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Shirley Ann Grau Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: New Orleans, Louisiana, 1930. Education: Booth School, Montgomery, Alabama, 1938-45; Ursuline Academy, New Orleans, 1945-46; Sophie Newcomb College, Tulane University, New Orleans (associate editor, Carnival; Lazarus Memorial medal, 1949), 1946-50, B.A. 1950 (Phi Beta Kappa); graduate study, Tulane University, 1950-51. Career: Creative writing teacher, University of New Orleans, 1966-67. Awards: Pulitzer prize, 1965. LL.D.: Rider College, New Jersey; D. Litt.: Spring Hill College, Alabama. Agent: Brandt and Brandt, 1501 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Hard Blue Sky. New York, Knopf, 1958; London, Heinemann, 1959.

The House on Coliseum Street. New York, Knopf, and London, Heinemann, 1961.

The Keepers of the House. New York, Knopf, and London, Longman, 1964.

The Condor Passes. New York, Knopf, 1971; London, Longman, 1972.

Evidence of Love. New York, Knopf, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1977.

Roadwalkers. New York, Knopf, 1994.

Short Stories

The Black Prince and Other Stories. New York, Knopf, 1955;London, Heinemann, 1956.

The Wind Shifting West. New York, Knopf, 1973; London, Chatto andWindus, 1974.

Nine Women. New York, Knopf, 1986.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Things You Keep," in Carnival (New Orleans), December1950.

"The Fragile Age," in Carnival (New Orleans), October 1951.

"The First Day of School," in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 30 September 1961.

"The Beginning of Summer," in Story (New York), November 1961.

"The Empty Night," in Atlantic (Boston), May 1962.

"The Loveliest Day," in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 5May 1962.

"One Night," in Gentlemen's Quarterly (New York), February1966.

"The Young Men," in Redbook (New York), April 1968.

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Critical Studies:

Shirley Ann Grau by Paul Schlueter, Boston, Twayne, 1981; Moving On: The Heroines of Shirley Ann Grau, Anne Tyler, and Gail Godwin by Susan S. Kissel. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996.

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Shirley Ann Grau may be described as a Southern writer, whose range is sometimes narrowly regional. She may also, therefore, be described as a local colorist whose observations of custom and character suggest an anthropologist at work in a fictional mode. She is a white author who deals with blacks and the black sub-culture, which makes her an anomaly in a period of black militancy. And she is finally a novelist of manners who is sharply aware of the collapse of conventional behavior patterns in modern life. The pervasive style and mood of her work may be summed up best in the terms tough, cold, and realistic. The toughness and the apparent realism seem to reveal a debt to Hemingway. She is never sentimental, and almost always she maintains sufficient distance from her characters to depict them with an objectivity that is sometimes little short of chilling. At her best she displays a kind of cold power. But she is, in general, a limited writer. She lacks originality, especially in her treatment of African-Americans and of the South. More seriously, she lacks the complex vision that enables her both to see around and to penetrate deeply into her subject. She is a competent writer who stands at some distance from the center of the Southern Renaissance.

Her best work to date is The Keepers of the House, a novel about a southern family. The story concerns Will Howland who inherits a great deal of land and acquires more. After the death of his wife, he brings a black girl into his house and has by her three children who survive. Late in the book, it is revealed that Will had secretly married the girl. He is portrayed as a good, compassionate man whose miscegenation arose out of love. His white granddaughter marries a man who enters politics, joins the Klan, runs for governor, and makes racist speeches. One of Will's children by the black woman reveals that his father is related to a racist politician. As a result of the revelation, the latter is ruined and the Howland family estate attacked. The estate endures, and the daughter revenges herself upon the town.

Grau is fully aware that the glamorous past may be a trap, as one of her short stories reveals. But she also knows that family traditions which are rooted in the past may endow life in the present with an illuminating sense of time and a stabilizing sense of place; in these ways the past provides a sense of continuity which enriches life in the present. This novel centers on these conceptions of life, which are characteristically Southern and which mark the work of other contemporary Southern writers as different as Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty. The treatment of inter-racial love here, made acceptable by marriage, appears to be an apologia for Southern miscegenation, which is, of course, usually conceived in much harsher terms. The same is true of the manipulation of racial animosities in politics, which in itself is authentic enough in the novel. But in depicting the defeat of the racist, Grau seems to depart from her characteristically objective stance.

That stance she had maintained in The Hard Blue Sky, which reveals her talent for local color. The scene is an island in the Gulf of Mexico inhabited by characters of French and Spanish descent. The principal conflict is between them and the inhabitants of another island who are Slavic in descent. A boy from one island marries a girl from another; the marriage precipitates a feud. Added to the violence of men is the violence of nature, displayed when a hurricane sweeps through the Gulf. Grau does not dwell on the quaintness of character or place in her novel, and she does not patronize her characters, although the temptation to do so must have been quite real, since she conceives them as primitives. She looks at them coldly and clearly, dramatizing their attitudes toward life but passing no judgment on their behavior. These are people who recognize no canons of respectability, who admit of no restraints on their passions, and who recognize no guilt. Their sexual attitudes are thus quite free, sex being simply in the natural order of things, and their tendency towards violence is always close to the surface, since they believe that a good fight is healthy. Their life is hard and the hazards of nature, whether snakes or wind, make it harder.

Her treatment of the characters in this novel is the same, generally speaking, as her treatment of African-Americans throughout her fiction. Her composite African-American lives an unstructured life in which he obeys appetite and impulse in a naturally selfish movement toward gratification. His morality is virtually non-existent, but casual if apparent at all. His capacity for violence is like that of the islanders. This black does not rise to the level of self-consciousness. Ralph Ellison might say that he is a stereotype, perceived because the white writer suffers from a psychic-social blindness caused by the construction of the inner eye; that is, either Grau is blind or the real African-American is invisible.

Grau's chief contribution to the novel of manners is The House on Coliseum Street. Although it is an inferior work, it demonstrates, as some of her short stories have, that she understands the various kinds of moral corruption that mark modern life. She knows that the contemporary world is without values, and she makes divorce and sexual promiscuity the obvious signs, in this novel, of the disintegration of well-to-do society.

The Condor Passes is another family novel, melodramatic in plot but of interest for its method: much of the story is told from the five points of view of the five major characters. Evidence of Love, like James Gould Cozzen's By Love Possessed, concerns the varieties of love, some a burdensome chore, as Grau shows in the sensitive and effective section on the old mother who, content in her loneliness, awaits the coming of death. The title story of her collection The Wind Shifting West displays Grau's feel of water and sky, but only occasionally do the other stories reveal the detachment and power which distinguish her fictional voice at its best. Roadwalkers offers a powerful dual story, on the one hand of a black child named Baby, and on the other of her daughter Nanda, growing up years later. What we learn about Baby's youth among a group of homeless "Roadwalkers" in 1934 inevitably fuels our understanding of Nanda's first-person account of her own quite different experience.

—Chester E. Eisinger

Karen Gravelle (1942–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights [next]

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Shirley Ann Grau Biography