Authors: Harriet Doerr

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Stones for Ibarra, 1984

Consider This, Señora, 1993

Short Fiction:

Under an Aztec Sun, 1990

The Tiger in the Grass: Stories and Other Inventions, 1995

Biography

Harriet Doerr (dowr) was born Harriet Huntington in Pasadena, California, on April 8, 1910. She was the granddaughter of railroad magnate Henry Edwards Huntington. She loved her large family and the house in which she was born; in fact, she memorialized this house in her essay “A Sleeve of Rain,” which she wrote for The Writer on Her Work, Volume II (1991), edited by Janet Sternburg. She wrote poetry while in high school and in 1927 began attending Smith College. As a sophomore she transferred to Stanford University, where Albert Doerr was studying engineering. They married on November 15, 1930, and she left the university with only one five-credit history course lacking for her B.A. degree. The couple had one son and one daughter. Harriet Doerr occupied her spare hours by writing character sketches in a neighborhood women’s writing group.{$I[A]Doerr, Harriet}{$S[A]Huntington Doerr, Harriet;Doerr, Harriet}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Doerr, Harriet}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Doerr, Harriet}{$I[tim]1910;Doerr, Harriet}

Except for a total of fifteen years spent in Mexico and a brief stay in Philadelphia during World War II, Doerr spent her life in California. Her trips to Mexico with her husband when he worked for a family mining business left a deep impression on her. She acknowledged that although her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, was not strictly autobiographical, it was the years spent in Mexico that provided her insights into the Mexican villagers’ way of life, which is at the core of this work.

After her husband died in 1972, she decided at sixty-five to return to college, first attending Scripps College in Claremont and then returning to Stanford to earn her B.A. in history. Doerr found her creative writing course so fulfilling, and her instructors so encouraging, she stayed at Stanford for five years. She enjoyed attending workshops with visiting writers Eudora Welty and E. L. Doctorow. At her professors’ urging, she submitted some linked short stories to Viking Press. Editors there suggested that she transform the collection into a novel. Doerr worked three months smoothing out transitions, eliminating unnecessary characters, and patching up the chronology. In 1984, at seventy-four, she published Stones for Ibarra, which won the 1984 American Book Award for first fiction. In 1985 she was also awarded the Bay Area Book Reviewers award, a PEN Center U.S.A. West fiction award, and honors from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and from the Commonwealth Club of California. She was very encouraged by this first effort, which centered on the tensions between a California couple sent to manage a Mexican copper mine and the villagers of Ibarra. In 1988, Hallmark Hall of Fame aired a television dramatization of the novel, starring Glenn Close and Keith Carradine.

Having won unqualified acclaim for her first novel, Doerr began work on her second, Consider This, Señora, which also took place in Mexico. The cultural differences between Americans and Mexicans had both charmed and startled her when she lived there, and she again focused on their interaction. Both novels contained previously separate short stories, and both provided vivid Mexican landscapes, honest characters, and lucid prose.

In addition to her novels, fashioned in part from short stories, Doerr also composed two volumes of short stories, Under an Aztec Sun and The Tiger in the Grass. She also published stories in periodicals such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, and her piece “Edie: A Life” was included in the anthology The Best American Short Stories, 1989, edited by Margaret Atwood.

Doerr donated her papers to Stanford University. She was unable to finish an envisioned autobiography because of failing eyesight and the increasing frailties of old age. Doerr died in her Pasadena home on November 24, 2002. Her small body of work continues to delight readers intrigued by the tensions between ethnic groups and by the respect and affection which can eliminate them.

