Alison Lurie Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 1926. Education: Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.B. in history and English 1947. Career: Lecturer, 1968-73, adjunct associate professor, 1973-76, associate professor, 1976-79, and since 1979 professor of English, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Awards: Yaddo Foundation fellowship, 1963, 1964, 1966; Guggenheim fellowship, 1965; Rockefeller grant, 1968; New York State Council on the Arts grant, 1972; American Academy award, 1979; Pulitzer prize, 1985; Prix Femina Etranger (France), 1989.
Love and Friendship. London, Heinemann, and New York, Macmillan, 1962.
The Nowhere City. London, Heinemann, 1965; New York, Coward McCann, 1966.
Imaginary Friends. London, Heinemann, and New York, Coward McCann, 1967.
Real People. New York, Random House, 1969; London, Heinemann, 1970.
The War Between the Tates. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1974.
Only Children. New York, Random House, and London, Heinemann, 1979.
Foreign Affairs. New York, Random House, 1984; London, Joseph, 1985.
The Truth about Lorin Jones. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Joseph, 1988.
The Last Resort. New York, Henry Holt, 1998.
Women and Ghosts. New York, Doubleday, and London, Heinemann, 1994.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Hansel and Gretel," in New Story 2 (New York), 1951.
"Fat People," in Vogue (New York), October 1989.
Other (for children)
The Heavenly Zoo: Legends and Tales of the Stars. London, Eel Pie, 1979; New York, Farrar Straus, 1980.
Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales. New York, Crowell, and London, Heinemann, 1980.
Fabulous Beasts. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1981.
Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Bloomsbury, 1990; as Not in Front of the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature, London, Cardinal, 1991.
Cap o'Rushes. London, BBC, 1991.
The Black Geese: A Baba Yaga Story From Russia (reteller), illustrated by Jessica Souhami. New York, DK, 1999.
V.R. Lang: A Memoir. Privately printed, 1959; in Poems and Plays, by V.R. Lang, New York, Random House, 1975.
The Language of Clothes. New York, Random House, 1981; London, Heinemann, 1982.
Steve Poleskie, Artflyer, with Stephen Foster. Southampton, Hampshire, John Hansard Gallery, 1989.
Editor, The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Editor, The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. New York, Penguin Books, 1999.
Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York.
Alison Lurie by Richard Hauer Costa, New York, Twayne, 1992.
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It is difficult to think of any other North American writer who has held up the mirror to the nature of the professional middle classes as exactly and as wittily as Alison Lurie. From Love and Friendship (1962) all the way through to The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988), the customs and usages, fancies and foibles, of comfortable (usually East Coast) America are carefully scrutinized with Lurie's wryly amused, detached, yet not unsympathetic gaze.
Events that could have become the stuff of American tragedy in another writer's hands—marital breakdown, illicit sexual passion, madness, problems of artistic creation, loss of innocence, crisis in personal identity, emotional neglect—are transformed deftly and sharp-wittedly by Lurie into a compelling comedy of affluent U.S. life. The reader's pleasure is further enhanced by the meticulously composed and poised nature of Lurie's prose, and her ability to create vigorous characters and to spin an engaging tale.
In particular, Lurie is skilled at describing North American campus life and the idiosyncratic behavior of U.S. academics. Her novels are self-referential, employing recurrent characters usually connected with the successful, confident and combative Zimmern family. The Lurie reader looks forward to further acquaintanceship with the aggressive and influential critic Leonard D. Zimmern, for example, and the Zimmern brood are used to represent the fortunes of artistic and intellectual life in postwar East Coast America.
All her novels depict characters who are subject to rapid, and often unexpected, changes which precipitate crises in previous and usually smoothly organized existences. Rational academics join crazy religious sects, careful WASP wives have affairs with unsuitable musicians and artists, besuited historians turn beatnik, while refined East Coast ladies on vacation in London have passionate flings with waste-disposal engineers from Tulsa. Like fellow campus chroniclers David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, Lurie obviously enjoys the narrative strategy of placing her characters in unfamiliar surroundings, testing their previous relationships and assumptions to the limit.
Thus in Love and Friendship upper-class metropolitan Emily Turner finds her relationship with her rather insensitive academic husband tried by her new life as college wife in an inward-looking rural community. The Nowhere City, set in Los Angeles, shows how Californian attitudes gradually reshape the social presumptions of historian Paul Cattleman and his New England wife, Katherine. Imaginary Friends explores how two sociologists, much given to behavior models, are forced into serious reconsideration of their own identities and actions by their fieldwork among the religious group, the Truth Seekers, in a small town in rural New York State. This questioning of self and motive results in Lurie's possibly most hilarious episode when the two rationalists cast off their professional clothing in preparation for a supreme being's arrival in Sophis.
In Real People, an intimate novel about the act of writing, successful novelist Janet Belle Smith finds her principles tested and her status as happily married woman threatened during her transposition from well-run home to the less rule-bound atmosphere of the writer's retreat, Illyria. The War Between the Tates sees Erica's orderly home and long-established marriage completely transformed by the presence of her "nasty, brutish and tall" teenage offspring and husband Brian's absence due to fluffy-headed and hippyish Wendee, while the adults in Only Children (the only novel without a contemporary setting) shed their adult social apparel and behave in an often childish manner, when weekending on a rural retreat in the Catskill Mountains during the Depression.
The search for self-knowledge when an accepted life is disrupted becomes even more pronounced in Lurie's later novels. Foreign Affairs, played out in London, is the only novel set abroad, and, here in a Jamesian fashion, a group of North American exiles are challenged by the people and customs of the Old World. But it is The Truth about Lorin Jones that tries most ambitiously and strenuously to combine the novel of social displacement with the quest for self-knowledge. Here art historian Polly Alter, in her attempt to write a biography of a prematurely deceased artist, discovers an "alter ego" in her subject, and, on her visit to Key West to search for Lorin's past, finds her own life under question, as it becomes increasingly en-twined with that of the dead painter.
Lorin Jones (born Lolly Zimmern) is seen as a young girl in Only Children, in which novel, as might be expected from Lurie's own academic research into children's literature and authorship of books for children, the child's view of adult behavior is portrayed very sensitively and winningly. Also present in this novel, and indeed discernible throughout her work, is the sense that Lurie's adults themselves crave the release from responsibility, decision-making, and conventional behavior that is present in a happy childhood. Many of her central figures are products of less than contented childhoods (a point not labored in any way by Lurie), and the topsy-turvy, fantastic ways they choose to change their lives reflect such a desire for liberation as an adult.
Lurie's work is intelligent, entertaining and consistently well crafted, and, like that of an earlier novelist with a superior talent for social portraiture, Jane Austen, the American writer's books provide us with a very keen and real understanding of the everyday life and aspirations of a particular group of people.