Reflecting on Joyce Carol Oates

Fellow alumna and friend Joanne Creighton ’64 is in an ideal position to reflect on the work and life of writer Joyce Carol Oates MA’61. Creighton, who has been president of Mt. Holyoke College since 1996 and is a professor of English, has written two books and numerous articles and reviews about Oates. On Wisconsin asked Creighton to open a window on the prolific and stunning body of work that has made Oates one of the most critically acclaimed American authors of modern times.

Sometimes, “an initial failure may release in us a new and appropriate channel of action; we have the power to redefine ourselves, to heal our wounds, to fight back.” So noted Joyce Carol Oates MA’61 – forty years later – about her memorable and pivotal year at the University of Wisconsin in a poignant autobiographical essay, “Nighthawk: Memoir of a Lost Time,” published in the Yale Review in 2001, and excerpted here on page 36.

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

She arrived in Madison as a graduate student in fall 1960, the same time I began as an undergraduate. While we did not meet there, we traversed the same terrain – she lived in Barnard Hall, where I was to live the next two years, and made her way up Bascom Hill to study English, as I did. We even had the same formative professor – her MA examiner, G. Thomas Tanselle, was to be my honors adviser. It wasn’t until the early seventies, though, when we both were in the Detroit area and I was writing a critical study of her work, that we met.

Part of my fascination with her work, I realize now, must have been rooted in the affinities between my background and experiences and hers – working class, Catholic, rural, backcountry. Her resonant fictional Eden County, drawn from her experience growing up in western New York State, strongly evoked my own northern Wisconsin origins.

Some of Joyce’s bright young women, like the author herself, escape their limiting childhood world through their awakening to the life of the mind in school and at the university. Such was Joyce’s experience in high school in Lockport, New York, where she was bused in from the countryside, and later as a scholarship student at Syracuse University. There, she blossomed, graduating as valedictorian of her class, even though she was the first in her family to complete high school, let alone college. During her college years she won the first of her many awards, first prize in Mademoiselle’s college fiction contest for her story “In the Old World.” In a 1972 Newsweek story, one of her professors, Donald A. Dike, commented that “about once a term she’d drop a 400-page novel on my desk,” adding unequivocally, “She was the most brilliant student we’ve ever had here.”

After such a dazzling undergraduate career, Joyce arrived in Madison eager to begin PhD studies in what she had been told was an outstanding English department, and expecting to continue to do her own writing as well. But quickly she found her imaginative life “smothered” in the service of academic study. She felt disillusioned and stultified by professors who discouraged the study of modern
literature or creative writing.

Furthermore, she complained to a friend, “There has never been anything so brutal as the method of getting MAs here at Wisconsin. You have three people on your examining board, who make or ruin your subsequent career. You may be dedicated to the teaching profession – want to teach in college above all – but if someone on the panel decides you aren’t quite good enough, down it goes on your record and you are about finished, save at some Mississippi girls’ school.”

She was right to be concerned. While she did very well in her classes, she was grilled in her MA oral exam, not about poetry, but instead about obscure dates and facts. In the end, although she passed, she was not admitted to the PhD program.

In “Nighthawk,” Joyce writes frankly and powerfully about the disjuncture she felt with the approach of many of her professors at Wisconsin and about their dismissive judgment of her. She reflects on “how many times as a naive first-term graduate student, trailing remnants of literary-mystical idealism, I was made to feel, in the entombed confines of venerable Bascomb [sic] Hall, like the humiliated boy-narrator at the conclusion of James Joyce’s ‘Araby’ – ‘a creature driven and derided by vanity.’ “

If “revenge is living well, without you,” a line from one of her poems (in Love and its Derangements), then Joyce’s secure place in American letters is her revenge on those censorious examiners. While she never did get a PhD, she – the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University – has been at home in academia both literally and figuratively her entire adult life. Deeply erudite, her work is richly informed by literary and intellectual traditions. While Joyce is at times critical of the academy, its failed teachers, its fears and phobias and petty politics (The Hungry Ghosts is a good example of her academic satire), she is also aware of its value: its sanctification of the inner life, its rich heritage of ideas and art. She is a distinguished teacher, a learned critic, a provocative and insightful reviewer and commentator, and co-founder and co-editor with her late husband of The Ontario Review and the Ontario Review Press. Also a prolific writer of some fifty-four novels, thirty-one short story collections, eight collections of plays, twelve collections of essays and nonfiction, eight poetry collections, eight books for children or young adults, and hundreds of uncollected essays, reviews, poems, stories, and miscellany, Joyce has amassed a formidable record of achievement.

