In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section August Wilson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • General Criticism
  • Documentaries

American Literature August Wilson
Dana A. Williams, Aja Storm Kennedy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0184


August Wilson (b. 1945–d. 2005) was born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in the Hill District of Pittsburgh to a German immigrant father and an African American mother. He attended Central High School but soon transferred to Gladstone High School due to racist abuse. His time at Gladstone was also short lived—Wilson dropped out after being accused of plagiarism. Upon turning eighteen, Wilson enlisted in the army, where he served for one year. Afterward, Wilson worked various menial jobs, and many of his coworkers served as inspiration for the “everyman” characters on whom he would later center his plays. During his twentieth year, Wilson purchased his first typewriter and began writing poetry. That same year, his father—who had been largely absent throughout his life—passed away, and he changed his name to August Wilson in honor of his mother, Daisy Wilson. As August Wilson, he began seriously to pursue his dream of becoming a professional writer. After publishing several poems in magazines, Wilson transitioned to playwriting; in 1980, he received a fellowship to attend the Minneapolis Playwrights Center. His earliest plays (Recycling, The Janitor, The Coldest Day of the Year) were one-acts and were performed in local theaters. It wasn’t until Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that Wilson gained his first mainstream hit. The play opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1984 and quickly moved to Broadway the same year. Three years later, Fences opened on Broadway to widespread critical acclaim, receiving a Pulitzer Prize and cementing Wilson’s growing reputation in the theater world. After writing his third major play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Wilson realized the creative possibilities of having written three plays in three different decades, and the idea of a 20th-century play cycle was conceived. Now known as the Pittsburgh Cycle (since each play takes place in Pittsburgh, except for Ma Rainey), Wilson devoted his ten-play cycle to documenting the African American experience across every decade of the 20th century. The cycle, which Wilson completed with Radio Golf in 2005, mere months before his death, is considered one of the greatest accomplishments in American theater history. Wilson is remembered and admired for the beauty and depth with which he portrayed black struggle, pain, love, and life. Thanks to his extraordinary dramaturgy and unprecedented contributions to American literature, Wilson’s proud, passionate, and powerful voice will live forever.

General Overviews

There are several scholarly sources on Wilson’s life and work available for those looking to get acquainted with the author and his plays. Shannon 1995 serves as one of the earliest and most groundbreaking. Bogumil 1999, Herrington 1998, and Elkins 2000 provide invaluable insight to Wilson’s dramaturgical approach. Bryer and Hartig 2006 is another invaluable resource, in that it collects interviews that offer first-person insight into Wilson’s life, aspirations, and artistic methodology. Snodgrass 2004 is an excellent source that offers biographical information on the playwright and details his dramaturgy. Bigsby 2007 also covers biography and dramaturgy in addition to providing critical essays on each of Wilson’s ten major plays. Glasco and Rawson 2015 is a fresh and innovative book that explores Wilson’s beloved hometown of Pittsburgh and the influence it had on his life and work. Finally, Shannon and Richards 2016 provides a variety of scholarly approaches to teaching Wilson’s work. Each source is written with accessibility in mind, and each one provides a different foundation for the study of Wilson’s work.

  • Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    A retrospective look at the life and work of Wilson. Features fifteen original essays written by notable literary scholars, all of which provide fresh biographical or thematic insight, or both. Offers excellent critical analysis on each play in the ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle.

  • Bogumil, Mary L. Understanding August Wilson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

    Studies Wilson’s plays in the context of the American dramatic tradition. An excellent study on how Wilson’s work subverts and reworks traditional dramatic structures to create a dramaturgy that centers African American culture, history, and expressivity.

  • Bryer, Jackson R., and Mary C. Hartig, eds. Conversations with August Wilson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

    Collection of interviews Wilson gave from 1984 to 2004. Offers firsthand accounts of Wilson’s politics, creative process, literary influences, and literary intentions. Wilson’s candid and provocative insights provide a nuanced lens through which to approach the study of his work.

  • Elkins, Marilyn. August Wilson: A Casebook. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000.

    A comprehensive introduction to Wilson’s work. Examines his thematic approaches and artistic influences. Includes original essays from leading scholars as well as interviews both with Wilson and Lloyd Richards—Wilson’s friend and longtime collaborator.

  • Glasco, Laurence Admiral, and Christopher Rawson. August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 2015.

    Creative take on the study of Wilson’s life, work, and creative process that serves as a “Wilsonian” guidebook to the city of Pittsburgh—Wilson’s hometown and the setting of his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle. Takes readers to key sites in Pittsburgh that informed both Wilson’s life and the life of his characters. Includes essays by Wilson’s niece Kimberly Ellis and his friend and former Pittsburgh councilman Sala Udin.

  • Herrington, Joan. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothin’ I Done: August Wilson’s Process of Playwriting. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 1998.

    An in-depth examination of Wilson’s intense playwriting process. Discusses how Wilson’s on-the-spot editing and revising process helped shape and evolve his scripts. Includes interviews with Wilson as well as with dramaturgs who worked alongside him.

  • Shannon, Sandra Garrett. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1995.

    Early study by a leading scholar in Wilson criticism. Captures the breadth of Wilson’s dramatic vision, traces the development of his literary technique, and relates his creative work to the trajectory of his personal journey as man and writer. Includes discussion of Wilson’s poems and plays as well as an extensive bibliography and an uncut interview with Wilson in the appendix.

  • Shannon, Sandra Garrett, and Sandra L. Richards. Approaches to Teaching the Plays of August Wilson. New York: Modern Language Association, 2016.

    Extensive pedagogical guide to the plays of August Wilson. Composed of original essays written by academics and dramaturgs alike. Covers both “materials” necessary for and “approaches” useful in the study of Wilson’s work. Concerning the former, the book discusses a variety of secondary sources, and student-friendly editions of Wilson’s plays. Concerning the latter, the book examines a variety of thematic and scholarly approaches to Wilson’s work, such as his blues sensibility.

  • Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. August Wilson: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.

    Invaluable introductory resource to the thematic and formal elements of Wilson’s plays. Takes an encyclopedic form (nearly two hundred entries) to provide analysis of characters, dates, events, historical figures, themes, and staging methods. Includes a chronology of Wilson’s life, Wilson’s genealogy, a timeline of Wilson’s life and his characters’ lives, and a list of potential research and essay topics.

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