For more than three decades, Joyce Carol Oates has been hailed as one of the most significant and enduring writers of the twentieth century. Brilliantly inventive and astonishingly prolific, she has captured the imaginations of millions of readers worldwide with her unflinching portraits of human nature set against tumultuous, frequently violent, and uniquely American landscapes.
Yet Joyce Carol Oates herself has remained an enigmatic figure who has avoided the media spotlight, choosing instead to stay focused on her writing. Despite more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles published about her work, relatively little has been known about the family background and personal life of the award-winning novelist who was once dubbed “the dark lady of American letters.”
In Invisible Writer, the first full-length, authorized biography of this complex and supremely gifted writer, honored author and literary critic Greg Johnson examines the mysteries and myths that have attended Oates’s remarkable career. Granted privileged access to her private letters and journals, and drawing upon hundreds of extensive interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and Oates herself, Johnson develops his portrait of an “invisible writer” whose carefully guarded private world proves as fascinating as her well-publicized literary career.
Oates’s own life was marked by the same chaos, violence, and dark twists of fate that would later beset her fictional characters and create her obsession with what she calls “the phantasmagoria of personality.” Here is the child born into poverty in the desolate heart of upstate New York; a girl shadowed by emotional terrors; a young woman drawn at an early age into an intensely private world of the intellect and imagination. We learn of her relationship with her autistic sister, Lynn, her mirror image—and a child without words; of her spectacular early success and subsequent conflicts with a sexist and hostile literary establishment; and of the near breakdown in the face of overwhelming media attention.
Yet through it all Joyce Carol Oates has managed to balance her professional and personal lives to produce such masterpieces as them, Bellefleur, You Must Remember This, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, and We Were the Mulvaneys, all given careful and provocative readings in this elucidating study.
Exhaustively researched and richly detailed, Invisible Writer charts the evolution of one of the most fascinating and diverse literary legacies in American fiction. It is the definitive study of a remarkable artist.
- In the North Country
- “The Girl Who Wrote on the Edges”: 1938-50
- The Romance of Solitude: 1950-56
- Syracuse: 1956-60
- New Directions: 1960-62
- “An Entirely New World”: Detroit, 1962-64
- “Violence All Around Me”: Detroit, 1965-67
- A House in Windsor: 1968-70
- Transformation of Being: Hollywood and London, 1971-72
- The Visionary Gleam: 1973-75
- Invisible Woman: 1976-77
- “Moving to Princeton, Moving to Bellefleur”:1978-80
- The Gothic Wonderland: 1981-84
- Woman of Letters: 1985-90
- What She Lives For: 1991-98
“And so my life continues through the decades . . . not connected in the slightest with that conspicuous other with whom, by accident, I share a name and a likeness. The fact seems self-evident, that I was but the door through which she entered—’it’ entered—but any door would have done as well.”
—”‘JCO’ and I” (1994)
On April 21, 1976, Joyce Carol Oates gave a reading from her work at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. At thirty-seven, Oates was already one of the most celebrated writers in the United States, but for almost a decade she had taught at the University of Windsor, maintaining on the Canadian side of the Detroit River a discreet distance from the violent American reality she had dramatized so powerfully in her fiction. She gave few interviews and declined most invitations to read from her work on college campuses. A professor in the Miami University English department, Milton White, had invited her to Oxford several times, but Oates had explained politely that she was simply too busy with her writing. White persisted, sending letters that Oates found touching in their expression of admiration for her work. Finally she had relented, agreeing to the April visit.
As Oates approached the stage, the packed auditorium became suddenly quiet. Her face was familiar, of course, from her dust jackets and from the cover story Newsweek had published four years earlier. In the opening paragraph of that article, Walter Clemons had defined a paradoxical quality to Oates’s personality that helped account for public fascination about her: “If you met her at a literary party and failed to catch her name, it might be hard to imagine her reading, much less writing, the unflinching fiction that has made Joyce Carol Oates perhaps the most significant novelist to have emerged in the United States in the last decade.” To the audience members in the Miami University auditorium—including her future biographer, who was seeing Oates in person for the first time—this observation must have seemed particularly apt. Oates came onto the stage shyly, arms folded across a small sheaf of papers she clasped tightly to her chest. Dressed simply in a dark-orange dress, she was thin and surprisingly tall, moving with a willowy grace toward her chair near the podium, where she sat to await her introduction. Her features were striking: dark hair parted neatly in the center and brushed flat along her temples; a delicate, pallid complexion; enormous dark eyes trained on the papers in her lap but occasionally lifted for a brief, inquisitive glance into the audience. As Milton White introduced her, Oates looked distinctly shy and ill-at-ease, as if discomfited by the recitation of her achievements and prizes, the proclamation of her “literary genius.” Oates might come forward to give her reading, I thought, when the introduction was concluded; but it seemed just as likely she would decide not to go through with it, escaping offstage with the folder of poems still clutched to her chest.
