Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, 1989
Blessed Assurance: A Moral Tale, 1990 (novella)
Plays Well with Others, 1997
The Practical Heart: Four Novellas, 2001
Good Help, 1988 (a chapter from Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All)
White People, 1991 (short stories and novellas)
Allan Gurganus (gur-GAN-ihs) is an American novelist and short-story writer whose work has been shaped both by his southern background and by his gay sexual orientation. He is the oldest of the four sons of M. F. and Ethel Gurganus. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a supermarket manager who later became a Baptist lay preacher. Gurganus has cited his early experience with fundamentalist Christianity as an important influence on his writing.
Early in life, Gurganus found an outlet for artistic expression in oil painting, a talent he pursued throughout high school in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. After graduation, he briefly attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Later, while serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War, he began to read literature seriously and discovered a passion for writing that soon overtook his interest in painting. His visual art occasionally has accompanied his published fiction.
In 1970, he entered Sarah Lawrence College, where Grace Paley was his professor. Upon finishing his undergraduate degree there, he received a scholarship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a protégé of John Cheever. It was Cheever who, in 1974, presented Gurganus’s short story “Minor Heroism” for publication in The New Yorker. A story of conflict between father and son, it became the first gay-themed fictional work to be published by the magazine.
Gurganus continued to publish both fiction and nonfiction throughout the following decade, while teaching at the University of Iowa, Stanford and Duke Universities, and Sarah Lawrence College. His first significant reviews, however, came in 1989 with the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, an epic-length story told from the perspective of ninety-nine-year-old nursing home resident Lucy Marsden. Beginning with Lucy’s Reconstruction-era marriage to a much older Civil War veteran, the story continues through the twentieth century, with a focus on race relations in the segregated South. Gurganus adapted the novel for television in 1993. Successful with readers and critics alike, the novel was credited for a rejuvenation of interest in contemporary southern writing.
In 1991, the publication of White People brought Gurganus further acclaim. The collection included the novella Blessed Assurance, first published separately in 1990, in which the theme was again race relations in the South. The author’s other chief concern, homosexuality, is treated in many of the short stories in White People. He was praised for his versatility, his use of dialogue, and his humor.
Plays Well with Others, his second novel, explores the art scene in Manhattan at the dawn of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic. This novel seems to parallel Gurganus’s experience as a young writer in New York. It was not met with the same enthusiastic critical reception that greeted his first novel. In 2001, The Practical Heart: Four Novellas was warmly received.
Gurganus divides his time between New York and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and has been politically active in support of gay rights. He was a cofounder of Writers Against Jessie Helms, an organization devoted to ousting the long-tenured, politically conservative North Carolina senator. Gurganus continues to teach at Sarah Lawrence, where he is permanently affiliated with the faculty, and his distinctions include PEN prizes for fiction, National Endowment for the Arts grants, and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
In his work, Gurganus speaks for the generation of Americans (particularly southerners) who were born in the mid-twentieth century and whose coming-of-age was attended by the enormous cultural, social, and political changes of their time. The dominant theme is rebellion against repression. His work is noted for its wit and humor, and the mode is occasionally satirical. Symbolism and Magical Realism are notable in White People. Gurganus’s greatest acclaim has come as a result of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, though his short stories and novellas also have garnered considerable critical praise.