By Joyce Carol Oates
A momentous memoir of childhood and adolescence from one of our finest and most beloved writers, as we’ve never seen her before
In The Lost Landscape, Joyce Carol Oates vividly re-creates the early years of her life in western New York State, powerfully evoking the romance of childhood and the way it colors everything that comes after. From early memories of her relatives to remembrances of a particularly poignant friendship with a red hen, from her first friendships to her first experiences with death, The Lost Landscape is an arresting account of the ways in which Oates’s life (and her life as a writer) was shaped by early childhood and how her later work was influenced by a hardscrabble rural upbringing.
In this exceptionally candid, moving, and richly reflective recounting of her early years, Oates explores the world through the eyes of her younger self and reveals her nascent experiences of wanting to tell stories about the world and the people she meets. If Alice in Wonderland was the book that changed a young Joyce forever and inspired her to look at life as offering end-less adventures, she describes just as unforgettably the harsh lessons of growing up on a farm. With searing detail and an acutely perceptive eye, Oates renders her memories and emotions with exquisite precision to truly transport the reader to a bygone place and time, to the lost landscape of the writer’s past but also to the lost landscapes of our own earliest, and most essential, lives.
- WE BEGIN . . .
- MOMMY & ME
- HAPPY CHICKEN: 1942–1944
- DISCOVERING ALICE: 1947
- DISTRICT SCHOOL #7, NIAGARA COUNTY, NEW YORK
- PIPER CUB
- AFTER BLACK ROCK
- SUNDAY DRIVE
- FRED’S SIGNS
- “THEY ALL JUST WENT AWAY”
- “WHERE HAS GOD GONE”
- HEADLIGHTS: THE FIRST DEATH
- “THE BRUSH”
- AN UNSOLVED MYSTERY: THE LOST FRIEND
- “START YOUR OWN BUSINESS!”
- THE LOST SISTER: AN ELEGY
- NIGHTHAWK: RECOLLECTIONS OF A LOST TIME
- DETROIT: LOST CITY 1962–1968
- STORY INTO FILM: “WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” AND SMOOTH TALK
- PHOTO SHOOT: WEST ELEVENTH STREET, NYC, MARCH 6, 1970
- FOOD MYSTERIES
- FACTS, VISIONS, MYSTERIES: MY FATHER FREDERIC OATES, NOVEMBER 1988
- A LETTER TO MY MOTHER CAROLINA ON HER SEVENTY-EIGHTH BIRTHDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 1994
- “WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL AND MY MOTHER DIDN’T WANT ME”
- EXCERPT, TELEPHONE CONVERSATION WITH MY FATHER FREDERIC OATES, MAY 1999
- THE LONG ROMANCE
- MY MOTHER’S QUILTS
The root of the word memoir is memory. When memory is cast back decades it is likely to be imprecise as a torn net haphazardly cast that may drag in what is irrelevant as well as miss what is crucial. Our lives are enormous waves breaking on the shore, retreating and leaving only a few scattered things behind for us to contemplate—before the astonishing fact of a single day in our lives we are rendered speechless, if we are honest. And yet, as we are human, and our species’ greatest achievement is speech, we are never speechless for long.
No one, especially a child, lives a life that can be summarized in a few deft words—“happy”—“unhappy.” The most immediate fallacy of the memoir is that, from a perspective later in time, it seeks to cast a coherent emotional aura over the minutiae of life; perhaps unwittingly, it makes of the memoirist a kind of “character” as in a story. But our lives are not stories, and to tell them as narratives is to distort them.
The most reliable memoirs are those comprised of journal or diary entries, or letters, that attest to the immediacy of experience before it becomes subject to the vicissitudes of memory. As soon as you shift from the tense I am to I was, still more to I had been you are entering the realm of what might be called “creative recollection.” My first memoir A Widow’s Story (2011) was composed primarily of journal entries recording approximately four months following the hospital admission and the death of my husband Raymond Smith in February 2008. The memoir was not intended to present my subsequent life but to focus upon the raw, unassimilated, blindly head-on plunge of experience in medias res after an unexpected death; this is the great, the truly extraordinary adventure most of us will have to undergo at some point in our lives, though it is very difficult to speak of it coherently afterward. Not the phenomenon of grief as it might be calmly assessed and analyzed, but an evocation of grief itself—that which is unspeakable.
