The Life And Legacy Of 3-Time Pulitzer Winner, Thornton Wilder

By Erika Janik | September 16, 2016


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Few people win one Pulitzer Prize. Madison-born Thornton Wilder won three, including one for the seminal play, “Our Town.” 

Wilder was born in Madison on April 17, 1897, the second of five children. He spent part of his childhood in China and then California before heading to college first at Oberlin and then at Yale where he completed his BA in 1920. He later studied archeology at the American Academy and then French literature at Princeton.

Even in college, Wilder was already writing and publishing. His first play, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” appeared in the Yale Literary Magazine in 1920, though it was not produced on stage until 1926.

Wilder’s breakthrough novel was “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” published in 1927, which one him his first Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a movie, the first of three adaptations, in 1929. 

He went on to win two more Pulitzer Prizes, both for drama. The first of these was “Our Town” (1938), which traced the childhood, courtship, marriage, and death of of Emily Webb and George Gibbs. The play’s universal themes continue to inspire productions of the play around the world to this day. Wilder’s second Pulitzer for drama came for “The Skin Of Our Teeth” in 1943.

Wilder traveled widely and extensively throughout his life, teaching and writing. He spoke several languages, had dozens of famous friends, and remained intellectually curious throughout his life. 

Wilder died in Connecticut in 1975.



Erika Janik

Erika Janik

Erika Janik is the co-creator and former executive director of Wisconsin Life. She is the author of six books, including Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, Apple: A Global History, and  Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine. She’s currently the executive...

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