as “Wilder the epistoler” provided an intimate and honest perspective of the writer – the thoughts he held about his works and himself.
Many materials I researched contained Niven’s notes and resources related to her professional writing. I went through at least 20 boxes that were completely full of emails and written correspondence, as well as clippings and some personal papers and photographs. Interestingly, the materials were not solely related to Niven’s work on Wilder. In 1992 Penny Niven published, Carl Sandburg: A Biography, a well-reviewed literary work that covered the life of the three-time Pulitzer prize winning poet. Immediately following the successful Sandberg biography, she wrote a biography of award-winning actor James Earl Jones titled Voices and Silences (1993). Among her notes, there were transcripts of oral histories gathered on her subjects. Most interesting to me was a transcribed interview wherein James Earl Jones expressed his thoughts and reactions to the production of Disney’s The Lion King (1994).
Overall, I was impressed and in awe at the volume of materials which only accounted for half of Niven’s entire collection within SCA holdings. It made me think about the ways in which ‘collecting’ and archiving have changed and will continue to change over the years. Many of Niven’s email and research papers were dated to the early 2000s and it was honestly hard for me to remember an Internet used for anything other than email and chat rooms before 2005. In a time where it is normal to acquire hard drives, flash drives, and laptops, it was exciting to see so many physical materials that so thoroughly documented Niven’s processes and I look forward to continue my work with The Penny Niven papers so that a processed collection will be available for exploration.