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Thornton Wilder papers

Call Number: YCAL MSS 108
Scope and Contents
The Thornton Wilder Papers consist of correspondence, manuscripts, personal and business papers, printed material, photographs, memorabilia and audio tapes documenting the life and work of American author Thornton Wilder. The papers span the years 1900-1983, with the bulk of the material dating from the period 1935-1975.

The papers are housed in 210 boxes and are organized in eight series: Correspondence, Writings, Personal Papers, Printed Material, Photographs, Memorabilia and Other Papers, Audio Tapes and Other Recordings, and Thornton Wilder Papers Addition. Boxes 162-208 contain Oversize material, Restricted Material, and Restricted Fragile Papers.

Most of the papers now in the Thornton Wilder Papers (YCAL MSS 108) were the gift of Thornton Wilder or of family members; a small percentage were given to Yale before Wilder's death to be added to the collection, often at the request of Thornton or Isabel Wilder. The personal and family papers of other Wilder family members are found in the Amos Niven Wilder and Wilder Family Papers (YCAL MSS 1114); these materials, particularly those of his sister Isabel Wilder, inevitably contain much Wilder-related information. Material by or concerning Thornton Wilder acquired after his death in 1975 from sources other than the Wilder family is located in the Thornton Wilder Collection (YCAL MSS 162).

Series I, Correspondence , (boxes 1-67) is organized into four subseries: Family Correspondence, General Correspondence, First Name Only and Unidentified Correspondence, and Third-Party Correspondence.

Family Correspondence, which is housed in boxes 1-12, contains letters between Thornton Wilder, his parents and siblings, and several in-laws and cousins. Wilder wrote frequently to his parents throughout their lives, and his correspondence with Amos Parker Wilder and Isabel Niven Wilder is filled with reports on his education, reading, friendships and travel, and literary ambitions. Wilder's letters from Oberlin and Yale document his college experiences, classes, first publications, and reactions to World War I; subsequent letters offer news of his teaching jobs at Lawrenceville School and the University of Chicago, his initial trips to Europe and the composition of his novels, particularly The Cabala and The Bridge at San Luis Rey. The correspondence with Amos Parker Wilder in particular offers some of the younger Wilder's thoughts on religion and social conduct; letters to Isabel Niven Wilder often concern Wilder's health and recreational activities.

The fullest documentation of Wilder's life and thoughts during his long career as novelist and playwright, however, is found in his correspondence with his sister Isabel Wilder (boxes 3-9). Sharing the house on Deepwood Drive (which the family called "the house that The Bridge built") for almost 50 years, acting as his secretary, negotiator, and representative with fans, publishers, producers, and agents, and keeping Wilder's financial records in order as well, Isabel Wilder was in effect the manager of Wilder's literary success, and their extensive correspondence reflects this fact. The letters frequently contain Wilder's detailed instructions on everything from investment possibilities or the guest list for a New Year's Eve party through negotiating points for Isabel to make with producers and instructions for editorial changes by publishers. For example, the 1942-43 correspondence is filled with Wilder's comments on and directions for the New York production of The Skin of Our Teeth, as well as the reports Isabel sent to him from her attendance at the rehearsals and discussions with the director and the cast. During the 1950s and 1960s, when Wilder traveled frequently, his letters to Isabel contained both "personal" descriptions of his health, adventures and friends and "business" instructions on such matters as European royalty renegotiations for The Bridge of San Luis Rey and production changes Wilder desired in the Edinburgh Festival Alcestiad.

Wilder's correspondences with his brother Amos and sisters Charlotte and Janet are briefer and more often devoted to family news and plans for visits and reunions.

For additional correspondence between Wilder and family members, also see Series VIII, Thornton Wilder Papers Addition (boxes 209-210).

General Correspondence (boxes 13-65) contains mainly letters received by Wilder from the 1920s through the early 1970s, although the bulk of the letters date from the 1950s and 1960s. Some drafts of responses by Wilder survive, and some letters by Wilder were returned to the family and subsequently given by them to the library as part of the Thornton Wilder Papers.

In addition, Isabel Wilder managed most of Wilder's correspondence from the late 1940s until his death, particularly during Wilder's lengthy absences from their home in Hamden. She retained carbon copies of the letters she wrote for him (which often began, "My brother, Thornton Wilder, is in retirement..") and these are filed by recipient's name in the General Correspondence as well.

This subseries provides excellent documentation of Wilder's public reception and popularity during the decades following the premiere of Our Town. Much of the correspondence deals with requests for autographs, biographical information on Wilder, permissions to perform his plays, questions or comments on the "meaning" of his more popular works, and letters of general appreciation. Isabel Wilder's answers, often variations on a series of "standard" replies, demonstrate both Wilder's affection for his readers and his concern for the integrity of his works; permissions for amateur performances of Our Town, for example, were not easily obtained.