When Oates took the podium, her manner changed abruptly. Thanking Milton White for his gracious introduction and many kind letters, she described the pleasant drive she and her husband had taken from Windsor and their leisurely stroll through the campus grounds that afternoon. In sharp contrast to the timorous-seeming woman who had approached the stage, Oates now appeared confident and genuinely pleased to be there. She planned to read poetry, she said, so that she could talk informally between the poems; a long piece of fiction would be too wearing for the audience. Apart from her casual but practiced manner, there were other surprises. She spoke in a flat Midwestern drawl that seemed at odds (to my Southern ears, at least) with her graceful appearance. Even more unexpected was her spontaneous and lively sense of humor. After numerous rereadings of such novels as them and Wonderland, I had expected an intense, unsmiling, uncompromisingly serious presence. Although her casual remarks after she read each poem included references to Nietzsche, Jung, Lawrence, and Yeats—not surprising from a university professor and a wide-ranging literary critic—they were also peppered with droll asides that elicited bursts of uproarious laughter from the audience. At one point, introducing her next poem, she offered an apologetic warning—at 11,000 lines, the poem was rather long. Her listeners stayed silent. Pausing a beat or two, Oates said, “Of course, I’m only joking.” Again the audience broke into laughter. “You people at Miami University are so polite,” she added, smiling. “If I’d announced an 11,000-line poem back in Detroit, there would have been gunfire.”
During the next several years, I attended several more of Oates’s readings: at Johns Hopkins University in 1977, at the Philadelphia Public Library in 1981, at the New York West Side YMCA in 1982. As a graduate student in English at Emory University in the late 1970s, and as a fledgling assistant professor in the early 1980s, I had continued to follow her work closely. I had begun reviewing books for literary journals, and often wrote about books of hers and about critical studies of her work. After a decade of reading Oates, I considered her the most talented, most inventive, and most exciting of American fiction writers. Occasionally I wrote to her, usually after a new book of hers had come out, and I was gratified by her prompt, often lengthy replies. A kind of long-distance friendship developed, particularly as my professional involvement with her work increased. In addition to reviews and essays, I eventually published two critical studies on Oates: Understanding Joyce Carol Oates (1987) and Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction (1994).
When, in 1991, I first suggested the idea of writing her biography, Oates was skeptical. She was only in her mid-fifties, after all, and continued to publish at least two books each year. Her placid routine of teaching, writing, and occasional public readings did not lend itself, she thought, to a particularly vivid or dramatic biographical account. She informed me, however, that in 1990 she had established an archive at her alma mater, Syracuse University, for the maintenance of her dozens of manuscripts, several thousand letters, and the personal journal she had kept regularly since 1973. For my critical work, she suggested that I could peruse the manuscripts—but not the letters or journal, which were kept in a “restricted” part of the archive. She would grant me access to the journal and to most of the letters (the permission of each correspondent was also required) if I did decide to pursue a biographical project.
I had long been curious about the relationship between Oates’s work and her life. If her fiction had a central theme, it was the riddling nature of human identity, what she called in her 1971 novel, Wonderland, ”the phantasmagoria of personality.” Like Jesse Vogel in that novel, most of Oates’s major protagonists endure transformations of being that suggested the author’s obsession with the self in its struggle to achieve definition, usually in the face of inimical and even violent psychological, familial, and societal forces. In what ways did this artistic preoccupation reflect Oates’s own personal experiences? What biographical issues underlay her fascination with twins, for instance, a subject explored in her mystery novels published under the name of her literary Doppelganger, Rosamond Smith? And how did her characteristic themes relate to her legendary productivity as a writer?
Observing Oates’s career from a distance, I had long viewed her life as bearing a paradoxical relationship to her writing. She pursued a quiet, disciplined daily routine, yet wrote about people floundering in personal chaos and social disorder. A famous writer in an age of celebrity, she shunned publicity, keeping such a low profile that many journalists considered her a recluse. A frail-appearing woman with gentle manners, she wrote energetically and expertly about the violent sport of boxing. A writer who often expressed a yearning toward “invisibility,” she published more visibly than any of her contemporaries: her name had been ubiquitous in magazines for more than three decades and her work in various genres filled more than sixty published volumes.
