Alison Lurie 1926-
American novelist, editor, children's writer, memoirist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Lurie's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 5, 18, and 39.
Distinguished for her sophisticated comedies of manners and academic satires, Lurie has earned both popular and critical acclaim for her best-selling novels, such as The War between the Tates (1974), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs (1984), The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988), and The Last Resort (1998). Set in closed communities, typically prestigious eastern colleges and artist enclaves, Lurie's novels repeatedly utilize the themes of adultery and sexuality as means for allowing her characters, especially her female characters, to confront their self-depictions and grow into a greater awareness of themselves and others. Her prose attempts to deconstruct the pretensions and false pride of her characters—at times unmercifully—and works to expose the ways in which cultural ideas and institutions can become obstacles to rewarding lives. Lurie is also a noted scholar of children's literature and has written and edited several volumes of juvenilia, criticism, and fairy tales including Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature (1990) and Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (2002).
Born in Chicago and raised in New York City and Westchester County, New York, Lurie is the eldest of two daughters born to Harry and Bernice Lurie. Lurie's father, a sociology professor, was born in Latvia and later became the executive director of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds. Lurie's mother was an accomplished journalist with the Detroit Free Press before her marriage, a career she left to devote herself to her family. Lurie attended a private elementary school and finished high school at a progressive preparatory school in Connecticut. She attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating in 1947 with a bachelor of arts in literature and history. Lurie began writing in elementary school and continued composing poems, stories, and reviews throughout her schooling. After leaving Radcliffe, she took an editorial assistant position at Oxford University Press in New York. In 1948 she married Jonathan Peale Bishop, with whom she had three sons. While her husband pursued his doctoral work at Harvard University, Lurie concentrated on her writing career and raising her family. During these years, Lurie became a founding member of the Poets' Theater at Harvard. The group, established in 1950, set out to revive poetic drama and included such notable writers and artists as James Merrill, Donald Hall, Frank O'Hara, Richard Wilbur, Kenneth Koch, and Edward Gorey, among others. After receiving rejection slips for numerous short stories and two novels, Lurie stopped writing for a period but resumed her work in earnest to write a memoir of her friend, V. R. Lang—the poet, playwright, and actress—who died of cancer in 1956. Friends of Lurie privately printed the work, V. R. Lang: A Memoir (1959), which was later included as the introduction to V. R. Lang: Poems and Plays (1975). Lurie's first novel, Love and Friendship, was published in 1962. A series of fellowships from the Yaddo Foundation in 1963, 1964, and 1966 helped support her work on her subsequent novels, The Nowhere City (1965) and Imaginary Friends (1967). Lurie's experiences at the well-known Saratoga Springs retreat for writers, artists, and composers provided the inspiration for her fourth novel Real People (1969). In 1968 she began teaching part-time in the English Department at Cornell University, becoming an adjunct associate professor in 1973 and a professor of English in 1979. During the late 1970s, Lurie focused on her academic work in the area of folklore and children's literature, leading to the publication of several children's works, including The Heavenly Zoo: Legends and Tales of the Stars (1979), Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales (1980), and Fabulous Beasts (1981). Lurie's seventh novel, Foreign Affairs, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1985 and was nominated for the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to these honors, Lurie received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1978 and the Prix Femina Etranger in 1989. Lurie separated from Bishop in 1975 and later married novelist Edward Hower. In 1989 she was named as the Fredric J. Whiton Professor of American Literature at Cornell.