While her academic experience at Wisconsin was deeply unsettling, Joyce recalls, in a recent note to me, that other aspects of campus life were “just wonderful – the setting, the atmosphere, the other students, the library.” But even more to the point, it was a life-changing time for her, because at a social hour for graduate students she met Raymond Smith MA’58, PhD’61, a PhD candidate in English, about whom she wrote in her journal, “I anticipated from the first that we would be married.” And that didn’t take long. They met on October 23, 1960, got engaged on November 23, and got married on January 23, 1961. And so began a happy, exceedingly close marriage and partnership that lasted forty-seven years until Ray’s sudden death in February 2008, a “shattering” loss, which Joyce feels acutely. “Everything feels quite posthumous,” she said in an e-mail.

Joyce and Ray left Madison in the summer of 1961, she with an MA and he with a PhD, and after a year at Ray’s first job in Beaumont, Texas, they moved to teaching jobs in the Detroit area, where they were to live for sixteen years. Detroit, Joyce said in the book (Woman) Writer, is the place “which made me the person I am, consequently the writer I am – for better or worse.” She wrote that much of the writing of her early period, between 1963 and 1976, “has been emotionally inspired by Detroit and its suburbs … the quintessential American city with … a brooding presence, a force, larger and more significant than the sum of its parts.” Her Detroit novels encapsulate the migration of poor to the city, such as the Wendalls in them; the sterile world of the suburban rich in Expensive People; the malaise of the sixties, as in Wonderland. Often a male character attempts to free himself from intolerable constraints though violence – a mode of action particularly suited to Detroit, the reigning “murder capital.”

Joanne Creighton, right, presented Oates with an honorary degree from Mt. Holyoke College in 2006.

Joanne Creighton, right, presented Oates with an honorary degree from Mt. Holyoke College in 2006.

It was in Detroit that my husband, Tom, and I met Joyce and Ray socially, introduced by mutual friends. With them, we would occasionally go out to dinner or lunch. At that time, I was a young professor at Wayne State University writing about her work, while Joyce and Ray had moved across the river to teach at the University of Windsor in Ontario. Friendly, curious, wry, and witty, Joyce was a delightful person to be with, but she was habitually modest and evasive about her own work and about her private life and background. Of course, I was a bit intimidated by her; she, in turn, was probably a bit wary of me: such are the inevitable tensions in the complicated relationship of author and critic. Over
the years, as we kept in touch intermittently, she became less self-protective, commenting generously on queries and drafts of texts, acknowledging the autobiographical underpinnings of her work.

She is now much more explicit about how much of her writing is an attempt, in part, “to memorialize my parents’ vanished world, my parents’ lives. Sometimes directly. Sometimes in metaphor,” as she admits in “My Father, My Fiction,” published in the New York Times Magazine in 1989. She is bemused by the “genteel” literary community that misunderstands and criticizes the harsh and violent world of much of her fiction. This world, Joyce insists, is part of her literal and psychic inheritance. There are violent events and family secrets only recently revealed: her maternal grandfather was murdered in a barroom brawl; her mother was “given away” to be reared by her aunt’s family, events fictionalized in Marya: A Life (1986), a novel which conflates her mother’s experiences and her own. When her father was fifteen, her great-grandfather tried unsuccessfully to kill his wife in a fit of rage and then killed himself – events which inspired The Gravedigger’s
Daughter (2007).