In addition to this large volume of "public" mail, the general correspondence also contains information on Wilder's personal and professional relationships. The correspondence of both Wilders with the literary agency Brandt & Brandt (boxes 17-27) provides a richly detailed overview of Wilder's success in both the United States and Europe. Further information on this subject can be found in the correspondence of publishers Albert and Charles Boni, Harper and Brothers and its successor house Harper & Row, Longmans, Green & Co., and Samuel French, Ltd; and in the files of Herbeth Herlitschka, who represented Wilder in Germany for many years.

Wilder's career in the theater is documented in his correspondences with Carol Channing, Sybil Colefax, Ruth Draper, Edith Evans, Mia Farrow, Ruth Gordon, Tyrone and Judith Guthrie, Garson Kanin, Vivien Leigh, Michael Myerberg, and Michael Redgrave. While the correspondence with Carol Channing is primarily social, there is discussion of Wilder's view of Hello, Dolly! (a musical adaptation of his The Matchmaker). The letters of Myerberg are particularly informative about the difficult first production of The Skin of Our Teeth and the performance of Tallulah Bankhead as Sabrina. Montgomery Clift, who also appeared in that production, became a close personal friend of Wilder's during the 1940s; his letters are located in folder 693.

The letters of Louise Talma (folders 1602-1623) primarily concern her long and sometimes troubled collaboration with Wilder on the opera version of The Alcestiad.

Over the years, Wilder also developed friendships with a number of fellow writers, including Max Beerbohm, Robert Dodson, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Marcia Nardi, Vincent Sheehan, Gertrude Stein, Glenway Wescott, and Stark Young. Wilder's extensive correspondence with Stein (box 57) concerns his admiration of her work, personal news, reflections on writing and writers, including Joyce, politics, and her offer to collaborate with him on a novel (which he declined). The letters of Marcia Nardi contain typescripts of groups of poems she wanted Wilder to promote to publishers. Correspondence with Luhan and Wescott is primarily concerned with news of mutual friends and plans for visits.

Further biographical information on Wilder, as well as evidence of the considerable reservations of both Thornton and Isabel Wilder about interpretations of the author and his works, can be found in the correspondence with Wilder scholars C. Leslie Glenn, Malcolm Goldstein, Richard Goldstone, and Donald Haberman. The Goldstone files include third-party correspondence concerning his projected biography (later published as Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait.

First Name Only and Unidentified Correspondence contains letters identified only by first name, arranged alphabetically, followed by unsigned and incomplete letters. Third-party correspondence includes letters by Walter de la Mare and Max Beerbohm.

Series II, Writings , (boxes 68-123) is organized into nine subseries: Plays: Original Works by Thornton Wilder, Plays: Adaptations by Wilder, Novels, Other Writings, Contributions to Works by Others, Reviews of Works by Others, Untitled Incomplete Writings, Writings of Others: On Thornton Wilder, and Writings of Others: Not Wilder-Related. Material in the first seven subseries has been arranged alphabetically by title and then by order of creation under each title. The last two contain material arranged alphabetically by author and where necessary by title.

Series II contains excellent documentation of Wilder's long career as a successful playwright and novelist, beginning with the publication of his first full-length play, The Trumpet Shall Sound (1926), and extending to the publication of Theophilus North, his final novel, in 1973. (Wilder's school and college productions can be found in Series III, Personal Papers, College Writings.) In addition, the Writings series also provides good evidence of the production history of his major plays and of the development of The Merchant of Yonkers into first The Matchmaker and ultimately into the Stewart and Herman musical Hello, Dolly!.

Material related to Wilder's first major stage success, Our Town, is located in boxes 78-82 and includes: holograph and typescript drafts, galley proofs of the first edition, production information related to the London production, and advertisements, playbills, and magazine and newspaper articles concerning the play collected by Wilder and his sister Isabel from 1938 to 1975. The lasting popularity of Our Town is also documented in the scripts and publicity material for films by Lesser and Schrank; radio adaptations, translations into several European languages, and other related material. Wilder's second Pulitzer-winning play, The Skin of Our Teeth, is represented by holographs, typescripts and galleys; production documentation; playbills and reviews; and articles concerning the 1942 charge of plagiarism made by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson.

The original manuscript of The Merchant of Yonkers is found in folders 1892-1898. Also filed under this title are the manuscripts, typescripts and galleys of Wilder's own 1957 revision, The Matchmaker, and material relating to the 1966 musical version, Hello, Dolly!

Series II also contains manuscripts and related material for Wilder's other dramas, including the cycles The Seven Daily Sins and The Seven Ages of Man; drafts of "Three Minute Plays for Three Persons"; and drafts and notes for both the original version of The Long Christmas Dinner and the opera version by Paul Hindemith.

