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Allan Gurganis Biography

story gurganus american voice

Nationality: American. Born: Rocky Mount, North Carolina, 1947. Education: Rocky Mount Senior High, 1965; Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, 1965-66; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1970-72. Military Service: United States Navy, 1966-70. Career: Desk clerk and salesperson of art reproductions, 1969-70; night watchman in a vitamin factory, 1970-72; professor of fiction writing, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1972-74, Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1974-76, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1976-78, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1978-86, and University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1989-90. Artist, with paintings in many private and public collections. Member of board, Corporation of Yaddo; cofounder, "Writers for Harvey Gantt." Awards: Jones lecturer, Stanford University; PEN prizes for fiction; National Endowment for the Arts grants; Ingram Merrill award; Wallace Stegner fellowship; National Magazine prize, National Magazine Association, 1994. Agent: c/o International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novel

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. New York, Knopf, andLondon, Faber, 1989.

Plays Well with Others. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Short Stories

Good Help, with illustrations by the author. Rocky Mount, NorthCarolina Wesleyan College Press, 1988.

Blessed Assurance: A Moral Tale (novella). Rocky Mount, NorthCarolina Wesleyan College Press, 1990.

White People: Stories and Novellas. New York, Knopf, and London, Faber, 1991.

The Practical Heart. Rocky Mount, North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1993.

*

Critical Studies:

"Black and Blue and Gray: An Interview with Allan Gurganis" by Jeffrey Scheuer, in Poets and Writers, November-December 1990.

* * *

Allan Gurganus is an old-fashioned storyteller. The stories he tells are multi-layered and contain strong, varied voices. While both his novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, and his short story collection, White People, are set primarily in the South, he should not be considered a "Southern Writer" solely. In American literature, the oral tradition that feeds his ability with voice and character is strongly associated with that region, but Gurganus covers territory that is all-American by bringing uniquely American questions to light, all somehow having to do with how Americans perceive themselves.

In Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a 99-year-old woman named Lucy Marsden relates stories that take place during more than a century of time, from the beginnings of the Civil War to the 1980s. At the time of its publication, some critics were happy to see, in light of recent literary trends toward the abstract, the minimal, and the eccentric, the emergence of such a "big" story; others considered the premise unequal to the task of carrying such a sizeable narrative. Lucy tells stories of her life and the life of her Civil War veteran husband, whom she had married when she was fifteen. She regales us with tales of his experiences before she was even born, becoming her husband's voice. Indeed, she even takes on the voice of his one-time slave, Castalia, as well as many others. This multiple-narrator role makes her at once story and storyteller, participant and omniscient observer. While this raises interesting questions about narrative authority, it also presents a fascinating experience for the perceptive reader, for there is also the author to consider. Through Lucy, he has entered and presented male and female lives, historical lives, young and old lives, warrior lives—American lives that embrace and reflect more than one American epoch, more than one American region.

In addition to all of this, there is more than the Civil War being fought here, although many issues from the other battles contained in the book are related to that war between the states. Sex, race, class, age—all those words which so efficiently assume the-ism suffix—are concepts in conflict within the novel. Gurganus has much to say about it all. However, at the core of the novel's resolution is forgiveness and the hope it can bring. Because of this, the comparison to at least one other Southern writer may come quickly to mind, for Flannery O'Connor's famous "Moment of Grace" resembles the theme closely. There is also Gurganus's sense of humor to tempt us into such a comparison. But it is his use of voice which makes the humor effective, the theme accessible. The author has quite an ear and quite an imagination, and it is his accuracy with the female voice that is most impressive.

Gurganus has said that he chose Lucy as narrator for this novel because he wanted a new version/vision of history that had not before been solicited: that of a female who was neither rich nor beautiful. He is successful in this; but in Castalia, the former Marsden slave, he is successful in giving us the vision of a female who was neither rich nor beautiful (in a white man's world) nor white. The Captain himself is not a particularly likeable character; still, he too has his sympathetic side and his own particularly strong voice. But again—we hear this voice only through Lucy and, thus, must be cautious about what we conclude from it.

It is a long book; and the plot, although guided by chronology, is not strictly linear in its construction. There are many side roads taken, even to Africa during the slave trade. Although necessary to the theme of his/her-story that the author is illuminating, this technique is often cited as the weakness of the book. But for those who enjoy an old-fashioned story treated with respect in the telling, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All lives up to the promise of its title. It is rather like sitting around the kitchen table listening to previous generations tell what they know about family members and small town denizens in anecdotal but wise and witty tones. What could be more American?

In White People, Gurganus's collection of short stories and novellas, we are given just such an image in the opening passages of "A Hog Loves Its Life." The boy Willie and his grandfather, "hiding" from the other relatives, are forced into a "story-hour" by Willie's ignorance of local lore. The story of this novella, and the story within the story, are fine examples of what a writer can do with a talent for voice. The ritual engaged in by these two characters is related in tones of solemnity balanced by humor. It is important to the participants, and to the reader, that each understands the significance of what is being told at both levels—that of the grandfather telling the tale and the boy/man retelling it. As with Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, the narrator is both story and storyteller. Gurganus's narrative constructions resemble the double helix of DNA: simultaneously, and deceptively, simple and complex.

Embedded in the themes weaving through the various tales of the collection is a penetrating look at what the passage of time and the losses it naturally brings, can mean to our individual sense of hope and forgiveness. One of the most often mentioned and poignant of the stories is "Blessed Assurance," the final novella of the collection. In telling the story of an aging, Southern, white man looking back on his days as a college student who sold funeral insurance to poor blacks in the late 1940s, Gurganus requires that the reader look carefully at the loss of youthful innocence and naiveté, the use of exploitation in race relations, the burden of guilt—and the absurdity of all these things. For that sense of humor is here, too, at the base of this and the other tales.

The author seems to possess a core belief in the terrible beauty of daily survival; and this belief transcends geography, gender, age, race, and sexual orientation. In this way, Gurganus contributes to contemporary American literature while retaining an old-fashioned faith in, and a sizeable talent for, the telling of the tale.

—Maggi R. Sullivan

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