Maureen Howard Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Maureen Keans in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1930. Education: Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, B.A. 1952. Career: Worked in publishing and advertising, 1952-54; lecturer in English, New School for Social Research, New York, 1967-68, 1970-71, and since 1974, and at University of California, Santa Barbara, 1968-69, Amherst College, Massachusetts, Brooklyn College, and Royale University. Currently, Member of the School of the Arts, Columbia University, New York. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1967; Radcliffe Institute fellowship, 1967; National Book Critics Circle award, 1979; Merrill fellowship, 1982.
Not a Word about Nightingales. London, Secker and Warburg, 1960;New York, Atheneum, 1962.
Bridgeport Bus. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1965.
Before My Time. Boston, Little Brown, 1975.
Grace Abounding. Boston, Little Brown, 1982; London, Abacus, 1984.
Expensive Habits. New York, Summit, and London, Viking, 1986.
Natural History. New York, Norton, 1992.
A Lover's Almanac. New York, Viking, 1998.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Bed and Breakfast," in Yale Review (New Haven, Connecticut), March 1961.
"Sherry," in The Best American Short Stories 1965, edited by MarthaFoley and David Burnett. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
"Three Pigs of Krishna Nura," in Partisan Review (New Brunswick, New Jersey), Winter 1971-72.
"Sweet Memories," in Statements, edited by Jonathan Baumbach. New York, Braziller, 1975.
Facts of Life (autobiography). Boston, Little Brown, 1978; with a new afterword by the author, New York, Penguin, 1999.
Editor, Seven American Women Writers of the Twentieth Century. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1977.
Editor, The Penguin Book of Contemporary American Essays. NewYork, Viking, 1984.
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In her award-winning autobiography, Facts of Life, Maureen Howard explains the conflict between her goals and her father's hopes for her: "I think because I loved him, coarse and unlettered as he pretended to be, that he would have known from experience that our lives do not admit the fictional luxury of alternate endings." Howard's fiction reflects this view that alternate endings are illusive. As her characters attempt to recreate their stories, they discover that the past has predetermined their lives. One cannot alter personality; one can only understand, accept, and grow within the frame of individual talent. At the end of Facts of Life, Howard describes herself at twenty-three: "I am beginning. My life is beginning which cannot be true." Her life began long ago, her character determined years before that moment. That the majority of Howard's fictional characters are female seems coincidental; in her introduction to Seven American Women Writers of the Twentieth Century, Howard asserts her preference for universal concerns: "To my mind this is the most egalitarian manner in which to study women's literature—to presume that these women are artists first and do not have to be unduly praised or their reputations justified on grounds of sex." In Howard's novels, discovery and acceptance of one's own character challenge both genders.
When Professor Albert Sedgely, in Not a Word about Nightingales, prolongs his sabbatical in Italy, he wants "to take his life as it was and alter its limits as though he lived in a theatrical set, movable flats—and having created a new scene, then he could shift his tastes, his emotions, even his appearance." To create this illusive possibility, Howard emphasizes Albert's daughter Rosemary's reaction. As with Henry James's Strether in The Ambassadors, Rosemary, sent to bring Albert back, is so charmed by his new personality and environment that she ignores her pledge until she discovers Albert's affair with Carlotta Manzini. Sexual awakening so threatens Rosemary, her mother Anne, and even Albert that all three retreat to narrow and confined lives. Is this the novel that Howard alludes to in Facts of Life as her "mannered academic novel," that displays a "sense of order as I knew it in the late fifties and early sixties with all the forms that I accepted and even enjoyed: that was the enormous joke about life—that our passion must be contained if we were not to be fools?" If so, at least Albert's final decision rests on acknowledgment of his own character; that his love for Carlotta is "incomplete" and his business with Anne "unfinished" brings Albert home.