Although perhaps best-known for his plays, Wilder first drew attention as a novelist, and the Novels subseries contains drafts, galleys, reviews, publicity material and related items for all of his major works in that genre. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is represented by holograph manuscripts, proofs, advance copyright copies, book jackets, a printing history covering the period 1927-1949, theatrical versions and foreign translations, and even a set of Cliff Notes from 1966. Items related to other Wilder novels include a screenplay by Ruth Gordon based on Heaven's My Destination; a typescript for and Wilder's suggestions on Jerome Kilty's stage adaptation of The Ides of March; and a film treatment of Theophilus North.

The subseries Other Writings contains manuscripts, proofs, and printed copies of published lectures, including Wilder's Norton Lectures at Harvard; articles and article drafts on various topics; and notes and writings on Spanish playwright Lope de Vega.

Boxes 121-122 house Writings of Others: On Thornton Wilder, which includes typescript and printed articles by John Evarts, John Gassner, Richard Pini, Time magazine, and others. Writings of Others: Not Wilder-related consists mostly of offprints and printed copies of scholarly articles inscribed to Wilder by their authors, including Owen Dodson, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Ralph S. Lillie, and George W. Pierson. Folders 2818-2821 house the corrected and inscribed typescript of Georges Simenon's novel L'escalier de fer. A parody of one of Wilder's "Three Minute Plays", purportedly by Stephen Vincent Bénet, is located in Box 122, folder 2787.

Series III, Personal Papers (boxes 124-139), documents is organized into documents several aspects of Wilder's life and interests. most notably his college writing; his journaling and autobiographical writing; his teaching and public lecture career during the 1930s; and his military service from 1942 to 1945. The series is organized into eleven alphabetically arranged subseries: Appointment Books, Addresses, etc., Awards and Honors, Biographical Information, College Writings, Financial Papers, Journals and Autobiographical Writings, Lecture Outlines and Notes, Military Service Papers, Notes and Notebooks, Personal Appearances, and Travel Documents.

Awards and honors received by Wilder for his literary achievements and contributions are found in boxes 125-126. His changing financial situation during the course of his career is documented in the records located in boxes 128-130, including his annual "cash accounts" from 1928 to 1974, income tax information, various royalty statements, and miscellaneous bills and receipts.

The subseries College Writings, located in box 127, includes several compositions and short stories written during his time at Oberlin College, but the majority of the college compositions were written while Wilder was an undergraduate at Yale. In addition to the short stories and sketches Wilder produced during these years, the collection also contains Wilder's class themes for an American Literature survey course which he took in the spring of 1919. These brief essays contain Wilder's early verdicts on a range of classic American writers, from Washington Irving ("Statistics show that Washington Irving was one of the authors most cordially donated to the Camp Library Association. People fell over themselves in haste to discard Irving, Scott, and E. P. Roe") to Booth Tarkington ("The interest for me in reading Seventeen lies in discovering why it is not greater than it is.").

The subseries Journals and Autobiographical Writings, housed in boxes 131-132, consists of the surviving sections of the massive personal journal Wilder kept throughout most of his life. He thought of these journals as private and unpublishable material, distinguishing them sharply from the "drafts" and "composition notes" in which he worked on formal writings. There are several folders of early journal material, but most of the surviving pages are from journals Wilder kept from the late 1930s into the 1960s. Subjects include descriptions of his travels and conversations with his many friends and acquaintances; analysis of his own personality and family; ideas for and draft passages of parodies, plays, short stories, novels, and lectures, many never developed further; and lengthy responses to his current reading.

In the case of Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Wilder's always extensive notetaking on his reading evolved into an extensive personal study of the novel, culminating in not one but two sizeable "theme keys" assembled in the course of his frequent returns to Joyce's text. These keys are located in folders 3039-3049, and are accompanied by Wilder's heavily annotated copy of the 1939 edition of the work. (Wilder's reading notes on Lope de Vega accompany the drafts of his writings on Lope in Series II, boxes 116-117.)

The subseries Lecture Outlines and Notes (boxes 135-136) contains manuscript outlines, notes, and "worked-up" sections of lectures given by Wilder, both as college instructor at the University of Chicago and briefly at the University of Hawaii, and during public appearances made mainly during the 1930s and early 1940s. Wilder's topics were almost always literary, and there are several on Greek authors and civilization as well as lectures on "World Literature and the Modern Mind", "Great Books and Hasty Readers", and "Culture in a Democracy." Notes not assignable to a specific lecture are found in box 136, folders 3108-3109.

Despite his relatively advanced age and previous service in World War I, Wilder volunteered for military duty shortly after Pearl Harbor and entered Air Force Intelligence Training in Florida in May of 1942. The subseries Military Service Papers (box 137) includes documentation of his training classes and official graduation; medical reports, orders and other personnel records of his service in the Mediterranean Theater; his separation papers; and a draft history of the 328th Fighter Group, begun as part of his work for Air Force Intelligence.

