Authors: Larry Woiwode

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

What I’m Going to Do, I Think, 1969

Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album, 1975

Poppa John, 1981

Born Brothers, 1988

Indian Affairs, 1992

Short Fiction:

The Neumiller Stories, 1989

Silent Passengers: Stories, 1993

Poetry:

Poetry North: Five North Dakota Poets, 1970 (with Richard Lyons, Thomas McGrath, John R. Milton, and Antony Oldknow)

Even Tide, 1977

Nonfiction:

Acts, 1993

Aristocrat of the West: The Story of Harold Schafer, 2000

What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Acts, 2000

Biography

Larry Alfred Woiwode (WI-wood-ee) grew up in Sykeston, North Dakota, a predominantly German settlement in a rugged, often forbidding, terrain. It is this area that was probably the source of the author’s appreciation of the effect of nature upon the individual. When he was ten years old, Woiwode and his family moved to Manito, Illinois, another evocatively Midwestern environment that fostered his descriptive powers. He attended the University of Illinois intermittently between 1960 and 1964 but failed to complete his B.A. After leaving with an associate of arts degree in rhetoric he married Carol Ann Patterson in 1965 and moved to New York, where he supported his family with freelance writing, publishing in The New Yorker and other periodicals while he worked on two novels simultaneously.{$I[AN]9810000796}{$I[A]Woiwode, Larry}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Woiwode, Larry}{$I[tim]1941;Woiwode, Larry}

Larry Woiwode

(Nancy Crampton)

Woiwode’s first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, appeared in 1969 and won the William Faulkner Foundation Award as the most notable first novel of 1969; it brought him immediate and favorable critical attention. An absorbing study of two newlyweds, the title accentuates the protagonists’ self-doubt and indecision as each contemplates the responsibility of couples and parents in an age lacking a transcendent faith in an all-wise, benevolent God. As an intense, psychological study of two troubled individuals, What I’m Going to Do, I Think stands in marked contrast to Woiwode’s later work in both narrative strategy and characterization, but it shares with all Woiwode’s output a commitment to portraying the value of “walking by faith, not by sight” in human relationships, of trusting one’s parents, spouse, and children to help one navigate through a hostile world.

Woiwode’s second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, is an expansive, comic novel that reads as a discontinuous montage of events, images, and personality. Published in 1975, but actually begun earlier than his first published novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall is an engaging homage to the seemingly evaporating nuclear and extended families of mid-twentieth century America. True to its subtitle, A Family Album, Woiwode parades before the reader sixty-three different characters before the beginning of chapter 3. Critics have remarked upon the sentimental, “old-fashioned” quality Woiwode achieves in this family chronicle and his eloquent evocation of once-embraced, now-lamented values–values that often cannot bear scrutiny “beyond the bedroom wall,” beyond the support of a nurturing family intimacy. The critic and novelist John Gardner placed Woiwode in the company of some of literature’s great epic novelists–among them Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevski–for his rejection of fashionable pessimism and his affirmation of seeking one’s dreams without sacrificing family life. Woiwode’s eye for the details of daily life enables him to move through four generations, creating an authentic and vividly realized family history.

In the 1970’s, while working on a book of poems and a third novel, Woiwode held teaching posts at various colleges, including the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Wheaton College in Illinois. The collection of poems, Even Tide, which appeared in 1977, received modest but positive critical reception for its informal, conversational quality and its diversity of concrete religious imagery. Poppa John, published in 1981, is more a novella than a novel and was judged by most critics as less successful because its title character, a soap-opera actor summarily dismissed and out of a job at Christmastime, is never fully realized; Poppa John contains some of Woiwode’s most lyrical scenes, however.

After 1983 Woiwode served as a faculty member at the State University of New York at Binghamton and completed work on another novel. In Born Brothers, published in 1988, Woiwode returns to the characters introduced in his most successful work, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, the Neumiller family. In some ways a sequel, Born Brothers chronicles the lives of Charles and Jerome Neumiller and their sometimes stormy sibling rivalry, this time with middle brother Charles himself as narrator rather than younger brother Tim. Here Woiwode has revitalized the relationship between memory and imagination that he evoked in the earlier narrative, frankly exhorting the reader to regard remembrance of what was as a healthier and more healing endeavor than fantasizing about what might be.