With humor Howard tackles the same questions in Bridgeport Bus. Although Howard shifts point of view frequently between her protagonist Mary Agnes Keely and other characters, the central question belongs to Mary Agnes: is "the mutually destructive love of mother and daughter more substantial than tidy freedom?" Howard's readers view Mary Agnes's attempts as recorded in her journals. When Mary Agnes begins her affair with Stanley Sarnicki, she records the event twice: first as "a thirty-five-year-old virgin would write it—the easy dodge and genteel fade-out," and then "done by a thirty-five-year-old lady writer who fancies herself a woman of experience when really there will always be something too delicate about her sensibility." Mary Agnes cannot escape her own nature, despite the different journal entries. As in her play, "The Cheese Stands Alone," one of several creative interludes in her journal, Mary Agnes recognizes that her fate is "inextricably woven" to her mother's. She returns, pregnant and unmarried, to help her mother die. Truth and fiction are not always discernible in Mary Agnes's journal, but as her friend Lydia comments, "she has in fact got at us in every meaningful respect." Mary Agnes's "triumph" is that she knows that "it was not a great sin to be, at last, alone." She has grown within her limits.
By sharing personal histories, Laura Quinn in Before My Time exchanges spirits with her cousin's son, Jim Cogan. At the end of the novel, a more responsible Jim returns to face drug charges while Laura writes of personal rather than public feelings. However, Howard states clearly, "Whoever compares the present and the past will soon perceive that there prevail and always have prevailed the same desires and passions." Although beneficial, this ending reflects an awakening, not a creation, of character. To develop the pedagogy to instruct young Jim, Laura resees her brother Robert's failed relationship with their father; silently to Jim, Laura urges, "Think that this story is your answer: Robert and all my honesty and self-knowledge are here for you at last. Think before you run." Howard also offers histories of other family members. The most successful story, that of Jim's twin siblings Cormac and Siobhan, parallels Jim and Laura's as the twins have similar desires but are out of step with each other. Mary Agnes Keely may have had "triumph" in Bridgeport Bus, but at the end of Before My Time, Laura Quinn's new doubt is as "sweet"; the confines of her personality contain newly tapped emotion.
Because Howard's characters in Grace Abounding remain isolated from each other, the reader senses little more than ongoing struggle at the end of this novel. Within shifts of point of view and time frame, each character attempts to discern what in the past enlightens the present. The reader first meets Maude and Elizabeth Dowd in shock after Frank Dowd's death; widow Maude and daughter Elizabeth, "unable to speak of their abandonment," "have drawn off into private desolation." Maude's mother, lost in the world of senility, and her nurse die soon after. Years later, neither Maude's nor Elizabeth's husbands know their wives' true natures. In a disturbing scene, three-year-old Warren, a victim of child abuse who is locked within himself, dies before Maude, now a psychologist, can reach him. Only the mad poet Mattie appears to have a whole life, but, after her death, her heir inadvertently burns all her poems. After the first two sections of the novel, "Sin" and "Sorrow," the reader expects in the final "Grace Note" some resolution but encounters instead Theodore Lasser, Maude's husband's son, a priest more concerned with public relations than spiritual needs. Where then is that "grace abounding"? The last line holds some answer: "The young priest stumbles back and forth from bush to lemon tree, brushing and brushing at cold cobwebs that will fade with the morning dew." The reader knows that Theodore's ghostly cobwebs stem from unresolved conflicts with his father. Grace Abounding may well serve as Howard's warning rather than model: to accept limits, one must discover, know, and then share one's nature.
The starting point of A Lover's Almanac is a party to welcome in the year 2000 (Howard published the book two years earlier). Events at the party place her protagonists, Louise or Lou Moffett and Artie Freeman, at odds with one another after a besotted Artie attacks two of the guests. Though much of the ensuing plot involves Artie's attempts to reconcile with Lou, the most compelling aspect of the story involves Artie's grandfather Cyril. The latter, who raised his grandson, finds himself face to face with Sylvie, a lover he has not seen in half a century. His tale unfolds in a series of flashbacks, and throughout the story, Howard brings to bear her considerable talents with the use of numerous motifs, ranging from biographical sketches of Sir Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin to tidbits of folk wisdom.
—Mary M. Lay
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