Thornton Wilder's older brother, Amos Niven Wilder, was Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, a noted poet, and foundational to the development of the field theopoetics. Amos was also a nationally-ranked tennis player who competed at the Wimbledon tennis championships in 1922. His youngest sister, Isabel Wilder, was an accomplished writer. Both of his other sisters, Charlotte Wilder (a noted poet) and Janet Wilder Dakin (a zoologist), attended Mount Holyoke College and were excellent students. Additionally, Wilder had a sister and twin brother, both of whom died at birth.
After serving in the United States Coast Guard during World War I, he attended Oberlin College before earning his B.A. at Yale University in 1920, where he refined his writing skills as a member of the Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity, a literary society. He earned his M.A. in French from Princeton University in 1926.
Wilder had a wide circle of friends and enjoyed mingling with other famous people, including Ernest Hemingway, Russel Wright, Willa Cather, Montgomery Clift and Gertrude Stein. Although he never discussed his homosexuality publicly or in his writings, his close friend Samuel M. Steward is generally acknowledged to have been his lover.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) tells the story of several unrelated people who happen to be on a bridge in Peru when it collapses, killing them. Philosophically, the book explores the problem of evil, or the question, of why unfortunate events occur to people who seem "innocent" or "undeserving".
It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, and in 1998 it was selected by the editorial board of the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century. The book was quoted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the memorial service for victims of the September 11 attacks in 2001. Since then its popularity has grown enormously. The book is the progenitor of the modern disaster epic in literature and film-making, where a single disaster intertwines the victims, whose lives are then explored by means of flashbacks to events before the disaster.
Wilder was the author of Our Town, a popular play (and later film) set in fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. It was inspired by his friend Gertrude Stein's novel The Making of Americans, and many elements of Stein's deconstructive style can be found throughout the work. Our Town employs a choric narrator called the "Stage Manager" and a minimalist set to underscore the universality of human experience. (Wilder himself played the Stage Manager on Broadway for two weeks and later in summer stock productions.) following the daily lives of the Gibbs and Webb families as well as the other inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, Wilder illustrates the importance of the universality of the simple, yet meaningful lives of all people in the world in order to demonstrate the value of appreciating life. The play won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize. Wilder suffered from severe writer's block while writing the final act. That same year Max Reinhardt directed a Broadway production of The Merchant of Yonkers, which Wilder had adapted from Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy's Einen Jux will er sich machen (1842). It was a failure, closing after just 39 performances.
His play The Skin of Our Teeth opened in New York on November 18, 1942 with Fredric March and Tallulah Bankhead in the lead roles. Again, the themes are familiar--the timeless human condition; history as progressive, cyclical, or entropic; literature, philosophy, and religion as the touchstones of civilization. Three acts dramatize the travails of the Antrobus family, allegorizing the alternate history of mankind. It was claimed by Joseph Campbell and Robert Morton Robinson, authors of A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake, that much of the play was the result of unacknowledged borrowing from Joyce's last work. (Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss.)
In 1955, Tyrone Guthrie encouraged Wilder to rework The Merchant of Yonkers into The Matchmaker. This time the play enjoyed a healthy Broadway run of 486 performances with Ruth Gordon in the title role, winning a Tony Award for Guthrie, its director. It later became the basis for the hit 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!, with a book by Michael Stewart and score by Jerry Herman.
His last novel, Theophilus North, was published in 1973.