During the Spring of 2022 I first began exploring the papers of Penelope Niven. My project coincided with, and was influenced by, the upcoming birthday of one of Niven’s biographical subjects, American author and playwright, Thornton Wilder. Biographies of Wilder had been previously published, however, Niven’s was a distinct publication as she worked very closely with Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, Tappan Wilder, to obtain copies of private correspondence between Thornton and his immediate family members as well as his literary peers from the time. Prior to the death of his last living sibling, Thornton Wilder’s personal correspondence was closely guarded and inaccessible to the Wilder biographers who preceded Niven. The letters and research files Niven used provides evidence of the well-travelled arts-loving writer she profiled in “Thornton Wilder: a life”.
Thornton Wilder was born in 1917 to Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Thornton Niven Wilder in Madison, Wisconsin. Amos P. Wilder was a journalist and diplomat who served as the United States Consul General in Hong Kong and Shanghai from 1906-1914. Among the “heretofore restricted and unseen private letters and … family papers” Niven refers to a paternal manifesto penned by Amos P. Wilder wherein he discusses his thoughts and values on parenting in addition to sharing intimate and insightful perspectives on his children and their personalities. Amos wanted his children to be smart and resourceful – of Thornton, he writes, “One of our boys was manifestly a ‘highbrow’ from infancy…He read Henry James and Walter Pater at twelve. He was contemptuous of sports…” Researchers who use Niven’s papers will find these resources useful as they provide an accurate and honest portrayal of Wilder from those closest to him.
His mother would often write about her frustrations with Thornton’s wanderlust and how it kept him from settling down. However, it could be assumed that a proclivity for travel was inherited by Thornton from his parents. While Amos P. Wilder’s work in China took the family East during Thornton’s adolescence, it was prior to this that Isabella Wilder left her four small children in the care of their father and nanny to travel Europe with friends for three months during the spring of 1902. After returning to the states amid the political unrest in China during the early 1900s, Thornton completed his primary education in California and went on to attend Oberlin, Yale, and Princeton Universities. Within Niven’s papers there are photocopies of correspondence between Thornton and his family and friends while away at school.
Surprisingly, within this collection of papers, researchers interested in twentieth century performing and literary arts would find these materials useful and interesting. More photocopies of correspondence between Thornton Wilder and big-name production personalities of that time are contained in Niven’s records. There is also a copy of a letter from Orson Welles to Thornton Wilder written on stationary from the Algonquin Hotel – the script is difficult to read but should be manageable for any interested and dedicated researcher. Though I have only just started my research on these materials, SCA has already gotten requests for some information. As I continue to familiarize myself with Niven’s collection, I hope these papers will provide more insight into not only her subjects, but how their work can be studied as a reflection of social and cultural values.
Penelope (Penny) Niven Papers (MS906), Special Collections & Archives, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., USA.
Niven, P., & Albee, E. (2012). Thornton Wilder: A life. Harper.