Andrea Barrett Biography
Nationality: American. Born: 16 November 1954. Education: Union College, Schenectady, New York, 1974, B.S. in Biology. Career: Faculty, Northlight Writers' Conference, Moorhead, Minnesota, 1988-89, and Mount Holyoke Writers' Conference, 1991-93; senior fiction fellow, New York State Summer Writers' Institute, Skidmore College, 1993; faculty, Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, 1993-98, 2000; faculty, Yellow Bay Writers' Workshop, University of Montana, 1995, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 1996-97, 1999, and Napa Valley Writers' Conference, 1996; adjunct lecturer, University of Michigan, 1995. Visiting writer, Saint Mary's College, California, 1998, and University of Virginia, 1999. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1992; Peden prize for best short fiction, Missouri Review, 1995; Distinguished Story citation, Best American Short Stories, 1995; fiction prize, The Southern Review, 1996, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, finalist, 1996, and National Book Award, 1996, all for Ship Fever and Other Stories; Pushcart prize, 1997, for "The Forest"; Guggenheim fellowship, 1997; Salon Magazine book award, 1998, American Library Association Notable Book, 1999, and Lillian Fairchild award, 1999, all for The Voyage of Narwhal. Agent: c/o Wendy Weil Literary Agency, 232 Madison Avenue, Suite 1300, New York, New York 10016 USA.
Lucid Stars. New York, Delta/Delacorte Press, 1988.
Secret Harmonies. New York, Delacorte Press, 1989.
The Middle Kingdom. New York, Pocket Books, 1991.
The Forms of Water. New York, Pocket Books, 1993.
The Voyage of the Narwhal. New York, W. W. Norton, 1998.
Ship Fever and Other Stories. New York, W. W. Norton, 1996.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Secret Harmonies," in Northwest Review (Eugene, Oregon), vol.23, no. 3, 1985.
"Animal Magic," in Prairie Schooner (Lincoln, Nebraska), vol. 61, no. 1, 1987.
"Here at the Starlight Motel," in Michigan Quarterly Review (AnnArbor), vol. 26, no. 4, 1987.
"Escaped Alone to Tell," in Willow Springs (Cheney, Washington), no. 24, 1989.
"The Seducer," in Mademoiselle (New York), October 1989. "The Church of New Reason," in American Short Fiction (Austin, Texas), no. 1, 1991; reprinted in American Voices: Best Short Fiction by Contemporary Authors, selected by Sally Arteseros, New York, Hyperion, 1992.
"The Forms of Water," in American Short Fiction (Austin, Texas), no. 6, 1992.
"The Littoral Zone," in Story (Cincinnati, Ohio), Spring 1993; reprinted in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by R.V. Cassill and Richard Bausch, 6th edition, New York, W. W. Norton, 2000.
"Out Here," in American Short Fiction (Austin, Texas), no. 12, Winter 1993.
"The English Pupil," in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), January 1994; reprinted in The Second Penguin Book of Modern Women's Short Stories, London, Viking, 1997.
"The Behavior of the Hawkseeds," in Missouri Review (Columbia), vol. XVII, no. 1, 1994; reprinted in The Best American Short Stories, 1995, edited by Jane Smiley, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
"Agnes at Night," in Story (Cincinnati, Ohio), Fall 1994.
"The Marburg Sisters," in New England Review (Middlebury, Vermont), Fall 1994.
"Rare Bird," in The Writing Path 1: Poetry and Prose from Writers' Conferences, edited by Michael Pettit, University of Iowa Press, 1995.
"Soroche," in Story (Cincinnati, Ohio), Autumn 1995.
"The Mysteries of Ubiquitin," in Story (Cincinnati, Ohio), Summer1996.
"The Forest," in Ploughshares (Boston, Massachusetts), Winter1996; reprinted in The 1998 Pushcart Prize XXII: Best of the Small Presses, an Annual Small Press Reader, Wainscott, New York, Pushcart Press, 1997.
"Blue Dress," in I've Always Meant to Tell You: Letters to Our
Mothers, edited by Constance Warloe, New York, Pocket Books, 1997.
"Breathing Under Ice," in Outside, October 1998.
"Theories of Rain," in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Lousiana), Summer 1999.
"The Door," in Story (Cincinnati, Ohio), Autumn 1999.
"Servants of the Map," in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, NewYork), Fall 1999-Winter 2000.
"Why We Go," in New York Times Magazine, 6 June 1999.
Introduction, The Widow's Children by Paula Fox. New York, W. W. Norton, 1999.
Introduction, "Paula's Case" by Willa Cather, in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by R.V. Cassill and Richard Bausch, 6th edition, New York, W. W. Norton, 2000.
