Alison Lurie (born September 3, 1926) is an American novelist and academic. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1984 novel Foreign Affairs. Although better known as a novelist, she has also written numerous non-fiction books and articles, particularly on children's literature and the semiotics of dress.
Lurie was born in Chicago but grew up in White Plains, New York, the daughter of Bernice (Stewart) and Harry Lawrence Lurie, a Latvian-born professor. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1947. The next year she married Jonathan Peale Bishop, then a graduate student at Harvard. Bishop was a critic and essayist who, in the 1970s and later, became a writer of autobiographically-inflected books about Catholic Christianity. He taught at Amherst College, in Massachusetts (1957–61), and then at Cornell University (1961–). Lurie moved along with him. Lurie and Bishop have three sons; they divorced in 1985 after a long separation. She is currently married to the writer Edward Hower. She spends part of her time in London, part at Cornell, and part in Key West, Florida.
In 1970, Lurie began to teach in the English Department at Cornell, where she was tenured in 1979. She taught Children’s Literature (a new field in the 1970s) and writing. In 1989 she was named the F. J. Whiton Professor of American Literature at Cornell and is now a professor emerita.
Lurie’s published novels:
- Love and Friendship (1962). Emmy Stockwell Turner and Miranda Fenn, two faculty wives at the all-male elite and isolated Convers College, juggle their love and friendship for their husbands and for a womanizing composer.
- The Nowhere City (1965). Paul Cattleman, history grad student, moves to L.A. to work for the military-industrial complex and finds that neither the company nor his beatnik mistress has a sense of history; he returns to Harvard. His wife however, with the help of a womanizing psychiatrist, frees herself from disabling fears and decides to stay.
- Imaginary Friends (1967). Roger Zimmern, a young sociology professor at an upstate New York university (Corinth), helps a senior professor investigate a group of small-town individuals who are receiving messages from Ro of the planet Varna.
- Real People (1969). The writer Janet Belle Smith, wife of Clark Stockwell II, spends a summer at Illyria, an artist’s colony, along with assorted poets, artists, musicians, and the critic Leonard Zimmern. In sorting out her platonic from her sexual love affairs, she realizes she needs to write about Illyria, even though that means she can never return there.
- The War Between the Tates (1974).
- Only Children (1979). In 1936, nine-year-old Mary Ann Hubbard (Miranda Fenn) and Lolly Zimmern (Lorin Jones), along with Lolly’s teenaged half-brother Leonard, spend a Fourth of July in the country with their parents and a teacher. The parents flirt and contemplate adultery while the children learn what they can about themselves and the world.
- Foreign Affairs (1984); Pulitzer Prize.
- The Truth About Lorin Jones (1989); Prix Femina Étranger. Polly Alter, divorced with a teenage son and attracted to a group of lesbians, is trying to write the story of the long-dead artist Lorin Jones. Was she a victim whose painting suffered from a series of overbearing men in her life, or an opportunist who exploited men to further her painting? Polly studies the New York art scene, New England elite college friends and teachers, Zimmern relatives, the ex-husband at Cape Cod, and the ex-lover in Key West.
- Women and Ghosts (1994). A collection of nine short stories (or ten: a retelling of the myth of Medea “Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” is not in all editions, but is available online) in which several female protagonists confront extreme emotional states, the unexplained and the supernatural. All settings are contemporary. Locales include New York, New England, London, Key West and New Delhi. Among the characters who narrate or figure in the stories are Ruth and Celia Zimmern, Gary Mumpson, Janet Belle Smith and assorted Stockwells, and Miranda Fenn. Miranda’s son Charles marries Celia, Leonard Zimmern’s daughter, in the story “In the Shadow.” The daughter of the beatnik (proto-hippie) Tylers of “Nowhere City” has married Clark Stockwell III, Janet’s son, in “Waiting for the Baby.” Five stories appeared previously in various magazines.
- The Last Resort (1998). The naturalist Wilkie Walker allows his wife Jenny to remove him from Convers College to Key West, with the idea that the latter place might be favorable for suicide. Jenny on the other hand hopes he will continue to work on his books, on which she quietly collaborates. Jenny finds love with Lee Weiss (a Zimmern cousin) at Artemis Lodge, and Wilkie decides he might as well live. Barbie and Myra Mumpson are concerned about Myra’s gay nephew.
