Edna Annie Proulx (prew) was born August 22, 1935, in Norwich, Connecticut, to George Proulx, vice president of a textile company and Lois Proulx, a painter who traced her family history in Connecticut back to the year 1635. Lois Proulx was an amateur naturalist who encouraged the young Annie to observe small details of everyday life and the natural world, a habit that would later develop into the detailed research that contributed depth and realism to Proulx’s fiction.
In the early 1950’s Proulx briefly attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine, but left without completing a degree. She returned to college in 1963 and in 1969 graduated cum laude from the University of Vermont with a bachelor of arts degree in history. During these years Proulx was married and divorced three times; a daughter from her first marriage lived with Proulx’s first former husband while Proulx raised three sons from her second and third marriages.
In 1973 Proulx graduated from Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in Montreal with a master of arts degree in history. She completed all the work for a doctoral degree in Renaissance European economics and passed the oral examinations in 1975 but decided not to complete her dissertation, as there were so few teaching jobs available in her field.
The eldest of five sisters, Proulx had been drawn from an early age to the outdoor life; after leaving school she moved to a small cabin in the Vermont woods and spent much of her time hunting, fishing, and canoeing. In the 1980’s she supported herself and her sons by working as a freelance journalist, publishing dozens of magazine articles on topics ranging from fishing and making cider to growing apples and lettuce. Eventually she accepted assignments to write do-it-yourself handbooks about gardening, cooking, and home-building projects. These books often provided historical illustrations and background in addition to instructional material, early evidence of Proulx’s devotion to research and historical detail. In 1986 she received a Garden Writers Association of America award for her how-to books and cookbooks. Although the subject matter reflected Proulx’s interest in the back-to-the-land movement and self-sufficiency, over time she found nonfiction manuals less interesting to write.
Proulx enjoyed writing fiction and had published several short stories in Seventeen magazine while she was in graduate school. Even while writing nonfiction on assignment, she managed to produce one or two short stories each year. Though she was able to sell most of her short stories, Proulx never thought she could make a living writing fiction. Two of these early stories were listed as “Distinguished Short Stories” in Best American Short Stories for 1983 and 1987.
In the early 1980’s Tom Jenks, an editor at Esquire magazine, accepted three of Proulx’s stories for publication, giving her exposure to a larger, national audience. When Jenks took a job at the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons, he offered Proulx an opportunity to publish her first collection, Heart Songs, and Other Stories. Although Heart Songs was well-reviewed, Proulx, then in her early fifties, still did not think of herself as a writer.
Although Proulx had no desire to write longer fiction, Jenks had included a clause in her publishing contract committing her to write a novel. With financial support from arts foundations in Vermont and Wyoming and inspired by a collection of old postcards with mug shots of escaped convicts, Proulx began writing fiction full-time. Her first novel, Postcards, tells the story of a Vermont family struggling to keep their farm afloat after their son murders his girlfriend and leaves home. Proulx was surprised to find longer fiction less demanding to write than the short story; rather than paring down her prose, she could expand on what she wished to say. Critics hailed Postcards as an emotionally powerful and brilliantly written debut. When Proulx won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Postcards, she was the first woman to receive the award in its twelve-year history.
Her second novel, The Shipping News, tells the story of a man trying to repair his shattered life through a return to his family home in the harsh landscape of Newfoundland. Proulx had become interested in Newfoundland during a fishing trip there and spent months revisiting the country to absorb local atmosphere that could lend authenticity to her book. Her ability to evoke the loneliness and chill of the bleak landscape and to capture a people caught in the throes of economic and social upheaval earned her more critical praise. In 1994 The Shipping News received the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Award for fiction, the National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The novel was translated into eight languages, and a successful film version was released in 2001.
Proulx’s next novel, Accordion Crimes, follows an accordion built in Italy and passed among a succession of owners to tell an often violent story of the American immigrant experience. Accordion Crimes was inspired partly by Proulx’s family background; her father’s family had come to New England from Canada, sacrificing many of their cultural traditions in an effort to become truly American. Proulx originally planned to set the book in Texas but needed a fellowship in order to afford to do research there; when her funding fell through, she recast the book over a wider geographical range. After traveling extensively to promote Accordion Crimes, Proulx decided to stop making personal appearances, which she felt took too much time away from her writing. After her mother’s death in 1995, Proulx moved from a house in Vermont–which she had largely built herself–to Wyoming, where she had done most of her fiction writing even while she maintained her residence in Vermont.
Proulx received a National Magazine Award in 1998 for the story “Brokeback Mountain,” later included in her collection of short fiction Close Range: Wyoming Stories. In 2000 Close Range received the English-Speaking Union’s Ambassador Book Award and a book award for best fiction from The New Yorker. Stories from Close Range were included in The Best American Short Stories 1998 (1998), Prize Stories, 1998: The O. Henry Awards(1998), The Best American Short Stories 1999 (1999), Prize Stories, 1999: The O. Henry Awards (1999), The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999), and The Best American Short Stories 2000 (2000). In 2000 Proulx received Women Writing the West’s WILLA Literary Award, named in honor of Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather.
Proulx is one of several late twentieth century American writers, such as Carolyn Chute and Cormac McCarthy, whose fiction deals with rural life in particular regions of the United States. Proulx’s fiction examines how individuals in poor communities survive social, economic, and geological upheaval–how such people react when traditional and long-standing ways of life are assaulted by modernization, urbanization, and social change. The French-inspired approach to the study of history Proulx learned in Montreal helped form her approach to fiction writing, which links the experience of the individual with the historical time and place in which it occurs. Proulx’s work is concerned with the impact of historical time, places, and events on her characters’ lives, rather than individual introspection, and often examines characters’ relationships to large social movements and to the land on which they live.
Proulx draws on her background as a historian to research her novels extensively, often traveling to the places about which she writes and working to master details of time period, language, and local custom. Much of her fiction reflects the harsh climate and hardscrabble quality of rural life, and most of her characters come to a bad end. Praised for her sweeping vision of the American experience, poetic mastery of language, and offbeat, often dark humor, Proulx’s work has been compared to that of the American novelists Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway.