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Joseph (Prince) McElroy Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1930. Education: Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1947-51, B.A. 1951; Columbia University, New York, 1951-52, 1954-56, M.A. 1952, Ph.D. in English 1961. Military Service: Served in the United States Coast Guard 1952-54. Career: Instructor and assistant professor of English, University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1956-62. Since 1964 professor of English, Queens College, City University of New York. Visiting professor, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1976, Columbia University, 1978, University of Paris, 1981, and New York University, 1984; Visiting Scholar, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1991. Writer-in-residence, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1977; Hurst Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, 1979. Lives in New York City. Awards: Rockefeller grant, 1968; Ingram-Merrill Foundation grant, 1970, 1985; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1973; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1973, 1986; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; American Academy award, 1977; D.H. Lawrence fellowship, 1979. Agent: Melanie Jackson Agency, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10107, U.S.A.



A Smuggler's Bible. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1966; London, Deutsch, 1968.

Hind's Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs. New York, Harper, 1969; London, Blond, 1970.

Ancient History. New York, Knopf, 1971.

Lookout Cartridge. New York, Knopf, 1974.

Plus. New York, Knopf, 1977.

Ship Rock, A Place: From Women and Men, A Novel in Progress. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1980.

Women and Men. New York, Knopf, 1987.

The Letter Left to Me. New York, Knopf, 1988.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Accident," in New American Review 2, edited by Theodore Solotaroff. New York, New American Library, 1968.

"The Future," in The Best American Short Stories 1981, edited by Hortense Calisher and Shannon Ravenel. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

"The King's Reforms," in New York Journal of the Arts, Spring 1981.

"The Departed Tenant," in New Yorker, 23 November 1981.

"The Man with the Bag Full of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne," in Partisan Review (Boston), vol. 51, no. 1, 1984.

"Preparations for Search," in Formations (Wilmette, Illinois), Spring 1984.

"Daughter of the Revolution," in Prize Stories 1985, edited by William Abrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1985.

"Canoe Repair," in Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), Spring 1990.


Manuscript Collection:

Middlebury College, Vermont.

Critical Studies:

"Joseph McElroy Issue" of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), Spring 1990 (includes bibliography by Steven Moore); Conspiracy and Paranoia in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy by Steffen Hantke, Frankfurt am Main and New York, P. Lang, 1994.

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Joseph McElroy explores the many implications of symmetries between the behavior of electrons and the behavior of humans. The flow of traffic in our cities, the pulse of blood through one's aorta, the dash of information through a computer from keyboard to printout: McElroy adumbrates these analogies, and assesses their intent. This is, of course, in addition to the imaginative depth and human scope that we have a right to expect from one of the major writers of the period.

A Smuggler's Bible introduced McElroy's first readers to a new world of narrative discontinuities, multiple viewpoints, and a heightened modernist sense that the telling is inseparable from the tale. Eight numbered chapters are divided from each other by discursive intrusions from a witty if disembodied narrator. David Brooke, on board ship from New York to London, is determined to bring coherence to seven autobiographical manuscripts he has written himself. Formally, then, we are in a universe parallel to that of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, but the narrative mentality is considerably wider-ranging and more freely associative in McElroy. The novel's title refers to a hollowed-out copy of a Bible used for purposes of contraband; McElroy fills it with a trove of metaphoric readings for the ways in which we smuggle meanings beneath a host of impostures in daily life.

In Hind's Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs Jack Hind, a six-foot-seven New Yorker, is obsessed with the kidnapping, seven years earlier, of a four-year-old boy named Hershey Laurel. Hind spends the novel accumulating clues—some of them imagined, some apparently real—in an effort to solve the crime. It emerges that sleuthing means to dislodge information from its context—that the very act of perception qualifies as a kind of kidnapping. McElroy uses such master metaphors as smuggling, in the first novel, and kidnapping here, to cast a polarized light over the action which revolves prismatically for the reader's surprise, recognition, and delight.

