Alice (Anne) Munro Biography
Alice Munro comments:
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Alice Anne Laidlaw, Wingham, Ontario, 1931. Education: Wingham public schools; University of Western Ontario, London, 1949-51. Career: Writerin-residence, University of Western Ontario, 1974-75, and University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1980. Awards: Governor-General's award, 1969, 1978, 1987; B.C. Library Association Outstanding Fiction Writer's award, 1972; Great Lakes Colleges Association award, 1974; Province of Ontario Council for the Arts award, 1974; Canada-Australia literary prize, 1977; National Magazine Awards Foundation Gold Medal award, 1977, 1982; Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters and Periodical Distributors of Canada Author's award, 1980; Marian Engel award, 1986; Canada Council Molson prize, 1991; Commonwealth Writers prize (Canada and Caribbean Region), 1991; Trillium Book award, 1991; Order of Ontario medal, 1994; Canada-Australia Literary Prize, 1994; Canadian Booksellers Association Author of the Year award, 1995; Giller Prize, 1998. D. Litt.: University of Western Ontario, 1976.
Lives of Girls and Women. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1971;New York, McGraw Hill, 1972; London, Allen Lane, 1973.
Queenie. London, Profile Books, 1999.
Dance of the Happy Shades. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1968; NewYork, McGraw Hill, 1973; London, Allen Lane, 1974.
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, and New York, McGraw Hill, 1974.
Personal Fictions, with others, edited by Michael Ondaatje. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Who Do You Think You Are? Toronto, Macmillan, 1978; as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, New York, Knopf, 1979; London, Allen Lane, 1980.
The Moons of Jupiter. Toronto, Macmillan, 1982; New York, Knopf, and London, Allen Lane, 1983.
The Progress of Love. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and NewYork, Knopf, 1986; London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.
Friend of My Youth. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1990.
A Wilderness Station. New York, Knopf, 1994.
Open Secrets. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1994.
Selected Stories. New York, Knopf, 1996.
The Love of a Good Woman: Stories. New York, Knopf, 1998.
How I Met My Husband (televised 1974). Published in The Play's the Thing, edited by Tony Gifford, Toronto, Macmillan, 1976.
A Trip to the Coast, 1973; Thanks for the Ride, CBC, 1973; How I Met My Husband, 1974; 1847: The Irish (The Newcomers series), 1978.
"Alice Munro: A Checklist (To December 31, 1974)" by D.E. Cook, in Journal of Canadian Fiction 16, 1976; "Some Highly Subversive Activities: A Brief Polemic and a Checklist of Works on Alice Munro" by J.R. (Tim) Struthers, in Studies in Canadian Literature 6, 1981; "Munro, Alice (1931-)" by Helen Hoy, in her Modern English-Canadian Prose: A Guide to Information Sources, Detroit, Gale Research, 1983; "Alice Munro: An Annotated Bibliography" by Robert Thacker, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors: Volume Five, edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1984; The Alice Munro Papers First Accession: An Inventory of the Archive at The University of Calgary Libraries compiled by Jean M. Moore and Jean F. Tener and edited by Apollonia Steele and Jean F. Tener, Calgary, University of Calgary Press, 1986; The Alice Munro Papers Second Accession: An Inventory of the Archive at The University of Calgary Libraries compiled by Jean M. Moore and edited by Apollonia Steele and Jean F. Tener, Calgary, University of Calgary Press, 1987; "Munro, Alice (1931-)" by Allan Weiss, in his A Comprehensive Bibliography of English-Canadian Short Stories, 1950-1983, Toronto, ECW Press, 1988.
The University of Calgary Libraries, Alberta.
