Authors: Diane Oliver

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Short Fiction:

“Key to the City,” 1965

“Health Service,” 1965

“Neighbors,” 1966

“The Closet on the Top Floor,” 1966

“Traffic Jam,” 1966

“Mint Juleps Not Served Here,” 1967

Nonfiction:

“From ‘The Corner–1963,’” 1975

Biography

Diane Alene Oliver deserves recognition as a talented black fiction writer whose untimely death limited her literary production. She was the daughter of the public schoolteacher and administrator William Oliver and his piano-teacher wife, Blanche Rann. Oliver grew up in the black southern middle class of the 1940’s and 1950’s, was educated in the segregated public schools, and graduated as a member of the second integrated freshman class at Women’s College (later renamed the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) in 1964. After guest editing for Mademoiselle magazine, which took her to England, and studying in Switzerland through the Experiment in International Living, Oliver began graduate work at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. She was awarded the M.F.A. degree posthumously in 1966, days after she was killed in a motorcycle-automobile crash in Iowa City on May 21.{$I[AN]9810000870}{$I[A]Oliver, Diane}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Oliver, Diane}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Oliver, Diane}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Oliver, Diane}{$I[tim]1943;Oliver, Diane}

As a child, Oliver read voraciously, encouraged by her grandmother. By the time she was in junior high school and had read all the volumes in the segregated branch library, she decided to become a writer so that there would always be something for children like herself to read. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s also influenced her choice of career and of subject matter. The 1963 lunch counter sit-ins occurred in Greensboro while she was there, and although she did not participate in the sit-ins, she did organize the student boycott of a group of shops and restaurants and a film theater across from the campus. She wrote about the incident in “The Corner–1963” to enter the Mademoiselle Guest Editor program. Oliver’s literary influences included James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Ernest Hemingway, James Agee, Peter Taylor, Randall Jarrell, and R. V. Cassill.

Oliver’s first published story, “Key to the City,” is characteristic of most of her stories in featuring a young woman and identifying with her point of view. The story portrays a matriarchal family emigrating from the South to join the absent husband in the promised land of Chicago. Nora, who expects to attend college, discovers at journey’s end what her mother already knows: The husband has abandoned his family. They are left at the Chicago bus station, Nora is so disappointed and bewildered that she tries to sort out their bundles and to iron their Sunday clothes, an attempt to reimpose order.

“Health Service” introduces Libby, a young mother of small children, whose husband, Hal, works “upstate,” a euphemism for unknown whereabouts. The family reappears in “Traffic Jam,” at the end of which Hal unnerves Libby by returning without notice. Libby works as a domestic (like Nora’s mother and Ellie in “Neighbors,” also a 1966 story) to avoid going on welfare. The story details a visit to the county clinic frustrated by the callous treatment of the patients and a return home without being seen by the white doctors. It ends simply with Libby’s attempts to get a ride home and to forestall the hunger she and her children feel after having walked the two miles to the courthouse and having sat in the waiting room more than half the day.

“Neighbors,” which won a third-place O. Henry Award in 1967, justifies Oliver’s claim to literary distinction. Arthur Mizener said of it: “It is hard to believe this beautifully conceived story was written by a twenty-three-year-old girl.” Based on a true incident of high-school integration, the story shows the hatred exhibited by elements of the white community and how the fears of young Tommy’s family erupt when their house is bombed on the eve of the first day of school.

Oliver continued the theme of integration into college with “The Closet on the Top Floor,” published in the 1966 anthology Southern Writing in the Sixties. Winifred, the characteristic female protagonist, suffers defeat by withdrawing into her closet and by leaving the private southern women’s college. Oliver’s female protagonists must cope with personal problems as well as with the enveloping and sometimes suffocating majority culture. Her last story, “Mint Juleps Not Served Here,” published posthumously in 1967, tackles these themes.

Oliver’s proper role in twentieth century American literature is a supporting one because of her brief career. She deserves recognition, however, because of the stories themselves and because of her position between the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence in the 1970’s of writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, her relative contemporaries. As Oliver stated upon the occasion of her first published story, “Writing should be judged according to the intrinsic value . . . Diluting [literary] standards in accordance with a person’s race does not help strengthen his writing. Honest criticism is an important part of this craft; and as a Negro writer I certainly do not want my work to be judged as an exception to the rule.”

BibliographyKratt, Mary Norton. The Imaginative Spirit: Literary Heritage of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, N.C. Charlotte, N.C.: Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, 1988. Includes a brief critical biographical sketch.Llorens, David. “Remembering a Young Talent.” Negro Digest 16 (September, 1966). A brief critical biographical sketch.Mizener, Arthur, ed. A Handbook of Analyses, Questions, and a Discussion of Technique for Use with Modern Short Stories: The Uses of Imagination. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. The chapter “Neighbors” offers one of the few discussions of Oliver’s work available.
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