Joyce writes in “My Father” that she is in awe of her father and mother’s survival and “transcendence” of “a world so harsh and so repetitive in its harshness as to defy evocation, except perhaps in art.” She sees her parents’ lives, and her own, as emblematically American. Their survival and triumph over hardship – and similarly her own “transmogrification” of their vanished world into art – are examples of the aspiring and triumphant human spirit. While Joyce Carol Oates was early called the “Dark Lady of American Letters,” that label is not right. She has tremendous respect for the dark side of human experience, for the mysterious depths of the conscious, and for the primitive brutality at the core of physical existence. Yet Joyce’s vision is not dark. She is in fact optimistic about the possibilities of human resilience and transcendence of a distinctly American variety. Despite the violence and duress that her characters typically endure, Joyce respects their tenacious attempt to, as she wrote in the preface to Marya, “forge their own souls by way of the choices they make, large and small, conscious and half-conscious.”

Deeply absorbed not only by her family history but also by cultural currents and events, Joyce sometimes fictionally reimagines historic events and people, including infamous ones. Black Water (1992), for example, is told from the point of view of a young woman trapped in a submerged car waiting for The Senator who fails to come back to rescue her. Zombie (1995) is about a deranged, cannibalistic, serial murderer, like Jeffrey Dahmer. Blonde (2000) is a complex blend of fact and fiction drawn from the life of Marilyn Monroe.

Obsessed characters and fatal attractions dominate Joyce’s fictional world. My favorite novel, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), depicts the bond that Iris, a white high school girl, feels with her black classmate, Jinx, a basketball star, after he defends her from an attacker whom he kills in self-defense. Iris’s obsession with her “blood bondage” to Jinx, the forbidden “other,” is emblematic of the electricity between the races simmering under the surface of America before the civil rights movement.

Another fascinating “other” for Joyce is the male sport of boxing, the subject of her aphoristic book On Boxing (1987) and several occasional essays. Joyce even experiments with “other” authorial
selves, publishing seven novels under
the pseudonym “Rosamond Smith” and, more recently, three under the name “Lauren Kelly.” Often slick psychological thrillers about twins, doubles, and doubling, these novels, she says, relieve her temporarily from the burden of being the famous “Joyce Carol Oates.”

Joyce does indeed write “all over the aesthetical map,” as John Barth admiringly noted in a January 1980 review in the Atlantic Monthly. “She certainly tried” is the epitaph she wryly suggests for her tombstone. With over forty-five years of sustained productivity, Joyce is still – at age seventy – vital, engaged, and extraordinarily productive. While she is thoroughly at home in academia, the academy hasn’t quite known what to make of her. Earlier in her career, she was categorized and dismissed as a “popular” writer of violence, but that is changing. Her work is finding its way into university courses and critical studies. A biography has been published. An invaluable Web site, Celestial Timepiece, http://jco.usfca.edu/, helps to keep track of her productivity. Syracuse University houses her voluminous archive. She is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards and has been short-listed for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But she sprints far ahead of those who would attempt to assess her body of work. I agree with Anne Tyler, who was quoted in a Washington Post article (August 18, 1986) as saying: “A hundred years from now people will laugh at us for sort of taking her for granted.” This we know: she is one of the most accomplished and significant American writers of our time.

For me personally, pondering and writing about her work have been a great privilege and pleasure, as have been the rare occasions when we have had a chance to reconnect. She was kind to do a reading and give greetings at my presidential inauguration at Mt. Holyoke College in 1996.

Then again, it was a great pleasure for me to bestow upon her an honorary degree at our 2006 commencement. In her commencement address on that occasion, Joyce enumerated a litany of now-famous writers who did poorly in school or were rejected for publication: William Faulkner got a D in English; Cormac McCarthy had to leave the University of Tennessee because his grades were too low; Stephen King had sixty stories and four novels rejected before getting published. What seems like failure may positively strengthen and redirect your energies, she told the graduates. Surely she was thinking about her own transformation of “failure” at the University of Wisconsin into a luminous record of achievement.

Tags: Arts, Faculty

1 comment

  1. [...] “Reflecting on Joyce Carol Oates” has been churning around in my imagination for a week now. Her stories showed that she had lived in Madison, but never anything like this horror-romance. I came from the southeast to do graduate work in mathematics, and many of her impressions (especially of the spooky weather) resonate with my memories. [...]

    Letters: Joyce Carol Oates Profile Strikes a Chord « On Wisconsin

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