"A Conversation with Alice Munro" in Journal of Canadian Fiction 1(4), 1972, and "Casting Sad Spells: Alice Munro's 'Walker Brothers Cowboy"' in Writers in Aspic, Montreal, Vehicule Press, 1988, both by John Metcalf; "Unconsummated Relationships: Isolation and Rejection in Alice Munro's Stories," in World Literature Written in English, 11(1), 1972, "The Fiction of Alice Munro," in Ploughshares 4(3), 1978, and Alice Munro and Her Works, Toronto, ECW Press, 1985, all by Hallvard Dahlie; "Alice Munro" by Graeme Gibson, in his Eleven Canadian Novelists: Interviewed by Graeme Gibson, Toronto, House of Anansi Press, 1973; "Alice Munro and the American South," in Here and Now, The Canadian Novel, edited by John Moss, vol. 1, Toronto, NC Press, 1978, and "Reality and Ordering: The Growth of a Young Artist in Lives of Girls and Women, " in Modern Canadian Fiction, Richmond, British Columbia, Open Learning Institute, 1980, both by J.R. (Tim) Struthers; "Pronouns and Propositions: Alice Munro's Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You, " by W.H. New, in his Dreams of Speech and Violence: The Art of the Short Story in Canada and New Zealand, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1987; "Women's Lives: Alice Munro" by Bronwen Wallace, in The Human Elements: Critical Essays, edited by David Helwig, Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1978; "Alice Munro and James Joyce," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, 24, 1979, and Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel, Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 1987, both by W.R. Martin; "'Dull, Simple, Amazing and Unfathomable': Paradox and Double Vision in Alice Munro's Fiction," in Studies in Canadian Literature 5, 1980, and "Alice Munro: 'Unforgettable, Indigestible Messages'," in Journal of Canadian Studies, 26(1), 1991, and "'Rose and Janet': Alice Munro's Metafiction," in Canadian Literature, 121, 1989, all by Helen Hoy; "Alice Munro" by Geoff Hancock, in his Canadian Writers at Work: Interviews with Geoff Hancock, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1987; Probable Fictions: Alice Munro's Narrative Acts edited by Louis K. MacKendrick, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1983, and Some Other Reality: Alice Munro's "Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You" by MacKendrick, Toronto, ECW Press, 1993; "Three Jokers: The Shape of Alice Munro's Stories," in Centre and Labyrinth: Essays in Honour of Northrop Frye, edited by Eleanor Cook et al, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1983, and The Other Country: Patterns in the Writing of Alice Munro, Toronto, ECW Press, 1993, both by James Carscallen; Alice Munro by B. Pfaus, Ottawa, Golden Dog Press, 1984; The Art of Alice Munro: Saying the Unsayable edited by Judith Miller, Waterloo, Ontario, University of Waterloo Press, 1984; "Connection: Alice Munro and Ontario," in The American Review of Canadian Studies 14, 1984, and "Conferring Munro" in Essays on Canadian Writing 34, 1987, "Go Ask Alice: The Progress of Munro Criticism," in Journal of Canadian Studies, 26(2), 1991, all by Robert Thacker; "'What Happened to Marion?': Art and Reality in Lives of Girls and Women " by Thomas E. Tausky, in Studies in Canadian Literature, 11(1), 1986; Alice Munro by E.D. Blodgett, Boston, Twayne/Hall, 1988; "Alice Munro" by Michelle Gadpaille, in her The Canadian Short Story, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1988; "The Other Side of Dailiness": Photography in the Works of Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Laurence by Lorraine M. York, Toronto, ECW Press, 1988; "Alice Munro" by W.J. Keith, in his A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada, Toronto, ECW Press, 1989; Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro by Ildiko de Papp Carrington, DeKalb, Northern Illinois University Press, 1989; Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro by Beverly J. Rasporich, Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 1990; Introducing Alice Munro's "Lives of Girls and Women": A Reader's Guide by Neil K. Besner, Toronto, ECW Press, 1990; Alice Munro: A Double Life by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Toronto, ECW Press, 1992; Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy by Karen Smythe, Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992; "A Hopeful Sign: The Making of Metonymic Meaning in Munro's 'Meneseteung"' by Pam Houston, in The Kenyon Review 14.4, 1992; Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro by Magdalene Redekop, London, Routledge, 1992; How Stories Mean edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers, Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1993; "Alice Munro: The Art of Fiction CXXXVII" by Jean McCulloch and Mona Simpson, in The Paris Review 131, 1994; The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro's Discourse of Absence by Ajay Heble, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1994; "The Woman Out Back: Alice Munro's 'Meneseteung"' by Dermot McCarthy, in Studies in Canadian Literature, 19(1), 1994; "A National Treasure: An Interview with Alice Munro" by Pleuke Boyce and Ron Smith, in O Canada 2, edited by Cassandra Pybus, Meanjin, 54, 1995; The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers: Alice Munro, Hugh Hood, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje by John Cooke, Lewiston, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1996; Alice Munro by Coral Ann Howells, Manchester, England, and New York, Manchester University Press, 1998; The Rest of the Story: Critical Essays on Alice Munro, edited by Robert Thacker, Toronto, ECW Press, 1999.