The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age is an entirely different project. Except in two chapters about my parents that are, in fact, based upon journal entries, all of the chapters are “recollected”—with what that entails of the incomplete and abbreviated, the rounded-off and the summarized. In the midst of writing about “Joyce Carol” at the age of four, I might find myself leaping forward five decades to another landscape entirely. Such knowledge, and the irony of such knowledge, isn’t available to those living in time—only to those casting their thoughts backward. If this is an advantage of the recollected memoir, it is also a disadvantage. In life, we don’t see the shadows of things-to-come. It is always high noon, and we are likely to be blinded by such brightness.
Gazing back at more than six decades is a vertiginous feat but it would be impossible if the memoirist tried to be assiduously faithful to the immediacy of past experience. There are no written records in my family, probably not more than a dozen letters; in this era before computer technology, Americans did not trail much information in their wakes; “anonymity” was a blessed possibility. Until the early 1970s I did not begin to keep a detailed journal and have virtually no access to my younger life except by way of family snapshots, school yearbooks, a few extant anecdotes, and my memory.
(The novelist must have a considerable, elastic memory to retain even the “memory” of a single novel as it is in progress. You might think of a vacuum cleaner bag—filled to bursting with the necessary and the unnecessary alike. After completing a novel, this bag is emptied—to a degree. In life, something of the same principle might prevail, though it will not apply to the earliest decades of the life, most deeply imprinted in the brain; these memories, as they are our first, will be the last to vanish.)
The first principle of the recollected memoir is “synecdoche.” A symbolic part is selected to stand for the whole. The reader should not expect anything like a full disclosure of a life but should understand that memoirs, like works of fiction and poetry, must be highly selective. (Unless one sets out to write an autobiography in many volumes, as some have done. But a memoir is not an autobiography, and should not be heavily footnoted.) By its very nature selectivity is distorting because it oversimplifies the complexity of our lives. “Helen Judd” was not the only girl whom I knew who was abused and victimized by members of her own family in that long-ago world of rural western New York State, but I chose to write about this girl because I knew her best; “Cynthia Heike” was not my only close friend in high school, but writing at length about Cynthia more or less nullified writing at length about my other friends, who did not commit suicide. (Writing about another high school friend who’d been the victim of “date rape”—a term that did not exist in 1956—was made redundant by my novel We Were the Mulvaneys .) Writing about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass precluded writing about many other childhood books that were close to my heart. Writing about a pet chicken, I could not reasonably write about pet cats though I have had many, many more pet cats than I’d had pet chickens. To charges of distortion I can only say—mea culpa.
It should also be disclosed: while each chapter of this memoir focuses upon events, circumstances, and persons from the author’s life, several chapters contain material that is too painfully personal, even after decades, to be set forth transparently. In these, you will find composite characters given fictitious names: “Helen Judd,” “Jean Grady,” “Reverend Bender,” “Cynthia Heike,” “Lee Ann Krauser,” “Emmet Heike.” Knowing how painful such material would have been to my parents, who wished always to think, and perhaps always did think, that my sister Lynn Ann might one day “improve,” I have chosen not to include much detail about this phase of my parents’ lives; nor did I linger on their illnesses, and the last weeks of their lives. Nothing is more offensive than an adult child exposing his or her elderly parents to the appalled fascination of strangers, even with the pretense of openness, honesty.
In A Widow’s Story, fictitious names for some persons might have been a good idea for it has never been my intention to write anything that disturbs, offends, or betrays any other person’s privacy. Not individuals but rather events and occasions—prevailing “themes”—are what engage me most as a writer, for nothing merely particular and private can be of more than passing interest. In setting out to write The Lost Landscape I understood that in several chapters I would be obliged to write about excruciatingly painful subjects—the sexual abuse of young girls, including father-daughter incest (“‘They All Just Went Away’”); the suicide of a high school friend (“An Unsolved Mystery: The Lost Friend”). Yet I could not bring myself to write of these individuals except obliquely, changing as many specific details as seemed required to disguise the persons about whom I was writing, and I could not find a way to represent myself in their stories except as a quasi-fictitious character named “Joyce”—who is almost entirely an observer of the girls’ lives, more emotionally detached (and more naïve) in the memoir than I had been in actual life.
