Larry (Alfred) Woiwode Biography
Larry Woiwode comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Carrington, North Dakota, 1941. Education: University of Illinois, Urbana, 1959-64, A.A. 1964. Career: Actor in Miami and New York, 1964-65; writer-in-residence, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1973-74; visiting professor, Wheaton College, Illinois, summers 1981 and 1984; visiting professor, 1983-84, professor of English, 1984-88, director of the Writing Program, 1985-88, and co-director of the semester in London program, Spring 1988, State University of New York, Binghamton. Since 1988 professor of English, Beth-El Institute for the Arts and Sciences, Carson, North Dakota. Since 1978 farmer-rancher in western North Dakota, raising grains, sheep, and quarter horses. Awards: MacDowell fellowship, 1965; Faulkner Foundation award, 1969; Guggenheim fellowship, 1971; American Academy award, 1980; Southern Review award, for The Neumiller Stories, 1990; Aga Khan prize (Paris Review), 1990; John Dos Passos prize, for a literary body of work, 1991; Award of Merit, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1995. D. Litt.: North Dakota State University, Fargo, 1977. Agent: Candida Donadio and Associates, 231 West 22nd Street, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.
What I'm Going to Do, I Think. New York, Farrar Straus, 1969; London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1970.
Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album. New York, Farrar Straus, 1975.
Poppa John. New York, Farrar Straus, 1981.
Born Brothers. New York, Farrar Straus, 1988.
Indian Affairs. New York, Atheneum/Macmillan, 1991.
The Neumiller Stories. New York, Farrar Straus, 1989.
Silent Passengers. New York, Atheneum/Macmillan, 1993.
Uncollected Short Story
"Summer Storms," in Paris Review, Spring 1990.
Poetry North: Five North Dakota Poets, with others. Fargo, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1970.
Even Tide. New York, Farrar Straus, 1977.
Acts. San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Acts (memoir). New York, Basic Books, 2000.
The Aristocrat of the West: Biography of Harold Schafer. Fargo, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 2000.
Allen Memorial Library, Valley City State University, North Dakota.
(1981) I believe that prose should be set down so that the readers sees through it to the book's essential action: a fireplace screen behind which the blaze burns, as I've expressed it elsewhere. Yet I work in my books to make the prose do as much as it is able, in realms of rhythm, imagery, and underlying sound. If this seems a paradox, it perhaps is; it sometimes feels so as I work. But I believe that our language, and its heritage, is too rich to be relegated to the utilitarian. Besides trying to keep up on contemporaries and present trends, I like to read in the century of our language's flowering, in the Elizabethans and metaphysical poets, for instance, and all of the early novelists and novels, such as Pilgrim's Progress. Its structure is still valid and its language full of sparks.
In my books I try to convey the contours and textures of life as it's lived. Each book is a separate entity with its special demands, since each is lived by a different character, or series of them. The rhythm of every sentence of the six-hundred-and-some pages of Beyond the Bedroom Wall is modulated to fit the voice that speaks it. Or there was a conscious attempt to make this so. What I want to do in my fiction, with the help of the prose I work at, is to keep all of the reader's senses informed on every moment that he lives within a certain character's skin. This world we breathe. I expect a reader to emerge from my work affected, if not with a change of heart.
* * *
Larry Woiwode's second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, is sure to be ranked as one of the great achievements of American fiction of the 1970s. It is a midwestern novel, an American novel, a universal novel. It spans four generations, and could be set in almost any century. The book's significant events emerge out of the natural histories of human beings. It is about births and deaths, love and courtship, joy and grief, motherhood and fatherhood, childhood, adolescence, old age. It is about strength of character, spoiled character, redeemed character. It is about hardship and work, competence and incompetence, faith and distrust. It is about provincial bigotry and the lot of a Catholic family in a town of Methodists. It is about enduring.