With her first novel, Love and Friendship, Lurie established a satiric style and academic milieu that she would return to repeatedly in subsequent novels. Love and Friendship—its title a reference to an early novel written by nineteenth-century author Jane Austen—relates the story of a disintegrating marriage between a woman and her husband, an English professor at a small, prestigious eastern college. Reminiscent of Austen's novels, Lurie adopts a comedy of manners style to explore such issues as relations between the sexes, female awakening, and the intellectual and personal pretenses in cloistered academic communities. Imaginary Friends examines how fantasy and reality can become blurred, especially when sexuality is involved, and how academic objectivity can be used to foster self-delusion. The novel exposes the arrogance of social science research methods and, in particular, the simplistic beliefs about human relationships that underlie such sociological empiricism. Real People, based on Lurie's experiences at Saratoga Springs, employs the form of a journal to investigate the relationship between an artist and the world around her. The plot follows a writer named Janet Belle Smith during her week-long stay at Illyria, a decadent artists' retreat. Lurie returned to her familiar fictional elements—academic settings, adultery, and marital breakdown—in The War between the Tates, which dissects the lives, relationships, presumptions, and self-deceptions of a married couple. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the novel also contains an explicit political component, embodied in the character of Brian Tate, a professor of political science who is having an affair with a social psychology graduate student. Brian accidentally impregnates the student, causing his wife, Erica, to rebel and briefly experiment with sex, drugs, and Eastern philosophy.
Lurie departed from her trademark academic settings in Only Children (1979), a novel set during the Great Depression and told from the viewpoint of two eight-year-old girls. The novel incorporates Lurie's interest in children's literature and gender discrimination while continuing several of the themes from The War between the Tates, most notably male-female and intergenerational conflicts. Through this child's-eye perspective, Lurie reveals the immaturity of adult behavior and the limitations imposed on adult women. Lurie returned to scholarly protagonists in Foreign Affairs, which revolves around the troubled lives of two academics—a middle-aged female scholar of children's literature and a male junior professor of eighteenth-century literature—who are both on research sabbaticals in London. A comedy of manners that is also reminiscent of the Jamesian-style “international novel,” Foreign Affairs examines the self-deceptions that inhibit the academics' respective relationships and the false assumptions about foreign culture that become part of their illusions. In The Truth about Lorin Jones, Lurie again explores the uncertain boundaries between reality and fantasy, this time through the experiences of a biographer, Laurie Zimmern, who is writing a book about a famous painter named Lorin Jones. While conducting research, Zimmern continually encounters her own faulty preconceptions about Jones, the people in Jones's life, and herself. This new sense of awareness forces her to reexamine the attitudes and ideals that have been shaping her life. Set in Key West, The Last Resort involves an eminent naturalist, Wilkie Walker, and his wife, Jenny, as they travel to Florida with vastly different agendas. Jenny hopes the vacation will restore her husband's warmth, while Wilkie—convinced that he has cancer—has come to kill himself in the ocean. The novel takes a darkly comic turn as Wilkie haphazardly bungles his suicide attempts while Jenny explores a lesbian love affair and becomes friends with some of the island's more colorful denizens. Women and Ghosts (1994), Lurie's only collection of short fiction, features nine stories that follow women haunted by figments of their own psyches. In “Ilse's House,” a woman encounters the ghost of her fiancé's ex-wife, while “In the Shadow” focuses on a young foreign service officer whose love life is interrupted by the spirit of a former lover. “The Double Poet” centers around a writer who is tormented by a mysterious doppelgänger who begins taking her place at literary events.
In addition to her fiction, Lurie has published several analytical works, including The Language of Clothes (1981), a study of clothing as a mode of social communication, and Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, a volume of critical writings on children's literature in which she examines subversive elements of traditional stories such as Little Women,The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,Watership Down, and Harriet the Spy. She continued her scholarly reexamination of juvenile fiction with Boys and Girls Forever, which discusses the inspiration behind and the portrayal of gender roles in many notable children's works. Lurie has also edited The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (1993), a collection of folklore and children's stories spanning from 1839 to 1989. In 2001 Lurie published Familiar Spirits, an affectionate though not uncritical memoir of her friends James Merrill, the acclaimed American poet who died of AIDS in 1995, and his long-time partner, David Jackson.