Ancient History, as McElroy has described in a remarkable self-study ("Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts," Tri-Quarterly, Fall 1975), extrapolates certain concepts of time and narrative form that he learned from Michel Butor's novel Degrees. "Concrete abstracts" may define the characters as well as the plot, since the principals are named, alphabetically, Al, Bob, Cy, and Dom. Upon Dom's death, Cy begins to examine the lives of Bob, a city dweller, and Al, a country boy. The novel explores spatial relationships analogous to field theory in physics; its subtitle, accordingly, denotes "a new time, or state like time, or state of being outside or beside time."

Lookout Cartridge may well be McElroy's masterpiece; of his seven novels to date, it is the one most often compared to William Gaddis's The Recognitions and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. It concerns the efforts by one Cartwright to track down the thief of several rolls of film from a clandestinely shot movie which may or may not have captured scenes of political crime. The locations shift speedily and often between New York, London, and Stonehenge, where part of the film was shot, as the narrative, following Cartwright's thoughts closely, veers from the comically pedantic to the cosmically profound. Analog and digital models of computing are presented as analogies of human fate and freedom, and the concept of human divinity itself glimmers behind much of the action. In the opinion of many, Lookout Cartridge is one of the most unjustly overlooked novels in the American canon. Amid much else it offers a knowledgeable survey of the mindsets of London and New York. The novel suspends itself, figuratively speaking, on an airplane's flightpath between the English and the American, much as A Smuggler's Bible had done by ship. McElroy's Anglo-American binocularity recalls that of Henry James.

Plus, offering in its title to negate the negators, is the most abstract of McElroy's already challenging fiction. The main character is called IMP PLUS where IMP stands for "Interplanetary Monitoring Platform." "He" has been distilled from a disembodied human brain, a conceit reminiscent of Isaac Asimov's "positronic brain."

The novel's strangely unnerving conclusion mentions "a power raised to wholeness by camouflage," adding camouflage to smuggling and kidnapping as master metaphors for the dishonesty of consciousness. Plus suggests an artificial angel—a high-tech, human artifact that manages a plausible mimesis of something divine. Lessing, in other ways entirely different, neighbors McElroy in "intellectual science fiction" too.

Women and Men (another way, inter alia, of saying "plus") comprises 1192 pages, and not for that reason alone McElroy's sixth novel, upon its publication in 1987, invited comparisons both to Joyce's major work and to that of Tolstoy. The electron model suggests polarity, so McElroy slips over his lens the polarizing filter of sex. How women behave, how men behave, a "division of labor" susceptible to extensive and minute study. Grace Kimball and Jim Mayn share overlapping orbits—they inhabit the same New York apartment house—but they never meet. Around and about and through them pass a large cast of relations both distinctive and familiar. Binary rhythms—such as the links and contrasts of knowledge, or the inhaling and exhaling at every level of life—animate a novel that itself claims to breathe. A chorus-like collective voice speaks in occasional interstitial chapters, called "breathers." As before, McElroy eschews continuity, and seems to follow André Gide's dictum, "Ne jamais profiter de l'élan acquis" (roughly, never to take advantage of the narrative's momentum). The demands upon the reader, and the corresponding rewards, are strong.

A much briefer novel, and perhaps the most accessible introduction to McElroy's work, The Letter Left to Me tells of a late father's letter of advice delivered to the fifteen-year-old narrator by his mother. The narrator observes, with some particularity, his own reactions to the letter, the response of his family, and, when he gets to college, that of everyone around him—for his mother sends a copy of the letter to the Dean, who has it distributed to the college community. The novel offers a placid and nearly affectless surface, quite à la nouveau roman, beneath which ripples a potent pathos, the loss of father and the loss of missed opportunities.

McElroy's career attests to his refusal to confuse language with life, conjoined to a refusal to let life pass unwitnessed by words. His intelligence and achievement are unique in American letters.

Brian Stonehill

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Al Loving Biography - Loved Painting from Early Age to Alice McGill Biography - Personal