(1982) I did promise to talk about using reality. "Why, if Jubilee isn't Wingham, has it got a Shuter Street in it?" people want to know. Why have I described somebody's real ceramic elephant sitting on the mantelpiece? I could say I get momentum from doing things like this. The fictional room, town, world, needs a bit of starter dough from the real world. It's a device to help the writer—at least it helps me—but it arouses a certain baulked fury in the people who really do live on Shuter Street and the lady who owns the ceramic elephant. "Why do you put in something true and then go and tell lies?" they say, and anybody who has been on the receiving end of this kind of thing knows how they feel.
"I do it for the sake of my art and to make this structure which encloses the soul of my story, that I've been telling you about," says the writer. "That is more important than anything." Not to everybody it isn't.
So I can see there might be a case, once you've written the story and got the momentum, for going back and changing the elephant to a camel (though there's always a chance the lady might complain that you made a nasty camel out of a beautiful elephant), and changing Shuter Street to Blank Street. But what about the big chunks of reality, without which your story can't exist? In the story "Royal Beatings," I use a big chunk of reality: the story of the butcher, and of the young men who may have been egged on to "get" him. This is a story out of an old newspaper; it really did happen in a town I know. There is no legal difficulty about using it because it has been printed in a newspaper, and besides, the people who figure in it are all long dead. But there is a difficulty about offending people in that town who would feel that use of this story is a deliberate exposure, taunt and insult. Other people who have no connection with the real happening would say "Why write about anything so hideous?" And lest you think that such an objection could only be raised by simple folk who read nothing but Harlequin Romances, let me tell you that one of the questions most frequently asked at universities is, "Why do you write about things that are so depressing?" People can accept almost any amount of ugliness if it is contained in a familiar formula, as it is on television, but when they come closer to their own place, their own lives, they are much offended by lack of editing.
There are ways I can defend myself against such objections. I can say, "I do it in the interests of historical reality. That is what the old days were really like." Or, "I do it to show the dark side of human nature, the beast let loose, the evil we can run up against in communities and families." In certain countries I could say, "I do it to show how bad things were under the old system when there were prosperous butchers and young fellows hanging around livery stables and nobody thought about building a new society." But the fact is, the minute I say to show I am telling a lie. I don't do it to show anything. I put this story at the heart of my story because I need it there and it belongs there. It is the black room at the centre of the house with all other rooms leading to and away from it. That is all. A strange defence. Who told me to write this story? Who feels any need of it before it is written? I do. I do, so that I might grab off this piece of horrid reality and install it where I see fit, even if Hat Nettleton and his friends were still around to make me sorry.
* * *
Alice Munro is not an explicitly political or feminist writer, nor does she write autobiography. However, her stories are largely concerned with the struggle between rebellion and respectability; they dramatize the "underbelly of relationships"; and in each collection we regularly see the same small-town, rural, Canadian setting where she grew up and continues to live "because I live life here at a level of irritation which I would not achieve in a place that I knew less well."
The stories are studies in perspective. They take family structures, neighborhoods, individuals, and groups of people, and show how they shift in the memory as they appear suddenly from an unexpected angle. Her characters move through layers of time and reality, and it is the gaps between those layers that reveal the power of Munro's fiction. "There are no such things as big and little subjects," she has said. "The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other."
