Letters: Joyce Carol Oates Profile Strikes a Chord

Thanks to On Wisconsin for having the courage to reprint “Nighthawk,” Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir of her soul-crushing year at the university [Summer 2009]. I cannot describe how affirming it was to see my own experience mirrored in a biographical narrative of someone about whom judgments of mediocrity are laughable in retrospect. In the twenty-five years since I graduated, the faculty who taught in my program have completely turned over; undoubtedly, everything else about the place is different as well. And yet I could never really integrate the experience until I read these words of hers: “I’ve arrived at an age when, if someone welcomes you, you don’t question the motives. … Rejoice and give thanks! Of our hurts, we make monuments of survival. If we survive.”

Alice Lieberman PhD’83 Lawrence, Kansas (Chancellor’s Club Teaching Professor at the University of Kansas)

I deeply appreciated “Reflecting on Joyce Carol Oates.” This two-author piece demonstrates courage, clarity, honesty, accuracy, and great understanding of the complex matter of literary study at the graduate level and of the creative process.

I speak from experience; I went to Madison as a doctoral student in English in 1962 and I was there for five years, receiving my degree in 1968. Although I was slightly older than Oates, and although I was a male in a mostly man’s realm, her description and analysis of the graduate program in English is almost shocking in its accuracy. She evokes old memories of classrooms, attitudes, and professors. Like Oates, I did have some humanely redemptive experiences to offset the general drought; I think especially of Karl Kroeber, Robert Kimbrough, and Madeleine Doran, all of whom were scholars, teachers, and warm, caring human beings.

Thank you for publishing this important article. I respect On Wisconsin for its willingness to consider the whole picture of our fine university. This, I think, is “sifting and winnowing.”

John D. Smith PhD’68

Tucson, Arizona

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.

Mathematics is housed in Van Vleck, Bascom’s nearest neighbor, yet my experience was just the opposite of [Oates’s]. The men and women of my department treasured new and imaginative approaches, and, to an extreme, they treated graduate students fairly. So my first reaction to this story was almost disbelief. In the end, UW and Madison defined us both.

This was a great story about one of my favorite writers. Thanks!

W. Richard Stark PhD’75

Tampa, Florida

Published in the Fall 2009 issue

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