Introduction, Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer by Chauncy Loomis, New York, Modern Library, 2000.
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Andrea Barrett writes highly researched literary fictions that explore human character and relationships through the language and lens of science. Her work has been critically acclaimed and, with her fifth and sixth publications, popularly successful. Her works have progressed from close-in, intimate portraits of modern-day American families to stories that encompass a wider scope in history, geography, and theme. In Lucid Stars and Secret Harmonies Barrett focused on the struggles and quest for selfhood of young female characters within the contexts of dysfunctional families. With The Middle Kingdom and The Forms of Water she moved out to engage other characters and places, while continuing to examine and illuminate the relationships of individuals to one another, to the world, and to themselves with notable intelligence and depth. Barrett's next work, the collection of stories entitled Ship Fever, moved her character-driven writing into a more complex realm of history and science, a journey that the novel The Voyage of the Narwhal continued.
Voyage of the Narwhal, in telling the story of a nineteenth century sailing expedition to the Arctic and its consequences, recasts classical adventure narrative through the experiences of characters not generally heard from in such texts. Barrett unfolds the journey through the eyes of several characters, but chiefly those of Erasmus Darwin Wells, a reticent, disappointed naturalist, and Alexandra, a woman of scientific mind who longs to go on an expedition but remains at home in Philadelphia as companion to Erasmus's sister. The journey is as much into the complicated landscapes of human ambition, desire, and regret as it is into the expanse and detail of the harsh, beautiful environment of the Arctic, life aboard ship, and life as a woman in the mid-nineteenth century. Erasmus and Alexandra are both of a scholarly mind, interested in understanding how life, in the articulation of living flora and fauna, works; they are, like many of Barrett's characters, people who name and order the world in order to illuminate and know it. In opposition to Erasmus is the leader of the expedition, a young man who, in his lack of will to see or understand anything but his own ambition—in which he resembles the traditional protagonists of classical adventure narratives—cuts a course that leaves loss and death in its wake.
Though Barrett expresses surprise that people view Voyage of the Narwhal as an adventure tale, she does admit that she sees both science and writing as a sort of adventure, and physical exploration as an excellent metaphor for both. She is fascinated with the history of science, its language and way of viewing the world, and this is reflected in all her work, though nowhere so keenly and successfully as in Voyage of the Narwhal and the short stories in Ship Fever, each a thoughtful meditation on science and scientists, whether historic or contemporary.
This preoccupation, not yet fully realized, is nevertheless evident in her earlier works. A tradition of astronomy, of naming the stars, and charting and exploring the heavens as a means of charting one's life, is handed on from one generation to the next and one side of a broken family to the other by the women in Lucid Stars. The language of music, of composers, and of secret musical codes is the thread that weaves together the characters in Secret Harmonies. It is science that brings together the protagonist of The Middle Kingdom and her husband and brings them to China, and it is science and medicine that in part bring her together with Dr. Yu, the Chinese woman who helps her turn her life around.
The influence of scientists like Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, of nineteenth-century scientific journals and naturalists' texts, is evident not only in Barrett's themes and characters but in the thoroughgoing research and meticulous observation of detail in her writing. This meticulousness, which is so potent in Voyage, on occasion makes her earlier novels seem too slow and fails to provide a sense of meaningful result or insight, rather like a failed experiment. It is in the turn to scientists, naturalists, and people consumed by theories and phenomenon of the observable world as her protagonists that Barrett's work gains its most rewarding power and intensity.
Examining Barrett's short stories in connection to Voyage of the Narwhal reveals further nuances of her preoccupation with the themes of science and imagination with regard to what might be termed the chemistry of self as her particular field of inquiry. In "Theories of Rain" a girl raised by two women who write science texts for children correlates the phenomena of mist, rain, meteor showers, and various relationships and behaviors of the scientific men in her life as though she is reading barometric pressures in order to form an understanding of her life. In "The English Pupil" the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, who developed modern taxonomy, loses the names and order of his own life as the chemistry of his brain loses cohesion. In "Rare Bird" the character of Sarah Anne Billopp, an ornithologist who sets out to refute a theory of Linnaeus's, foreshadows the character of Alexandra in Voyage of the Narwhal in that she, too, in following her mind's passion, breaks from the traditional female role she had been occupying.
Barrett is a writer of unfailing intelligence and integrity with a knack for getting inside her characters' minds and emotions. Her earlier work, focusing largely on the struggles of women to find their place in life, is at times uneven, but she has secured a place for herself in literature with works that bring together science and imagination with history and character in insightful, rewarding narratives. Her writing is marked by a clear prose and authoritative detail. Her language articulates theories of self and human relations in which the desire to realize order out of chaos, to name and understand life, emotions, and the world around them makes her characters very human indeed.
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