Her first book of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, charts the adolescent discovery of love and fear. "Boys and Girls" deals with two recurring themes in Munro's stories: domestic power plays and the impossibility of the functional mother/daughter relationship. When a girl, whose mother was "plotting to get me to stay in the house more, although she knew I hated it (because she knew I hated it) and keep me from working for my father" cries, it is because "she's only a girl." "I didn't protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true." Early sexual experiences in "Postcard" and "Thanks for the Ride" provide the vehicle for exploring adult sexual deceit. Many of the stories in this collection present a recognizable physical world rendered impenetrable by the emotionally disaffected people attempting to exist in it.
Munro's first novel, Lives of Girls and Women, follows the life of Del Jordan, a woman struggling to avoid the obscurity made seemingly inevitable by growing up in a small town, Jubilee. As Del Jordan remembers the milestones of her emotional growth, we see her pursuing different ways of being "endangered and desired." The novel is in a sense less satisfying than Munro's short stories; the form affords Del Jordan the opportunity to "go out and take on all kinds of experiences … and come back proud." But it does not make her any more complex a character than those who live in the short stories.
In the next collection of stories—Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You—the emphasis is on remembering, rather than projecting; on making sense of the past. Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You is one of Munro's bleaker collections, with disarray increasing through examination, rather than being resolved. In "Winter Wind" a character believes "that we have some connections that cannot be investigated."
Where many short story writers fall into the trap of making the form shrink to fit, Munro's stories bulge with details and density and are extended by the tensions and contradictions they generate. Who Do You Think You Are? is as much a novel as Lives of Girls and Women; it has the same episodic structure and offers ten "moments" from the life of Rose, who manages to leave the confines of her small town on a university scholarship. Neither Rose nor Del Jordan is able to "shuck off" fully the things they don't want, although Del affects some kind of certainty about what she does want. Rose, however, is often trapped by what the narrator in "Simon's Luck" calls "those shifts of emphasis that throw the story line open to question, the disarrangements which demand new judgments and solutions, and throw the windows open on inappropriate unforgettable scenery."
The Moons of Jupiter focuses on the nature of relationships between characters, rather than on the nature of the isolation these connections often seem to create in Munro's stories. Again, the contradictions between different levels of reality give these stories an atmosphere of threat: beneath the seemingly benign surface of experience real danger lurks. In "The Moons of Jupiter" the narrator describes "various knowns and unknowns and horrific immensities." The connections dramatized in this collection—between cousins ("Chaddeleys and Flemings"), lovers ("Hard-Luck Stories," "Accident"), or rest home companions ("Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd")—are undermined by personal deceits, or by "the gap between what she wanted and what she could get," or by the overlap of need and want. "Connection. That was what it was all about. A connection with the real, and prodigal, and dangerous world." In "The Turkey Season," about relationships between women in a turkey factory, the protagonist explains how "I got to the stage of backing off from the things I couldn't really know."
Three subsequent collections of stories—The Progress of Love, Friend of My Youth, and Open Secrets—provide, perhaps, the best introduction to Munro's work. In The Progress of Love all the elements of her previous work combine in an orgy of dishonesty and dissatisfaction. Jesse, the teenage girl conducting an imaginary affair with an older man in "Jesse and Meribeth," concedes "I didn't at all mind the lying. Once I had taken the plunge into falsehood … falsehood felt wonderfully comfortable." In "Eskimo" Mary Jo is having an affair with her married boss, Dr. Streeter, a man of "incurable, calm, and decent sadness…. This sadness seems to come from obedience." In the title story the narrator realizes that "Moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later. I wonder if those moments aren't more valued, and deliberately gone after, in the setups some people like myself have now, than they were in those old marriages, where love and grudges could be growing underground, so confused and stubborn, it must have seemed they had forever." In "Fits" the apparent murder-suicide of a local couple provides such a moment for Peg and Robert: "They needed something new to talk about. Now he felt more like going home." In these stories Munro draws the tensions between everyday dissatisfaction and its chaotic possibilities brilliantly. The characters' realizations of these consequences—and their bearing on their own existence—are always insidious, revealed in flashes of light.
