Authors: Alison Lurie

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and critic


Born in Chicago and raised in White Plains, New York, Alison Lurie grew up as an avid reader, beginning with authors such as Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and Jane Austen at the age of thirteen of fourteen. She received her A.B. degree from Radcliffe College in 1947. In 1948 she married Jonathan Peale Bishop; they were divorced in 1985. The mother of three sons, Lurie has worked as a librarian, ghost writer, critic, and essayist as well as novelist and author of children’s literature. She was awarded Yaddo Foundation and Guggenheim fellowships in the years 1963, 1964, and 1965, a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1967-1968, the American Academy of Arts and Letters award in 1978, and, for Foreign Affairs, a Pulitzer Prize in 1985. She joined the English faculty at Cornell University in 1968, where her husband was also a professor. She taught courses in narrative writing and children’s literature. Indeed, Lurie has published distinguished critical articles and reviews of children’s literature, including the studies Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups and Boys and Girls Forever, and edited a series of historical children’s books with Justin Schiller, as well as collecting and editing folktales, myths, and legends in Clever Gretchen, and Other Forgotten Folktales, Fabulous Beasts, and The Heavenly Zoo.{$I[AN]9810000928}{$I[A]Lurie, Alison}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Lurie, Alison}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Lurie, Alison}{$I[tim]1926;Lurie, Alison}

Alison Lurie

(Jimm Roberts/Orlando)

In 1981 Lurie published a semiotic study of fashion in The Language of Clothes, with chapter titles such as “Clothing as a Sign System,” “Youth and Age,” “Fashion and Status,” and “Sex and Fashion.” The chapters contain useful information and clever commentary. Lurie is best known in American letters, however, for her satirical novels, most of which feature American academics and their students, administrators, spouses, and friends amid sometimes comic, sometimes pathetic or ludicrous circumstances. From Love and Friendship to her later novels, Foreign Affairs, The Truth About Lorin Jones, and The Last Resort, Lurie reveals her incisive insight into the foibles of academics. Most of her novels feature characters who have been educated in prestigious Eastern colleges and who have lived highly privileged lives. They are generally witty, sophisticated, and usually, totally lacking in self-knowledge. Most of Lurie’s characters manage to insulate themselves from genuine experience; they hide behind a facade of intellectual life. They betray spouses, children, friends, and colleagues in the petty struggles of department politics or paltry, predictable adulteries. In Love and Friendship Lurie sharply probes the nature of love, sexuality, friendship, and various kinds of self-deceptions among the intellectuals and pseudointellectuals, faculty wives, and bohemians who inhabit a small, self-important New England campus. Lurie exposes pretension and fraud among these dessicated middle-class professionals, but she does so in a spirit of fun.

In The Nowhere City Lurie places an Eastern-educated couple in sunny California. Although the characters in The Nowhere City are not interesting enough to command the reader’s sympathy, Lurie delights in exposing and savaging the emptiness of the “nowhere city,” symbolized aptly and hilariously by a twenty-foot-high cement doughnut revolving atop a restaurant. Nobody escapes Lurie’s satire: Bohemians are exposed as hypocrites and liars, academics as self-deceivers, and Hollywood actors and actresses as neurotic. In a world drained of belief and stable values, Lurie’s characters have a hard time finding a firm place to stand. All too easily, they become emotional drifters. Even intellectual engagement and scholarship are perilous pursuits, as a famous sociologist discovers when he is deluded by the religious cult he is studying in Imaginary Friends (a story based very closely on the real-life research of Leon Festinger that resulted in the classic 1956 sociologcal study of UFO cults, When Prophecy Fails). Marriage is generally a bankrupt institution, as Erica Tate discovers in The War Between the Tates; Eastern mysticism is equally empty, a condition symbolized by an impotent guru character named Zed. The War Between the Tates is a devastatingly acute treatment of academe in the 1960’s. It includes some marvelously comic scenes, as when radical feminists hold a conservative philosophy professor hostage in his office.

With her novel Real People, Lurie departed from her usual academic subjects. In this work Lurie exposes the pretensions and immaturity of an aspiring writer, Janet Belle Smith, who records in her journal a weeklong visit to an artists’ retreat. Here Lurie seems to satirize the creative writing community, especially those who like to pose as writers rather than actually do the hard work demanded of productive artists, and Janet Belle Smith appears to be a model of what a writer should not be. Though most of her novels have contemporary settings, Lurie travels back to the years of her own childhood in her fine novel Only Children. The book features two imaginative only children, Mary Ann and Lolly, who visit a farm in Connecticut one weekend during the Depression. Lurie juxtaposes the fascinatingly complex and rich interior worlds of the young girls and the mundane world of the adults. Lurie does create one strong and energetic woman in the novel, perhaps the most admirable character in all of her fiction. Anna is devoted to her work; she believes in teaching children how to create and how to remain alive. She understands herself, accepts her world, but nevertheless tries to make it better by introducing innovations in education. Her allegiance to art, creativity, nature, and children is contrasted sharply with the self-deceptions, avarice, and boredom of the other adults in the novel. Anna has more in common with the two bright girls than with their shallow parents. Lurie’s child characters are delineated with precision and vividness, and she reveals their pain and pleasure in fine prose and exquisite detail.

