Born Thornton Niven Wilder in Madison, WI, in 1897, he was the son of Amos Parker Wilder, a newspaper editor and diplomat, and the former Isabella Thornton Niven. He was raised in Madison in his early years, but when he was nine, his father received an appointment as consul general in Hong Kong, where the family resided for part of that year. His mother, however, was wary of the political violence sweeping China and she and the children returned to America; the family went back to Hong Kong in 1910, following the cessation of the turmoil. He was educated at the Kaiser Wilhelm School and the China Inland Missionary Boys' School, before returning with his family to America in 1913, at the end of his father's appointment. Wilder spent the remainder of his youth in Berkeley, CA, attending Berkeley High School, where his interests in theater and playwriting first manifested themselves. He studied next at Oberlin College and Yale University, earning his B.A. in 1920, along with accolades from his professors for his potential as a writer.
Over the next several years, Wilder taught, traveled a bit, and wrote his first novel, The Cabala, inspired by his summer in Rome. Published in 1926, the book was reviewed enthusiastically, though it was hardly a bestseller. In 1927, he published his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The book, a story set in the 18th century and dealing with issues of faith, tolerance, and love, all confronted through the prism of a seemingly random instance of cruel fate, was received with universal enthusiasm by critics and the public, winning the Pulitzer Prize and instantly earning a permanent place on high school and college reading lists for decades to come. A film adaptation followed in 1929, produced by MGM, and the story was adapted to the screen in 1944, from independent producer Benedict Bogeaus and director Rowland V. Lee. The earlier film was an awkward partial talkie, done during the transition to sound, while the 1940s version is usually regarded as an unsatisfactory film in most respects and has been seen very seldom on television since the 1960s. In 1928, Wilder published a new book, The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays, a volume of writing dating back to his days at Oberlin, which was more of a publication of a sketchbook of ideas than a representation of his current work. His 1930 novel The Woman of Andros, set in ancient Greece and dealing with the conflict between pagan and Christian morality, was reviewed unevenly, declared a masterpiece by some critics and a failure by others.