Thornton Wilder (1897–1975)
From Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings
In the forthcoming, definitive biography of Thornton Wilder, Penelope Niven describes one of the more exciting adventures of his childhood: his family’s move in 1906 from Madison, Wisconsin, to Hong Kong, where his father Amos Parker Wilder would serve as U.S. consul general, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. The family traveled cross-country to San Franscisco, then to Hawaii, and on to their final destination; the young boy’s ninth birthday, on April 17, actually “disappeared” during the trip when their ship crossed the International Date Line.
After several months in Hong Kong, the Wilders became increasingly concerned about the limited educational opportunities available to their children. Their anxiety added a new dimension when a typhoon and tsunami struck Hong Kong in September, killing over ten thousand people. At the end of October, Amos Wilder sent his wife and four children back to the States, where they set up home in Berkeley and remained for three years, until May 1909, when Amos was appointed consul general in Shanghai. A brief reunion in Berkeley before his transfer resulted in a fifth child, and at the beginning of 1911 thirteen-year-old Thornton, along with his mother and three of his siblings, moved back to China to live with his father. (His older brother stayed behind at school in California.)
Again dissatisfied with the available schools, the Wilders opted to send Thornton to the China Inland Mission School in Chefoo, 450 miles to the north in Shandong province. In late April the teenager traveled by coastal steamer to the port of Chefoo, where a plague had just killed tens of thousands of people. He arrived safely at the school and was joined in July by his sister Charlotte when his mother, who could no longer bear life in Shanghai, left for Europe with the two youngest children. (One of their schoolmates at Chefoo was Henry Luce, who would go on to establish the Time-Life magazine empire.) The Wilder children remained at the missionary school until the summer of 1912—largely sheltered from the Xinhai Revolution that ended two thousand years of imperial rule and established the Republic of China.
During the late 1960s Wilder worked on a memoir, which he never finished, and left among his papers about twenty manuscript pages titled “Chefoo, China.” Blending memory and fact with fictional flourishes, this previously unpublished piece appears with two other unpublished excerpts in the new LOA volume, Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings. It opens with a perceptive description of the luxurious life afforded to Western residents in China, who were not “entirely unaware of the ocean of suffering around them.” The account then offers a portrait of one of his schoolmates, “a seasoned veteran in that unremitting war” against the “unfairness of adults.”
Note: Wilder’s manuscript cites Heraclitus as the source for the quote, “Man is the measure of all things” (p. 717). The correct attribution is Protagoras.
It used to be said that to have lived in China during those years between the Boxer Rebellion and the 1911 Revolution was to have enjoyed a foretaste of Heaven. Skilled and tireless servants could be engaged for six to ten dollars a month. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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