Otto Neumiller emigrated from Germany in 1881. He went all the way to the Dakota plain, where he prospered and then lost most of what he had gained. In his old age, he is lonely and envied and unloved by his neighbors. His son Charles returns to the homestead to attend him at his death. In one of the book's finest chapters, Woiwode shows Charles at work making his father's coffin, lovingly washing and dressing his father's body, burying him in the unhallowed ground of the farm he loved. Like his father, Charles Neumiller has been a devout Catholic all his life; and so is Charles's son Martin. Most of the novel is the story of Martin, his wife Alpha, who dies at 34, and their six children. The older children, the fourth generation, are off on their own in the 1970s.
The great strength of this novel is in Woiwode's rendering of the commonplace. The Neumiller family may be a bit more intelligent and may perhaps possess more fortitude than the average family, but they are not particularly special. In addition to the virtues, there certainly are waywardness, carelessness, and ill-considered, impulsive behavior among them. Indeed, one of the beautiful ironies in the novel is that it is the ill-considered decision of Martin, usually so steady and prudent, to move his family from North Dakota to Illinois that brings disaster to the family, including ultimately his beloved wife's death. But the fabric of the novel is made of such scenes as the father's telling stories to his children, the father's being overcome with frustration and kicking one of his sons viciously, the acting out of guilt feelings brought on by the nearly fatal illness of a child. An important motif running through the novel is the family's emotional involvement with each of the various houses in which they live.
The marriage of Martin and Alpha is old-fashioned and ordinary. Except for what is done by acts of nature, it is a marriage that is not susceptible to disruption. This man and this woman become totally entangled with each other, and regardless of what befalls them they cannot imagine themselves married to anyone else. To Martin and Alpha, marriage is for better or for worse, forever.
Even in bulk Woiwode's first novel, What I'm Going to Do, I Think, is not half the novel that Beyond the Bedroom Wall is. It has a small cast of characters, with the focus rarely leaving Chris or Ellen; it does not range over generations, but is concerned with only a few seasons in the lives of its young couple. It is lyrical and symbolic; unfortunately it is also murky. Its central situation is commonplace: the young woman is pregnant and the couple marry. They take an extended honeymoon at an isolated lodge up in northern Michigan. Only then does the nature of the commitment he has made become real to Chris. He is not single anymore; he must take account of another person. He is uncertain about which emotions to share and which to conceal. He experiences much anger, resentment, and frustration, but he does not know what to do with such feelings in the new context. Their physical relationship is different under the blanket of marriage; expectation, disappointment, jealously, and fulfillment have a new texture. Neither Chris nor Ellen has had an appropriate model for the roles of husband and wife; Chris, especially, suffers as a result.
Both had unusual childhoods. Ellen's parents were killed in an accident, and she has been raised by four grandparents. Chris's alienation from his parents is so severe that he hardly ever thinks of them; he does not invite them to his wedding, and he does not attend his mother's funeral. It is the quality of Chris's earlier life that is suggested by the title of the novel. The words are part of a remark made by his father when Chris has hurt himself being clumsy at a chore. What his father thinks he is going to do is get himself a new kid.
The child Ellen is carrying is born dead. When Ellen calls her grandmother for consolation, she is told that this is the "wages of sin." Chris and Ellen do not have another child. The novel ends with the suggestion that Chris always will be a troubled man and that the marriage will not bring fulfillment or much joy to husband or wife. The lives of Chris and Ellen will never have the richness of the lives of Martin and Alpha. Standing by itself, the earlier novel does not have a meaning that clearly emerges from the interaction of character and plot. When it is put beside Beyond the Bedroom Wall, its theme is quite clear: without firm familial commitments, modern life will exact constant feelings of despair and loss.
In Indian Affairs, Woiwode picks up where he left off in his very first novel. It is seven years later, and Chris and Ellen are having normal marital problems. The general plot is interesting, but the many subplots are distracting and unnecessary. Woiwode's collection of stories Silent Passengers deals, once again, with midwestern family stories. Readers can see many threads of father-son relationships and how they influence other family members.
At his best, Woiwode renders the commonplace with such emotional and psychological truth that all the reader's capacity for empathy and compassion is tapped. Woiwode often demonstrates marvelous descriptive power; at his best, his readers see and feel and learn with him, making easy transfers of their fictional experience to their own lives.
updated by Loretta Cobb