In Friend of My Youth the stories are more personal in feeling, the writing more controlled, and the characters' lives more full of falsity. In "Wigtime" Margot is reduced to stalking her adulterous husband in a wig and leaving anonymous notes under his windscreen. Hazel in "Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass" is a widow in her 50s, taking a leave of absence, who scribbles in notebooks: "It prevents the rise of panic…. This sort of panic had nothing to do with money or ticket arrangements, it had to do with a falling off of purpose, and the question why am I here?" There is a note of elegy in these stories, but the changes of mood and the shifts in perspective betray the deceptive gentleness of Munro's writing. The daughter in "Oh, What Avails" reflects that her mother had formed in the children "a delicate, special regard for themselves, which made them want to go out and grasp what they wanted, whether love or money."
The eight darkly luminous stories in Open Secrets explore with increasing precision and wonder, with increasing graveness and love, the tensions and contradictions of the human condition. "A Wilderness Station" presents—through a group of letters and recollections by, and to, a variety of persons—the fictional biography of Annie Herron, a woman of somewhat uncertain beginning, middle, and end who reaches early adulthood and marries in the mid-nineteenth century and lives on into the twentieth. Following the seemingly accidental death of her husband while he is out working in the bush with his younger brother, Annie temporarily seeks refuge (of sorts) in a local Southwestern Ontario gaol for criminals and the insane and only gains retribution (of sorts) more than half a century later. The deeper historical note sounded in "A Wilderness Station" is reminiscent of "Meneseteung," an overwhelmingly original fictional biography, from Friend of My Youth, about an invented nineteenth-century southwestern Ontario poetess named Almeda Joynt Roth. Like so many of Munro's later stories, but somehow more compellingly, "Meneseteung" fills and empties the reader in ways we associate with classical tragedy. This is not to say that her later stories are without comedy, for comedy represents an extremely important, and equally ritualistic, component of her work.
In "Spaceships Have Landed"—a story describing the friendship, then and now, of two country girls—imaginative play and verbal play are crucial to Munro's achievement: "And the worst thing was when Eunie launched into accounts that Rhea found both boring and infuriating, of murders and disasters and freakish events that she had heard about on the radio. Rhea was infuriated because she could not get Eunie to tell her whether these things had really happened, or even to make that distinction—as far as Rhea could tell—to herself. "Was that on the news, Eunie? Was it a story? Were there people acting it in front of a microphone or was it reporting? Eunie! Was it real or was it a play?" It was Rhea, never Eunie, who would get frazzled by these questions. Eunie would just get on her bicycle and ride away. 'Toodeley oodeley oo! See you in the zoo!"' What nonsense, we think—or is it? Might Eunie be seen to possess an understanding of the indivisibility of truth and imagination, seriousness and play, the natural and the supernatural, that surpasses Rhea's meagrely realistic, literal-minded understanding? Might Eunie be seen to represent some kind of metaphor, or an alter ego, for the artist?
In story after story, Munro reveals the exhilarating character of life itself, with all of life's surprising but inevitable interventions in the form of a death, unexpected visitors, an unusual letter, whatever. Such occurrences pervade Munro's later stories, fracturing each character's—and each reader's—expectations, rendering easy accommodations with life or art impossible. Moreover, from these interventions other actions unfailingly unfold. Increasingly in Munro's later stories, we see something of the quality that Eudora Welty (an acknowledged influence on Munro) admired in William Faulker: "veracity and accuracy about the world" that reveals both the comedy of being human and what Welty terms "that comedy's adjoining terror."
Perhaps Munro's stories should be read as a new kind of novel; not one after the other, but each allowed time to resonate in the reader's head. As Munro says: "I want the stories to keep diminishing but not to be suddenly over with, so one is left with the central mystery of the story."
updated byJ.R.(Tim) Struthers
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