Series IV, Printed Material , (boxes 140-148) is organized into Newspaper Clippings, Pamphlets, Periodicals, Programs and Exhibition Guides, and Theater Programs collected by Wilder or by Isabel Wilder for her brother. Included are hundreds of newspaper clippings concerning Wilder and his writings, travels, awards, and appearances from 1928 through the tributes and essays that appeared following his death. There are also articles on friends, colleagues and acquaintances of Wilder, often obituaries; and several folders of articles on subjects such as popular fiction, new plays and films, and light verse.

Pamphlets include two items about the Macdowell Colony in New Hampshire (folders 3308-3309) and "Literary Landmarks of Princeton" (folder 3307). Periodical includes the Thomas Mann--Erich von Kahler issue of the Blatter der Thomas Mann Gesellschaft inscribed to Wilder by Alice von Kahler (folder 3315).

Wilder was an assiduous playgoer, often accompanied by his sister Isabel, and his interest is reflected in the four boxes of playbills and theater programs found in this series (boxes 145-148). Arranged alphabetically by title of play, these programs date mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, but there are playbills for performances Wilder attended at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven and on Broadway while a student at Yale College, including a 1918 appearance of Nazimova in A Doll's House and Ina Claire's Polly with a Past. The earliest playbill in the collection (1911) advertises the appearance of Sarah Bernhardt as Phédre at the University of California at Berkeley Theatre.

Series V, Photographs (boxes 149-155), is organized into five subseries: Thornton Wilder, Photographs of Others, Productions of Plays by Wilder, Houses, and Objects.

Boxes 149-150 contain chronologically arranged photographs of Thornton Wilder, sometimes accompanied by family and friends, beginning in 1900 with baby pictures of Wilder in family groups and concluding with portraits of Wilder taken at home at Deepwood Drive in the early 1970s. Many of these were supplied with approximate dates by Isabel Wilder, and these dates have been followed in the arrangement whenever there is no other evidence for the date of a photograph or set of photographs.

In addition to the family snapshots, there are studio portraits of Wilder by photographers including Irving Penn, Danford Barney, Ben D. Gross, Pirie MacDonald, Carl Van Vechten, and G. D. Hackett; prints of publicity, news, and bookjacket shots of Wilder taken throughout his career; and snapshots of Wilder with friends including the Heyeks, Marion Preminger, and Lilian Gish.

Photographs of Others includes shots of Max Beerbohm, Carol Channing, Mia Farrow and her children, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Marion Preminger with Albert Schweitzer, and Gertrude Stein with Alice B. Toklas. The subseries Productions of Plays by Wilder contains photographs from productions of several of Wilder's plays, most notably of Rod Serling's Hong Kong production of Our Town and of a London production of The Skin of Our Teeth. The series ends with photographs of objects, including Wilder's cane, and houses, consisting chiefly of exterior shots of and window views from several Wilder residences.

Series VI, Memorabilia and Other Papers , (boxes 156-157) includes artwork by Max Beerbohm, Angna Enters and Isamu Noguchi; music by Louise Talma and John Edwards; bookplates, postcards, and menus; and directories for Lawrenceville School and the University of Chicago.

Series VII, Audio Tapes and Other Recordings (boxes 158-161) includes several tapes of Wilder reading excerpts of his work and of interviews with him. There is also a tape of a radio broadcast concerning the history of the MacDowell Colony; two tapes of an NBC Radio broadcast of "Biography in Sound" featuring Wilder; and tapes of the Kennedy Inauguration festivities, which included "sketches inspired by Our Town."

Series VIII, Thornton Wilder Papers Addition , is housed in boxes 209-210 and consists almost entirely of family correspondence between Wilder and his mother and sisters. The material in this series was received after the initial processing of YCAL MSS 108.

Oversize material is housed in boxes 162-194 and boxes 201-208 and contains oversize items from all series. Restricted Fragile Papers (boxes 196-200) contains fragile originals for which preservation photocopies have been made for reference use and filed in the regular series run.
Language of Materials
Chiefly in English; some German, Spanish and French.
Conditions Governing Access
The materials are open for research.

Boxes 196-200: Restricted fragile material. Reference surrogates have been substituted in the main files. For further information consult the appropriate curator.
Conditions Governing Use
The Thornton Wilder Papers is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Mainly gift of Thornton Wilder (Yale 1920) and the Wilder family, 1949-1991; for more detailed provenance information, consult the curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature.
1892 - 1991
Majority of material found within 1935 - 1975
113.88 Linear Feet ((211 boxes) + 9 broadside folders, 3 art storage items, cold storage, 1 record album storage)
Related Names
Wilder, Thornton, 1897-1975
Language of Materials
Language of Materials
Language of Materials
Spanish; Castilian
Language of Materials