As I delved into biographical sources, including her letters and journal, the paradoxes only multiplied. The woman often perceived as timid and shy, I learned, was actually quite strong-willed and outspoken. The writer possessed of unlimited vitality occasionally voiced the astonishing complaint that she was “staggeringly indolent.” Despite her reputation as a lively, engaging teacher and public speaker, many people found her aloof and otherworldly, almost as if the ”real” Joyce Carol Oates were indeed invisible, or wished she were.
In a 1989 letter, Oates related her own sense of invisibility to her gender: “the social self, the person people encounter, is almost irrelevant. I think this must be particularly true for women writers, though not necessarily for the traditional reasons—the masking of the writerly self by, say, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, in the service of maintaining an acceptable feminine image in others’ eyes.” But my initial supposition that Oates’s life story followed patterns similar to those of other major American women writers quickly dissolved. Certainly the relationship between Oates’s placid routine and the emotional intensity of her work recalled the Emily Dickinson who saw herself as “Vesuvius at home.” Like Kate Chopin, Oates had been attacked for employing a stark realism that even in the late twentieth century had struck some critics as “unseemly” in a woman writer. Her Roman Catholic background and work-centered, puritanical temperament resembled those of Flannery O’Connor, another outwardly quiet person whose fictions were typically resolved through acts of violence. Yet the contrasts with the lives of these female literary forbears were at least as notable as any similarities. Unlike Dickinson, Oates had led a prominent career as a professional “woman of letters”; unlike Chopin, she had ignored critics who suggested she write less and concentrate on the domestic subject matter that traditionally had been the province of women’s writing; and unlike O’Connor, she repudiated Catholicism and adopted a non-judgmental stance toward her fictional characters. Nor did Oates fit neatly into the contemporary stereotype of the “woman writer.” Although self-defined as a feminist, Oates had written as frequently and sympathetically about men as about women, and in fact had cited male authors almost exclusively as her significant literary influences. Oates viewed herself not as a woman writer but as a “(woman) writer,” a key distinction that insisted upon the invisibility—that is, the irrelevance—of gender in relationship to art.
The historical contours of Oates’s life had a paradoxical quality of their own. The rural, economically straitened environment of her childhood, in the bleak heart of the upstate New York snow belt, seemed an improbable setting for intellectual and artistic achievement. Oates went to the same one-room schoolhouse her mother, Carolina, had attended in the 1920s. A scholarship winner, Oates became the first member of her family to attend college and ultimately was named valedictorian of her 2,000-member senior class at Syracuse University. By then, her writing career was already launched: she had claimed the same prestigious writing prize, in a competition administered by Mademoiselle magazine, that Sylvia Plath had won a few years earlier. Her undergraduate term papers were being printed in prominent academic journals. Within a few years, she was winning O. Henry awards for her short stories on an annual basis and publishing the books that made her, in the opinion of one critic, “the finest American novelist, man or woman, since Faulkner.” By the early 1970s, Oates’s literary success suggested a feminist version of the archetypal pursuit and achievement of the American dream.
As her career progressed, not the least notable feature of her success, especially in the context of American literary lives, was its sustained intensity. Unlike many American writers, she was not a likely subject for that sub-genre of literary biography Oates herself has scornfully termed the “pathography.” The brilliant early books, unlike Melville’s or Salinger’s, did not give way to a disappointing, decades-long silence; unlike Fitzgerald or Jean Stafford, there was no descent into the creative dead-end of alcoholism; unlike Stephen Crane or Flannery O’Connor, there was no tragically early illness and death, cutting off a career in its prime; and unlike Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, there was no grave psychological disorder, no attraction to suicide. Instead Oates seemed in the tradition of Hawthorne, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and John Updike, a writer who worked regular hours and kept writing as the central focus of daily life.
In Oates’s journal and letters, she often expressed the concern—as if issuing periodic warnings to her biographer—that a relatively uneventful literary life might prompt an urge toward embroidery, if not outright “confabulation,” on the part of a biographer seeking to lend drama or controversy to his subject’s life. She disagreed, for instance, with Leon Edel’s assertion that a biographer must seek out a “hidden personal myth” in a writer’s experiences. By dabbling in psychoanalysis, she suggested, the biographer “will quite naturally project his own ‘personal myth’ onto the subject.” She also worried about the biographer who “fails to see that the quality of the subject’s achievement, and not certain quirks or eccentricities of his life, deserves our attention.” Rather than indulging in speculations about a writer’s unknowable “inwardness,” she argued, a biography should be “solidly grounded in fact.”
