Joyce Carol Oates Returns to Lockport

Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again in

Writers, particularly novelists, are linked to place. It’s impossible to think of Charles Dickens and not to think of Dickens’ London; impossible to think of James Joyce and not to think of Joyce’s Dublin ….

Over the years of what seems to me both a long and a swiftly passing lifetime, “home” has been, for me, several places: Lockport, New York, where I was born and went to school, and nearby Millersport, New York, my home until the age of 18; Detroit, Michigan, where I lived with my young husband Raymond Smith, 1962-68—when he taught English at Wayne State University and I taught English at the University of Detroit; and Princeton, New Jersey, where we lived for 30 years at 9 Honey Brook Drive, while Ray edited the Ontario Review and Ontario Review Press books and I taught at Princeton University, until Ray’s death in February 2008. …

The Lockport Public Library has been an illumination in my life. In that dimension of the soul in which time is collapsed and the past is contemporaneous with the present, it still is.

Growing up in a not-very-prosperous rural community lacking a common cultural or aesthetic tradition, in the aftermath of the Great Depression in which people like my family and relatives worked, worked and worked—and had little time for reading more than newspapers—I was mesmerized by books and by what might be called “the life of the mind”: the life that was not manual labor, or housework, but seemed in its specialness to transcend these activities. …

An early memory of being with Daddy—in Lockport—and there is a street blocked with traffic and people—one of the narrow streets that run parallel to the canal, on the farther side of downtown—and Daddy has stopped his car to get out and see what is happening—and I have gotten out too, to follow him—except I can’t follow him, there are too many people—I hear shouts—I don’t see what is happening—unless (somehow) I do see—for I have a vague memory of “seeing”—a blurred memory of—is it a man’s body, a corpse, being hauled out of the canal?

Joyce didn’t see. Joyce was nowhere near.
Yes, I’m sure!

Yet years later, I will write of this. I will write of a little girl seeing, or almost seeing, a man’s body hauled from a canal. I will write of the canal set deep in the earth; I will write of the turbulence of falling water, steep rock-sides, the roiling water, unease and distress and yet at the core, childlike wonderment. And I will write—repeatedly, obsessively—of the fact that adults cannot shield their children from such sights, as adults cannot shield their children from the very fact of growing up, and losing them. …

Much more in the full article, including a separate interview.