Tappan Wilder graduated from Yale and has a Masters in American History from the University of Wisconsin and a Masters of Philosophy in American Studies from Yale. He brings even more to the table when it comes to his main job for the past 27 years—literary executor for Thornton Wilder’s voluminous works.
“I do not write as a scholar, but it was my good fortune to know Thornton Wilder as ‘Uncle Thorny,’ …” Tappan writes in a 2013 essay for Northwestern University Press titled “Thornton Wilder for the Twenty-First Century.”
And it is Wilder fans’ good fortune that Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s lone nephew, took that role managing his uncle’s vast properties. Since taking over as literary executor in 1995, upon the death of Thornton’s sibling, Isabel, Tappan opened up Thornton Wilder’s world to the rest of the world. There was the three-volume Library of America editions of Wilder’s plays and novels, headed—of course—by Our Town. Then came a 2012 biography and The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder, both of which drew on a wealth of information previously inaccessible to anyone outside the Wilder family.
“What do I do? Quite a range of things,” Tappan said last week, in between editing several Wilder playlets—three-minute, one-act plays his uncle started writing in high school. “I run basically the business of managing Thornton Wilder properties, from keeping everything in print to working on adaptations and translations. … What don’t I do is a better question. I’m very proud everything is in print. … I deal with scholars seeking permission to write about Thornton Wilder.
“My job is to represent him in every way I can responsibly and joyfully do.”
And it’s a full-time job. In so doing, he added dimensions to one of the 20th century’s most celebrated men-of-letters. He brought not just Thornton Wilder’s prolific plays, novels, essays and letters into the 21st century, but insight into who his uncle was.
Tappan said since taking over as literary executor, he’s discovered “hundreds of letters I wasn’t aware of, learning a great deal about these people I never knew about. I’ve gotten to know them all over again in a totally different way. It’s quite an opportunity and quite a treasure.”
So are the memories.
“What I remember most were happy encounters with him and the wonderful letters he wrote me,” Tappan said. “I was the only nephew. He was an extraordinary letter writer. You can see the spirit in which he wrote. He was interested about life and gave me wonderful comments and observations. He was fun to be around and he was fun to be around because he had an extraordinary sense of humanity. He was a great conversationalist. All joyful, but very serious at times. …
“I have often said the one thing I did not do for him was I never shared my term papers. I declined the opportunity.”
But Thornton didn’t decline the opportunity to spoil his nephew. Along with the letters, Tappan tells the story of a day in Switzerland in 1953. Tappan was there with his father, a college professor on an exchange program. They were at the Palace Hotel in Gstaad and Thornton was there, on one of his numerous travels. The hotel gave him a large box of candy, which Thornton didn’t eat.
“So he gave it to me,” Tappan said. “I had to hide it because he didn’t want the hotel to think he was ungrateful. So I put it under my shirt, like a big, bulletproof vest. … Somehow we got out of that hotel and I got back home with the biggest box of candy I ever had.”
Speaking of big, there’s Our Town, which Tappan described as “the nine-hundred-pound gorilla in Thornton Wilder’s artistic tent,” in that Northwestern University essay. Tappan said from the moment Our Town was first made available to amateur and stock stages on April 5, 1939, it has been performed at least once a day somewhere in the world. In the first 20 months after it was made available, the play was performed on 658 stages across the United States and Canada.
It was performed in Warsaw, Poland in February 1939, seven months before the Nazis invaded the country, starting World War II. It was performed in Nazi-occupied Vienna the following month and in Japan two weeks before Pearl Harbor. It was performed in Berlin in the fall of 1945, when that city was little more than rubble. Currently, Tappan said the play is also being licensed to the Czech Republic, Portugal, Serbia, China, Spain, Ecuador, Hungary and Taiwan, among others.
“It’s an international play and Grover’s Corners is an international address,” Tappan said.
And Thornton Wilder knew what Our Town meant. In 1960, he went to Peterborough, N.H., one of the small New Hampshire towns that Grover’s Corners is based on and where Wilder wrote much of Our Town. He went to receive a medal from the MacDowell Colony, an artistic fellowship and residency that dates to 1907. When a New York Times reporter covering the event asked Wilder in essence what was so special about a genre play set in a small, New Hampshire town, Wilder disabused him of that notion in a hurry.
“Young man, Grover’s Corners is your town. It’s my town. It’s everyone’s home town,” Tappan quoted his uncle saying. “I have received letters from Chile, Iraq, Iran and other countries from people who have seen the play. Despite sociological differences, they tell me they have readily identified their everyday experiences with those in Our Town. …”
Tappan said his uncle wasn’t an “in-your-face” type of writer. But he understood why Our Town was—and is—such a special play.
“I’m always happily amazed and pleased and proud to be associated with someone I felt was an absolute genius,” Tappan said. “He was a complete, abstract, marvelous man. I’m extremely proud he tried to write about everybody. He was trying to write not just about one person, but trying to catch everybody. This was a guy with his eyes on observing human life around him. He was a great entertainer, but as he once wrote me, and it was true, he was a great listener.
“He lived alone all his life and wrote beautifully about marriage and love and family. You realize the man on the edge, the outsider, they have an incredible ability to understand what is going on. They are free to observe and understand. That’s what great artists do. And he had that in spades.”
See Our Town on the Segerstrom Stage now through June 4.
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