Oates’s view of biography was undoubtedly shaped, at least in part, by the numerous myths and misconceptions about her own life that had developed during a quarter-century of literary fame: Joyce Carol Oates was withdrawn and humorless; her dozens of books were the result of trancelike “automatic writing” that required little or no revision; she had a mysterious, somewhat austere personality, living purely in her own world of intellect and imagination. Some of these misconceptions, of course, had basis in fact. Except when adopting a friendly, teacherly persona during her readings, she did strike many people as forbidding and unapproachable; in her early interviews and letters, she did claim that she seldom revised her work. But most people who came to know Joyce, as opposed to “Oates,” found a lively, accessible woman who loved to gossip and to write long, chatty letters; who had a sharp wit and a gift for mimicry; who balanced her work life with regular, quite gregarious socializing; who enjoyed numerous friendships with both men and women; and who had developed a reputation as a generous source of aid and inspiration to younger writers.
Even Oates’s close friends, however, were puzzled by the mysterious intensity of her engagement with her work. As I conducted interviews, people who had known her for years sometimes turned the tables and questioned me, most often to make a single perplexed inquiry: “How does she do it?” The answer was quite simple, in fact; she had been offering it to interviewers for years. Oates worked daily at her writing, even during her travels. On a typical day she worked from eight in the morning until one or two in the afternoon; took a break for jogging, bicycling, and doing errands; then worked again from about four until dinnertime. Occasionally she might work after dinner, though evenings were typically reserved for seeing friends or reading at home.
To her biographer, the most interesting question became not “How does she do it?” but “Why does she do it?” Her devotion to work could be explained by her family circumstances: the Depression-era background and toilsome lives of her parents combined with a cultural work ethic dating back to American puritanism. One could emphasize psychological factors: literature became an escape from the threatening world of her childhood and from the turbulent social reality of America, the means of creating an imaginative “counterworld” that reflected a violent society but kept the writer safely cocooned inside the aesthetic constructs over which she exerted a godlike control. Or one could accept the answer Oates herself often gave: she loved her work, and in fact didn’t consider it “work” at all. Quite simply, she lived for her writing; it was her “life’s commitment.”
Like Henry James, Oates had long insisted that the true expression of her personality lay not in the random, anecdotal contours of her personal experiences but in the deep counterminings of her art. Along with personal documents and interviews, therefore, the massive collection of her manuscripts in the Joyce Carol Oates Archive seemed crucial to understanding the complex relationship between her experience and her writing. My careful study of her manuscripts revealed, in fact, that many of the accepted notions about her work, and her work habits, were mere fabrications by critics and so-called “literary journalists” who had, for more than three decades, tirelessly speculated, complained, and gossiped about the phenomenon of “Oates.” When I first visited the Archive, my overwhelming impression was of the sheer amount of labor represented by the manuscripts, for they betrayed the stereotype of Joyce Carol Oates as an author who wrote rapidly or carelessly—or easily. The novel manuscripts in particular were astonishing in their complexity, their evidence of ceaseless revision and, of course, their sheer volume.
Even more than the manuscripts, however, Oates’s massive, typewritten journal, begun in 1973, provided a rich source of insight into her creative process and her personal life. The journal reveals the extent to which Oates has lived her art. Her lengthy, meditative entries ponder the philosophical issues she dramatizes in her fiction and describe in detail the technical challenges and daily frustrations of producing individual novels and stories. The journal is extraordinarily varied: on one day, Oates will recount a disturbing dream of the night before, then try to assess its significance; on another, she will respond to a book she is reading, conducting a kind of dialogue with the author; on another, she will record ordinary, quotidian events such as a trip to New York, a public reading that went well or badly, a quarrel with a colleague. There are vivid accounts of classes she has taught, parties she has given and attended, new people she has met. Perhaps most revealing, at least for a biographer, are the many passages given over to memory: a random incident in her present life often serves as a kind of Proustian trigger, leading to nostalgic recollections of childhood and adolescence, of deceased friends and relatives, of particularly happy or trying experiences in earlier phases of her public career.
Above all, the journal conveys the same quality that many readers have sensed in Oates’s fiction: a limitless passion to explore, by way of language, the complex interaction of an individual consciousness with the changeable, often fearsome world it confronts on a daily basis. It is Oates’s passion, finally, that has prompted her to create one of the richest legacies in American fiction. “If I had to do it all over again, I’m not sure that I could,” she told one interviewer. She said wryly to another that her epitaph might read: “She certainly tried.” Although this biography attempts to elucidate the process by which the Joyce Carol Oates canon has come into being, it seems likely that a quotation Oates once pinned to the bulletin board over her desk best expresses her own ultimate view of her life and her writing. Not surprisingly, the words are from that other prolific American novelist, Henry James: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”