Frequently compared to Jane Austen by critics, Lurie has attracted considerable praise for her incisive, satirical observations of social conventions and relationships among the educated classes. Many reviewers have concurred that The War between the Tates and Foreign Affairs represent the strongest examples of Lurie's talent in constructing modern comedies of manners. Academics have frequently lauded Lurie's insights into contemporary culture, mores, and politics, while additionally commending her eye for detail, sharp wit, and sense of irony. Several critics, however, have found Lurie's often amused detachment unduly cold and harsh, with some claiming that her satire at its most extreme tends to project an indifferent and contemptuous attitude toward her characters. Others have argued that Lurie's prose style is overly controlled, noting that her authorial dominance over characters and plot can make suspension of disbelief difficult. Moreover, some reviewers have perceived an over-reliance on infidelity and sexual intrigue as melodramatic plot devices in her work. While popular press critics have been favorably disposed towards Lurie's fiction, considering her to be a brilliant satirist and keen observer of human nature, many scholars have asserted that Lurie's importance as a serious writer has been diminished by her mainstream status as an entertaining author of light, comic novels. Despite such reservations, Lurie has been consistently praised for her intelligent plots and skillful pacing of both comedy and suspense in her fiction. Lurie has also earned critical esteem for her scholarly and editorial contributions to the study of children's literature, though some have questioned her inclusion criteria for The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. In the Publishers Weekly review of Boys and Girls Forever, the critic has commented that Lurie's “essays are consistently entertaining, enlightening and erudite, and Lurie's insights into a host of classic titles … bring clarity to an always-evolving form.”
here exists in our world an unusual, partly savage tribe, ancient and widely distributed, yet until recently little studied by anthropologists or historians. All of us were at one time members of this tribe: we knew its customs, manners and rituals, its folklore and sacred texts. I refer, of course, to childhood.
The sacred texts of childhood, however, are not always the ones adults recommend, as I discovered very early. Soon after I began going to the library, I realized that there were two sorts of books on its shelves. The first kind, the great majority, told me what grown-ups had decided I ought to know or believe about the world. Many of these books were practical: they wanted me to understand how the automobile worked, or who George Washington was. Also, and not just incidentally, they wanted me to admire both automobiles and the Father of Our Country; you didn't hear much about the mothers of our country in those days.
Along with these improving books there were also some that hoped to teach me manners or morals or both. These books had no Dewey decimal numbers on their spines, and their lessons came disguised as stories. They were about children or bunny rabbits or little engines who had problems or faults and got into difficult situations, sometimes comic and sometimes serious. But in the end they were always saved by some wise, helpful older person or rabbit or engine. The protagonists of these books, that is, learned to depend on authority for help and advice. They also learned to be hardworking, responsible and practical; to stay on the track and be content with their lot in life. They learned, in other words, to be more like respectable grown-ups. It was the same message I and my friends heard every day: Sit up straight, dear. Don't go too far into the woods. Say thank you to Aunt Etta. Come along, stop daydreaming and fill in your workbook. Now, darling, you mustn't make up stories.
But there was another sort of children's literature, I discovered. Some of these books, like ''Tom Sawyer,'' ''Little Women,'' ''Peter Pan'' and ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,'' were on the shelves of the library; others, like ''The Wizard of Oz'' and the Nancy Drew series, had been judged unworthy and had to be bought in shops or borrowed from friends. These were the sacred texts of childhood, whose authors had not forgotten what it was like to be a child. To read them was to feel a shock of recognition, a rush of liberating energy.
These books, and others like them, recommended - even celebrated - daydreaming, disobedience, answering back, running away from home and concealing one's private thoughts and feelings from unsympathetic grown-ups. They overturned adult pretensions and made fun of adult institutions, including school and family. In a word, they were subversive, just like many of the rhymes and jokes and games I learned on the school playground.
It is a long while since I was a child, but I don't think the situation has changed very much. In every era, including the present one, run-of-the-mill children's literature tends to support the status quo. The books that win prizes for stylistic or artistic excellence often - though not always - belong to this category; and when they do, they are at best only politely tolerated by children.