BibliographyAlarcón, Daniel Cooper. The Aztec Palimpsest: Mexico in the Modern Imagination. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997. Alarcón includes Stones for Ibarra in his examination of classic Anglo-American writings about Mexico.Daley, Yvonne. “Late Bloomer.” Stanford Magazine, November/December, 1997, 76-79. A visit with Doerr at her home when she was eighty-seven years old and working on her autobiography.Doerr, Harriet. “Enough About Age.” Interview by Pamela Warrick. The Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1993, p. E1. An interview with Doerr on the publication of Consider This, Senora. Doerr talks about her decision to get her college degree after her husband’s death in 1972 and her experience in the creative writing program at Stanford University. She talks about the importance of memory, saying that no experience one has had is ever lost.Doerr, Harriet. “Harriet Doerr: When All of Life Is Important, the Search for the Right Word Is Endless.” Interview by Steve Profitt. The Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1999, p. 31. In this interview, Doerr talks about the lessons she learned from her life in Mexico, her matter-of-fact style, the importance of memory in her work, and her attitude toward mortality. Doerr says she sees no harm in the fact that the older one gets the more memory and imagination become the same.Doerr, Harriet. “A Sleeve of Rain.” In The Writer on Her Work, Volume II: New Essays in New Territory, edited by Janet Sternburg. New York: Norton, 1991. Through the lens of the homes in which she spent her life, Doerr reminisces and shares autobiographical details.Doerr, Harriet. Interview by Lisa See. Publishers Weekly 240 (August 9, 1993): 420. Doerr discusses her youth, family history, and marriage to Albert Doerr; she talks about how she turned to writing after her husband’s death, her love of Mexico, and the differences between her two novels.Henderson, Katherine Usher. “Harriet Doerr.” In Inter/View: Talks with America’s Writing Women, edited by Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Offers tributes to creative writing professors who encouraged Doerr to publish, discusses her creative process and her favorite writers (Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Gabriel García Márquez, and Juan Rulfo).Lacy, Robert. “Harriet Doerr Discloses She Has Few Regrets.” Review of The Tiger in the Grass, by Harriet Doerr. Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 18, 1996, p. 16F. Comments on the importance of Mexico to Doerr’s work. Argues that “Edie: A Life” is the best story in the collection, for it shows the wealthy being instructed by the poor while Doerr’s prose shows wit and keenness of observation.Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Haunted by Memory.” The Los Angeles Times Magazine, February 8, 1998, 12. In this extensive article, based on an interview, Reynolds provides a biographical sketch supplemented by Doerr’s memories of her childhood. Doerr talks about her nurse Edie Pink, the subject of her best-known story, “Edie,” and other autobiographical sources of her work. She explains her use of detail by noting that a great deal comes from a small thing if “you see it in a certain light and you leave yourself open.”Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Memories of Pleasure and Pain.” Review of The Tiger in the Grass, by Harriet Doerr. The Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1995, p. E4. Focuses on the importance of memory in the stories. Reynolds says Doerr has one of those sly memories that is sharpest and clearest when focusing on life’s best times; notes that her memories of childhood are fragmented, but her memories of Mexico are the source of metaphors and connecting tissue in the work.See, Lisa. “Harriet Doerr.” In Writing for Your Life, Number Two, edited by Sybil Steinberg. New York: Publishers Weekly, 1995. Focuses on Doerr’s experiences in Mexico and their relationship to Stones for Ibarra and Consider This, Señora. Also discusses the effects of her age on Doerr’s writing.Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Pablo, Domingo, Richard, and Sara.” Review of Stones for Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr. The New York Times Book Review, January 8, 1984, 8. Silko argues that the village of Ibarra takes over as the central interest in the story and the American couple serve only as a point of departure for the reader. Calls the work a poet’s novel and a tribute to the native culture and the basic human impulse to tell a story.Stegner, Wallace. “Harriet Doerr.” Esquire, December, 1988, 200-201. A brief biographical profile of Doerr by a prominent American novelist.Streitfield, David. “The Strength of Age.” The Washington Post, September 26, 1993, p. X15. In this interview/review, Streitfield provides biographical background and comments on Doerr’s focus on expatriates in Mexico. Doerr says she does not try to understand mysterious things and that what she loves about Mexico is that it is a mysterious country.
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