Critics have praised Foreign Affairs as Lurie’s finest novel. She brings the work’s central character to life through superb use of detail and point of view. Vinnie Miner is a small, plain, unmarried, fifty-four-year-old professor of children’s literature who is working on a scholarly study of skip-rope rhymes. Though she is tenured and has written several books, Vinnie worries that her scholarship is not really accepted by her colleagues, especially when she reads a scathing review of her most recent book. On a plane to London, Vinnie meets a beefy, amiable engineer from Tulsa dressed in a Western-cut suit. Immediately Vinnie feels her cultural prejudices rankle. She shuts him up with a copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886). To her surprise, Chuck reads steadily for the rest of the trip. Eventually, Vinnie enjoys a love affair with this big, loving man, who proves to be a humane, sensitive, passionate person. Critics have praised Foreign Affairs as one of the most acute portraits of Americans abroad since the novels of Henry James. Lurie knows England well and conveys a vivid sense of the country through deft description and dialogue. Foreign Affairs gives the reader more likable characters than any of Lurie’s previous novels. Though Vinnie’s lover does not survive a massive heart attack, her own humanity is clearly expanded by his love. Through Vinnie’s efforts, her colleague Fred Turner manages to reconcile with his wife. With her polished style and humorous tone, Lurie touches the reader but avoids sentimentality.

The Truth About Lorin Jones portrays Polly Alter’s researches into the life and work of Lorin Jones, a painter whose life was cut short by a tragic accident and who is becoming something of a cult figure in the art world. Alter herself is a kind of 1980’s heroine. Though she asserts her professional identity, she feels her own sexual identity threatened by male chauvinists on one hand and lesbians on the other. As Alter grows more obsessed with her research on Lorin Jones, she finds many parallels between her life and that of her subject. As her name “Alter” suggests, Lorin Jones becomes an alter ego for her. Eventually Alter’s identity becomes more enmeshed with that of her subject, to the point that she engages in an affair with Jones’s lover. Lurie explores feminist issues and the complexities of a woman’s attempts to achieve a satisfactory sexual identity with appropriate ambivalence. In this novel Lurie is attempting to delineate character in more depth than in previous novels. Some reviewers complain that she does not succeed in the characterization of either Polly Alter or Lorin Jones and that the happy ending of the novel does not seem to be justified. The Truth About Lorin Jones is, however, a compelling novel. Though it lacks Lurie’s usual satiric edge, it nevertheless suggests Lurie’s enormous insight and demonstrates again her narrative skills. Few American novelists in contemporary twentieth century literature possess the wit, writing skill, and humane satiric vision apparent in Lurie’s best work.

In 2001, Lurie published a memoir of her decades-long friendship with the poet James Merrill (1926-1995) and his long-time lover David Jackson, a book which, in many ways, extends Lurie’s trenchant fictional observations of the lives of academics, writers, and intellectuals to real life and the stresses that fame places on relationships. Lurie also discusses the pair’s involvement in the spirit world, a topic that repeats the themes of Imaginary Friends.

BibliographyCosta, Richard Hauer. Alison Lurie. New York: Twayne, 1992. The first book-length study of Lurie, this overview is an essential resource. Written with Lurie’s cooperation, the book includes a biographical sketch and discussion of all her writing, including a thorough examination of her major novels. Also features an extensive bibliography.Hite, Molly. The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. A brief entry on Lurie with reference to her novel Foreign Affairs. Places Lurie in the genre of women writing in the margins, the metaphor in their novels being minor characters playing major roles.Newman, Judie. Alison Lurie: A Critical Study. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. After a chapter of biography, Newman devotes a chapter to each of Lurie’s novels through The Last Resort.Newman, Judie. “Paleface into Redskin: Cultural Transformations in Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs.” In Forked Tongues: Comparing Twentieth Century British and American Literature, edited by Ann Massa and Alistair Stead. London: Longman, 1994. Particularly valuable for its discussion of Lurie’s theme of transatlantic cultural differences. Offers insights into why Lurie is so popular in England.Rogers, Katherine M. “Alison Lurie: The Uses of Adultery.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989. An important study of Lurie’s novels through Foreign Affairs. A feminist analysis, it especially concentrates on the theme of self-examination on the part of Lurie’s heroines.
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