I am sometimes asked why anyone who is not a teacher or a librarian or the parent of little children should concern herself with children's books and folklore. I know the standard answers: that many famous writers have written for children and that the great children's books are also great literature; that these books and tales are an important source of archetype and symbol and that they can help us to understand the structure and functions of the novel.
All this is true. But I think we should also take children's literature seriously because it is sometimes subversive: because its values are not always those of the conventional adult world. Of course in a sense much great literature is subversive, since its very existence implies that what matters is art, imagination and truth. In what we call the real world, on the other hand, what usually counts is money, power and fame.
The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.
An interesting question I sometimes hear is: what - besides intention - makes a particular story a ''children's book''? With the exception of picture books for toddlers, juvenile classics are not necessarily shorter or simpler than so-called adult fiction, and they are surely not less well written. The heroes and heroines of these tales, it is true, are often children: but then so are the protagonists of ''What Maisie Knew'' by Henry James and ''The Bluest Eye'' by Toni Morrison. Yet the barrier between children's books and adult fiction remains; editors, critics and readers seem to have little trouble in assigning a given work to one category or the other.
In classic children's fiction a pastoral convention is maintained. It is assumed that the world of childhood is simpler and more natural than that of adults, and that children, though they may have faults, are essentially good or at least capable of becoming so. The transformation of selfish, whiny, disagreeable Mary and hysterical, demanding Colin in Frances Hodgson Burnett's ''Secret Garden'' is a paradigm. Of course, there are often unpleasant minor juvenile characters who give the protagonist a lot of trouble and are defeated or evaded rather than re-educated. But on occasion even the angry bully and the lying sneak can be reformed and forgiven. Richard Hughes's ''High Wind in Jamaica,'' though most of its characters are children, never appears on lists of recommended juvenile fiction; not so much because of the elaborations of its diction (which is no more complex than that of, say, ''Treasure Island''), but because in it children are irretrievably damaged and corrupted.
Adults in most children's books, on the other hand, are usually stuck with their characters and incapable of alteration or growth. If they are really unpleasant, the only thing that can rescue them is the natural goodness of a child. Here again Mrs. Burnett provides the classic example, in ''Little Lord Fauntleroy.'' (Scrooge's somewhat similar change of heart in ''A Christmas Carol,'' however, is due mainly to regret for his past and terror of the future. This is one of the things that make the book a family rather than a juvenile romance; another is the helpless passivity of the principal child character, Tiny Tim.) Of the three principal preoccupations of adult fiction - sex, money and death - the first is absent from classic children's literature and the other two either absent or much muted. Love in these stories may be intense, but it is romantic rather than sensual, at least overtly. Peter Pan passionately desires Wendy, but what he wants is for her to be his mother.
Money is a motive in children's literature, in the sense that many stories deal with a search for treasure of some sort. These quests, unlike real-life ones, are almost always successful, though occasionally what is found in the end is some form of family happiness, which is declared by the author and the characters to be a ''real treasure.'' Simple economic survival, however, is almost never the problem; what is sought, rather, is a magical (sometimes literally) surplus of wealth.
Death, which was a common theme in 19th-century fiction for children, was almost banished during the first half of this century. Since then it has begun to reappear; the breakthrough book was E. B. White's ''Charlotte's Web.'' Today not only animals but people die, notably in the sort of books that get awards and are recommended by librarians and psychologists for children who have lost a relative. But even today the characters who die tend to be of another generation; the protagonist and his or her friends survive.
Though there are some interesting exceptions, even the most subversive of contemporary children's books usually follow these conventions. They portray an ideal world of perfectible beings, free of the necessity for survival and reproduction: not only a pastoral but a paradisal universe - for without sex and death, humans may become as angels. The romantic child, trailing clouds of glory, is not as far off as we might think.
Alison Lurie's most recent novel is ''The Truth About Lauren Jones.'' This essay is adapted from her forthcoming collection ''Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature.''
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