One will be hard-pressed to find an Ithacan with even a casual interest in literature who is unaware of Alison Lurie. As the author of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Foreign Affairs,” she is one of the most prolific writers to ever take root in the area. Her work is remarkably diverse, covering everything from children’s literature and folklore to fashion and feminism. Lurie’s body of work includes 10 books of fiction, four of nonfiction, several short story collections, three collections of children’s stories, and both privately- and publicly-published memoirs of her literary peers.
A former English professor, Lurie also lectured and taught at Cornell University in one capacity or another from 1968 to 1998, and is now the university’s Frederic J. Whiton Professor of American Literature Emerita. She has also been awarded Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation grants, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Fiction, and a Doctor of Letters from Oxford University. Much of Lurie’s work during her time at Cornell has been adapted into several television series and feature-length films. The settings of these pieces have typically been inspired by life at Cornell, or more broadly, by life in Upstate New York.
Lurie has come to be regarded as one of the preeminent voices in contemporary American literature. Her work is widely respected as whimsical yet unflinchingly honest, describing accurate meditations on American academia and the nuanced culture it describes.
Her new collection of essays, “Words and Worlds: From Autobiographies to Zippers,” covers topics such as Lurie’s time at Radcliffe (the since-integrated female coordinate institute for Harvard, which was all-male at the time), Jonathan Miller’s 1974 treatment of “Hamlet,” highly-personal tributes to colleagues and friends, such as writer and artist Edward Gorey, and highly-objective, and in many ways scientific, appraisals of the underlying values that are communicated in classic children stories such as “Pinocchio,” “Babar,” “Harry Potter,” “Narnia,” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Lurie will be reading from her new collection on Thursday, May 16 at 5:30 p.m. at Buffalo Street Books.
What is initially most striking about Lurie’s essays is the accessibility of her writing, especially given the complex, often sensitive, material she focuses on. When asked about her writing style, and how it shaped the essays in the collection in terms of intention, she said “I’m not interested in frightening or impressing people. What I want is to be heard.”
While Lurie’s prose often feels more conversational than literary, her stream of consciousness remains sharp, unrelentingly witty, and often leaves the reader re-evaluating their place in the culture that they take part in. She also demonstrates the various ways Americans have come to understand these roles and their implications.
Lurie shows range in her perspective and discursiveness: these more inquisitive, analytical essays are complemented by her touching portraits of her friends and peers.
In her tribute to the late Gorey, the tone of her stories and anecdotes blends professional respect and admiration for his work with the piercing melancholy she feels for the memory of a best friend. The intersection of these two modes of description ultimately forms a portrait that is deeply touching in the evident care she has taken to preserve her memories and, by extension, serves as additional testimony to her vulnerability and honesty with the reader. Speaking on the chapter about Mr. Gorey, she said, “When he died, I felt terrible, so I took out a pen and some paper. You don’t want people to disappear. They will, of course, but this way you have your memories.”
This range and versatility is a continual asset to Lurie’s writing throughout these essays. Her equal strength as both a fiction and nonfiction writer serves “Words and Worlds” well in that the wry descriptions and comparisons in these essays evoke intrigue in many of the same ways as well-written fiction, amounting to fine examples of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction dynamic. The narratives here zoom in on minute details and use them to delve into larger concepts and experiences. For instance, Lurie’s description of the social distance between men and women at Harvard and Radcliffe, and in American life overall, is made exponentially more vivid by a simple anecdote describing how, at the time, the gender segregation in Harvard dorms was so intensely enforced that plumbers and electricians working in the all-female buildings had to be announced by echoing shouts of “Look out! Man coming!” before they were allowed through the door.
Lurie’s perspective on the style of writing used in the essays comprising “Words and Worlds,” and writing in general, is partially shaped by a rejection of a sort of mythical, archetypal writer as a fantastical notion that breeds the vanity that is pervasive in many literary circles, and negatively informs the literary zeitgeist. “The idea of the writer as someone who’s having a wild exciting life...is good and bad for your career because people look at someone like Saul Bellow, for instance, and think ‘he had five wives and I have one, and I don’t even like her very much.’”
Lurie continued to describe how much of the literary world has become negatively influenced by an increasing pressure to please critics, which she dismisses with a sly grin as “a waste of time.”
Alison Lurie’s body of work has always consisted of gripping reflections on society and culture that frame the world of academia as a muddled landscape of inherited bias and hierarchy. She challenges what is taken for granted, holding a mirror to the past in order to examine its trajectory into the present and question the future. Speaking more broadly on her craft, Lurie said, “This is why it’s so lucky to be a writer: I can do this. Most people can’t, or if they can they don’t think they can.” In “Words and Worlds: From Autobiographies to Zippers” she has not only retained but honed the very same edge in her writing that has rightly afforded her respect and a loyal following throughout the highest literary circles for decades.