These quasi-fictitious chapters gave me the most difficulty. Each contains verbatim remarks made by individuals decades ago—(Cynthia Heike’s aggressively friendly bully-father Dr. Heike, for one)—but to record these remarks necessitated imagining the (likely) context in which they were made, and this required invention. Memory is a patchwork in which much, if not most, is blank. Emotion is a sort of flash photography—if you feel something deeply, you are likely to remember it for a long time. But where emotion is not heightened, as in most of the hours of what we call our “daily” lives, memories fade like Polaroid pictures. The memoirist is one who has impulsively picked up a handful of very hot stones—and has to drop some, in order to keep hold of others.
A problem inherent in writing about childhood abuse of any kind, not exclusively sexual, is that such a theme may stand out to readers in a way that distorts its actual significance in the subject’s life. For not all “abused” persons register the abuse profoundly; to a degree, we are haunted by things we are conditioned to be haunted by, through the expectations and admonitions of others. That my parents knew relatively little about the extent of my misery at the one-room rural schoolhouse may have saved me from a protracted reliving of it. That there were no “therapists” in the rural world of my childhood and girlhood may have saved me from a similar reliving. It is possible to consider such childhood experiences as “educational”—in a way—as well as “traumatic.” Certainly I would not want to relive these experiences but, paradoxically, I would not want to have not lived them, for I would feel that my life was less complete; most importantly, my life as a writer, for whom the most crucial quality of personality is sympathy.
Indeed, to revise Henry James: Three things in human life are important. The first is to have sympathy; the second is to have sympathy; and the third is to have sympathy.
Publishers Weekly, July 6, 2015, p. 59
…when Oates falls into her narrative strengths—an alert eye for detail, an atmosphere suffused with dread and apprehension, an enormous sympathy for her characters—the pieces become stunning … A fascination with the quirks of fate that concatenate into a life, and a long, deeply felt love for her parents, thematically unite this varied, kaleidoscopic, and ultimately insightful map to the formation of a writer who understands “how deeply mysterious the ‘familiar’ really is.”
Donna Seaman, Booklist, August 1, 2015, p. 17
Amid redolent descriptions of Sunday drives, laundry on the line, playing the piano, and tricky friendships, Oates pays tribute to her parents and tells the wrenching story of her sister, born, on the writer’s eighteenth birthday, afflicted with such severe autism that she has no language. Generous in her personal disclosures in this graceful and bracing chronicle, Oates also considers the writer’s calling and the necessity and resonance of sympathy.
Elizabeth Lowry, The Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 2016, p. 7
Steely, lean and bleakly allusive, The Lost Landscape gives us an unsettling insight into the ways in which Oates’s writing career has emerged as a response to the mystery of this instability, which is also the mystery of identity.
Catherine Hollis, BookPage, September 2015, p. 26
… the opportunity to follow her beautifully subtle stream of consciousness as it revisits the past is not to be missed. Oates sees herself as a ghost revisiting the old farmhouse of her childhood, the one-room schoolhouse she attended and the winding country roads of Sunday drives with her beloved parents. This book is as much a meditation on memory as it is a recollection of a specific time and place.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2015
… a tender, often moving evocation of the physical and emotional landscapes that have shaped her…. The circuitous, impressionistic narrative returns often to her parents, “extraordinary people morally,” whom she portrays in loving detail. Though her past seems to her fragmentary and elusive, what she remembers—or imagines—is warmly, gently told.
Pam Kingsbury, Library Journal, July 1, 2015, pp. 84-85
Much like Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Mary Ward Brown’s Fanning the Spark, Oates writes about her formative years with clear vision. Her use of vignette gives the book the dreamt quality that some readers will associate with her fiction.
Eric K. Anderson, Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies, 2015
One could make connections between these autobiographical passages and Oates’s frequent preoccupation with twins in her writing. More broadly, these feelings of empathy with those who are so similar to the author herself but who experienced a different fate reinforce Oates’s message throughout her writing that our existence is so often determined by mere chance.
Emily Fox Gordon, New York Times Book Review, September 20, 2015, p. BR16
For all of Oates’s doubts about the primacy of the particular and the private, “The Lost Landscape” is full of specifically memoiristic pleasures. She offers pungent details about the small New York State farm where she was raised: Roosters chase away barn cats, hens attack one another, Bartlett pears begin to soften and bruise the moment they ripen. Her characterizations of her parents are blurred by filial reverence, but she gives the reader a good hard look at her Hungarian grandparents. A short piece called “The Brush” neatly captures Oates’s rough, dirty, handsome, teasing grandfather, who loved her and whom she dreaded.