- Truth and Consequences (2006). Corinth University architecture professor Alan MacKenzie hurts his back at a department picnic and life changes for him and his wife Jane. They get some help from Bernie Kotelchuck and his wife Danielle (formerly Zimmern). After a period of balancing giving and receiving care, they find new loves in the visiting author Delia Delaney and her husband. Under Delia’s influence, Alan becomes an artist.
Themes and characters
Lurie’s novels, with their light touch and focus on portraying the emotions of well-educated adulterers, bear more resemblance to some 20th-century British authors, (e.g. Kingsley Amis, David Lodge) than to the big American authors of her generation. Her titles and the saga-like intertwining of her characters suggest high ambitions. Love and Friendship, the title of her first published novel, is shared with an early novel by Jane Austen; it takes on the problem of the American college as initiation rite into manhood, and the awkwardness of the role therein assigned to women. The next title, The Nowhere City, evokes both Thomas More’s Utopia (Greek for “nowhere”) and Gertrude Stein’s comment about Oakland, California, “There is no there there.” Utopias are the subject of Imaginary Friends and Real People: the small group of spiritualists examined by a sociologist and the small group of artists examined by a writer. The War between the Tates and Foreign Affairs imply by their titles parallels between academic adulteries and political upheavals. The Truth about Lorin Jones and Truth and Consequences take us back to the problem of truth-telling, both in life and in art.
A number of Lurie's characters are, like her, born in 1926, give or take a few years: Lorin Jones and Mary Ann/Miranda Fenn, Janet Belle Smith (42 in Real People, 1969), Erica Tate (40 in 1969 and like Lurie a Radcliffe B.A.), Vinnie Miner (54 in Foreign Affairs, 1978, and like Lurie a professor of children’s literature), and Wilkie Walker (70 in Last Resort, 1998). Since these characters have also followed Lurie from Amherst/Convers to Los Angeles to Cornell/Corinth and to London and Key West, inevitably one considers the possibility that some at least of these characters represent the author herself. Janet Belle Smith (Real People) and Delia Delaney (Truth and Consequences) are rather pretentious writers of whom Lurie makes fun some of the time, but they also reflect aspects of her experience as a writer.
- The War Between the Tates was adapted as a television movie for NBC in 1977. It starred Elizabeth Ashley and Richard Crenna.
- Imaginary Friends was adapted as a Thames Television series in 1987. The setting was moved from upstate New York to the English coast.
- Foreign Affairs was adapted as a television movie in 1993, starring Joanne Woodward, Brian Dennehy, and Eric Stoltz.
Lurie has also produced a number of books for children, in collaboration with illustrators such as Monika Beisner and Jessica Souhami. Examples include:
- The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (1975)
- The Heavenly Zoo (1979), illustrated by Monika Beisner.
- Clever Gretchen And Other Forgotten Fairy Tales (1980)
- Fabulous Beasts (1981), illustrated by Monika Beisner.
- The Black Geese (1999), illustrated by Jessica Souhami.
In 1981 Lurie published The Language of Clothes. This book lays out some principles of communication by means of dress.
Lurie co-edited the Garland Library of Children's Classics (73 vol.). In 1990, she published Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature. A further collection of essays on this theme, Boys and Girls Forever, appeared in 2003. Her essay "The Supernatural Power of Knitting" appears in the anthology Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013).
She often reviews literature and children’s culture for the New York Review of Books.
In 2001 Lurie published a memoir, Familiar Spirits, recounting a decades-long friendship with poet James Merrill (1926–1995) and his partner David Jackson (1922–2001). Lurie credits Merrill and Jackson for encouraging her writing in the 1950s, a period during which she suffered many rejections from publishers.
- 1963–1964 Yaddo Foundation fellow
- 1965 Guggenheim Foundation fellow
- 1966 Yaddo Foundation fellow
- 1967 Rockefeller Foundation fellow
- 1978 American Academy of Arts and Letters literary award
- 1985 Pulitzer Prize for fiction
- 1989 Prix Femina Étranger
- 2005 elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 2006 University of Oxford honorary degree
- 2007 University of Nottingham honorary degree
- 2012–14 New York State Author
- Costa, Richard Haver, (1992) “Alison Lurie.” Twayne United States Authors Series, No 602
- Magill, Frank N. (ed.) (1991) "Alison Lurie" Critical Survey of Long Fiction: English Language Series (rev.ed.) Salem Press, Pasadena, California, vol. 5, pp. 2126–2134, ISBN 0-89356-830-9 (vol 5)
- Lurie's own biography
- Lurie archive from The New York Review of Books
- Three Don Swaim interviews with Lurie (1984, 1988, and 1990)
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