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Lisa Alther Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Lisa Reed in Kingsport, Tennessee, 1944. Education: Wellesley College, Massachusetts, 1962-66, B.A. 1966. Career: Editorial assistant, Atheneum Publishers, New York, 1966; staff writer, Garden Way Publishers, Charlotte, Vermont, 1969-72; visiting lecturer, St. Michael's College, Winooski, Vermont, 1980; book reviewer for newspapers and magazines. Lives in Hinesburg, Vermont.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Kinflicks. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1976.

Original Sins. New York, Knopf, and London, Women's Press, 1981.

Other Women. New York, Knopf, 1984; London, Viking, 1985.

Bedrock. New York, Knopf, and London, Viking, 1990.

Five Minutes in Heaven. New York, Dutton, and London, Viking, 1995.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Encounter," in McCall's (New York), August 1976.

"The Art of Dying Well," in A Collection of Classic Southern Humor, edited by George William Koon. Atlanta, Peachtree, 1984.

"Termites," in Homewords, edited by Douglas Paschall. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

"The Politics of Paradise," in Louder than Words, edited by WilliamShore. New York, Vintage, 1989.

Other

Non-Chemical Pest and Disease Control for the Home Orchard. Charlotte, Vermont, Garden Way, 1973.

Introduction, Tess of the D'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman by ThomasHardy. New York, Signet Classic, 1999.

Contributor, Ladies Laughing: Wit as Control in Contemporary American Women Writers, edited by Barbara Levy. Amsterdam, Netherlands, Gordon and Breach, 1997.

Contributor, The Best of the Best: 18 New Stories by America's Leading Authors, edited by Elaine Koster and Joseph Pittman. New York, Signet, 1998.

Contributor, Beyond Sex and Romance?: The Politics of Contemporary Lesbian Fiction, edited by Elaine Hutton. Women's Press, 1999.

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Critical Studies:

"Condemned to Survival: The Comic Unsuccessful Suicide" by Marilynn J. Smith, in Comparative Literature Studies (Urbana, Illinois), March 1980; "Alther and Dillard: The Appalachian Universe" by Frederick G. Waase, in Appalachia/America: The Proceedings of the 1980 Appalachian Studies Conference edited by Wilson Somerville, Johnson City, Tennesse, Appalachian Consortium Press, 1981; article in Women Writers of the Contemporary South edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1984.

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Lisa Alther comments with shrewdness, insight—and a hefty measure of irony—upon American types, their trendy habits, and their dreams. Typical though they be, Alther's protagonists are, nevertheless, fully realized individuals who are sometimes despairing, prickly, dense, or self-destructive, but who are also unfailingly interesting folk, often surprisingly courageous survivors. These factors, along with Alther's keen sense of place, her clever manipulation of point of view, and her exploitation of various levels of comedy are the chief strengths of Kinflicks, Original Sins, and Other Women.

Alther's manipulation of point of view contributes to the sprawling effect of her bulky novels even as it helps control them. The picaresque Kinflicks alternates between third-person narration of the present moment as Ginny Babcock Bliss keeps vigil at her mother's deathbed, and first-person flashbacks which hilariously and satirically recount Ginny's penchant for redesigning herself to suit those who successively dominate her affections—parents, gum-chewing football hero, motorcycle hood, lesbian reformer, snow-mobile salesman, disturbed Viet vet, baby daughter. Ultimately, alone but rather more determined, she sets out to suit herself. The distancing effect of Ginny's memories facilitates the bald, raucous humor of the book for, in effect, Ginny is laughing at herself with her readers; the detachment of the third-person narrator in the alternate chapters legislates against melodrama or shallow sentimentality.

Though Original Sins is told in the third person, major sections allow readers to share the consciousness of five protagonists. Members of a huge extended family, sisters Emily and Sally Prince, brothers Jed and Raymond Tatro, and Donny Tatro are inseparable as children, but are later driven apart by circumstances of sex, social class, personal ambition, and race (Donny is black). A bildungsroman, Original Sins depicts youngsters who believe they can do anything, becoming adults who often wonder if anything worthwhile can be done—yet they never stop trying. Other Women, a "delayed bildungsroman, " also uses the third person throughout and shifts between the consciousness of its protagonists, Carolyn Kelley, a single mother whose lesbian relationship is dissolving, and her therapist, Hannah Burke. As Hannah counsels Carolyn toward acceptance of herself, adulthood, and responsibility, some of her own very old, deep wounds begin to heal, and the novel concludes with a note of genuine hope symbolized by the women's developing friendship. In Other Women and Original Sins, the availability of each protagonist's thought processes lends immediacy and realism as it arouses empathy. Readers may not fully endorse the protagonists' decisions, but they remain involved and concerned with the characters because their motivations are so clearly drawn. Suitably, the humor in these novels is quieter, developing more from quirks of personality and wry social comment than from the slapstick situations of Kinflicks.

Because both Kinflicks and Original Sins are set primarily in Tennessee, her home state, Alther has been dubbed a regionalist. She recognizes the influence of fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor upon her literary sensibilities and freely acknowledges the usefulness and attraction of the "ready-made social context" available to Southerners writing about their area (see her article "Will the South Rise Again?," New York Times Book Review, 16 December 1979). It is equally important, however, to note that Alther's settings range across the eastern United States. Her assessment of college life on a New York City campus, her stringent portrayal of the power struggles among supposedly egalitarian Northern civil rights workers (Original Sins), her lovingly drawn Vermont landscapes in Other Women—as well as her acknowledgment that conducting a private life privately is just as difficult in any closed Northern community as it is in a Southern one (Kinflicks)—attest to her understanding of several locales and make explicit the wide scope of her social commentary. In this way, Alther differs a bit from regionalists who imply rather than dramatize the larger applications of their social comment.

Considered by many to be a feminist writer, Alther focuses primarily upon contemporary American women, giving great attention to the limitations thrust upon them, but she also details their self-imposed restrictions and stresses the need for each to assume responsibility for her own life. In an interview with Andrew Feinberg (Horizon, May 1981), she commented, "People are assigned roles because of their external characteristics and then are forced to play them out … unless they are lucky enough to figure out what is going on and get out." The process of getting out, always painful, sometimes unsuccessful, is the motivational force in Alther's plots and functions as effectively for several male characters as it does for females. Alther's awareness that despite the deep social divisions which exist between many contemporary women and men, there are also shared problems—such as the constrictions of traditionalism, the desire to escape from parents' demands, the difficulties of assimilation into another cultural-geographic region—demonstrates the universality of feminist fiction just as her humor reveals that feminist writers can treat serious subjects without being deadly dull. By modifying critical categories, Lisa Alther produces novels incorporating strong plots and intriguing characterizations with effective social commentary.

The latter part of the 1990s saw nothing new in the way of extended fiction from Alther; however, she continued to pursue a wide-ranging career as reviewer, critic, and commentator. Her efforts included offerings as diverse as an introduction to an edition of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles; a discussion included in Beyond Sex and Romance?: The Politics of Contemporary Lesbian Fiction ; and a July 1999 piece in the Women's Review of Books about a trip back to her home in east Tennessee. As with much of the world in the information age, Alther found that television, film, and the Internet had greatly increased the sense of connection between this once-isolated region of Tennessee and the outside world.

—Jane S. Bakerman

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