Woiwode continues to mine these elements in subsequent novels and short stories. The collection The Neumiller Stories, makes use of unpublished and reworked chapters of Beyond The Bedroom Wall, expanding the life of Charles Neumiller and others. Indian Affairs, continues with the lives of the two main characters in his first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, this time probing deeply especially into both Chris Van Eenanam’s Native American roots and the spiritual awakening he undergoes. The collection of short stories Silent Passengers shows Woiwode at his lyrical best. A new turn in his output came with his book Acts, 1993, a study of the Acts of the Apostles from a writerly perspective. Much biographical insight into Woiwode’s writing and religious commitments can be found here; even more appears in his 2000 memoir, What I Think I Did.

Understanding Woiwode’s writing involves recognizing the essentially religious character of his narratives and their thematic structure. Woiwode rejects the notion that there can be legitimate novels of “ideas” that do not devolve into mere propaganda; he chooses to handle this problem not by creating characters who spout philosophical soliloquies but by creating authentically ordinary characters who settle comfortably into the mundane world that is life.

As a novelist Woiwode stands apart from most of his contemporaries in refusing to drown his characters in the angst-ridden excesses that became conventional in the late twentieth century American novel. His characters are not helpless victims of their times but participants in them. The characters in Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall and Born Brothers recognize that the answers to life’s dilemmas are found in securing trust in personal friendships and family relationships. Woiwode’s willingness to reaffirm these traditional values and to point toward a transcendent moral order grounded in biblical faith makes him unusual in his time.

BibliographyBlock, Ed, Jr. “An Interview with Larry Woiwode.” Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature 44 (Fall, 1991): 17-30. Woiwode discusses the writer’s task, the importance of his own family to his work, his current writing projects, his personal life, and his opinion of several young writers.Chappell, F. “American Gothic.” National Review, March 24, 1989, 45-46. A favorable review of Born Brothers that explores the book’s American roots.Connaughton, Michael E. “Larry Woiwode.” In American Novelists Since World War II, Second Series. Vol. 6 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by James E. Kibler, Jr. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. An assessment of Woiwode’s gift for regional fiction that explores the themes and narrative style of his first two novels.Flower, Dean. Review of The Neumiller Stories, by Larry Woiwode. The Hudson Review 43 (Summer, 1990): 311. Flower’s extensive and perceptive review of Woiwode’s stories examines the early stories, their alterations in novel form, and their “un-gathering,” revising, and “unrevising” in The Neumiller Stories. For Flower, the stories form a “superb family chronicle,” with the three new stories adding new layers to the Neumiller characters. Of particular interest is Flower’s comment on the way Woiwode “expands the frame” at the end of the story and leaves his readers with an image that resembles a snapshot, a moment caught in time.Freise, Kathy. “Home Again on the Prairie.” North Dakota Horizons 23 (Summer, 1993): 19-23. Details Woiwode’s connections with the state and its role in his books dealing with the Neumiller family.Gardner, John. Review of Beyond the Bedroom Wall, by Larry Woiwode. The New York Times Book Review 125 (September 28, 1975): 1-2. An enthusiastic review of what most critics believe is Woiwode’s best novel; Gardner’s plaudits won a wide audience for Woiwode beyond the small circle of intellectuals who had hailed his first novel.Jones, Timothy. “The Reforming of a Novelist.” Christianity Today, October 26, 1992, 86-89. In this interview, Woiwode discusses his view of the nonreligious, humanistic approach of the East Coast literary establishment and the fact that his most recent writing includes greater emphasis on a religious view of such issues as belief and doubt.Moritz, Charles. Current Biography Yearbook. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1989. The essay on Woiwode traces his life and literary work and reviews critical responses to his novels. For the most part, the novels are discussed in terms of their autobiographical content, especially of the characters, including those who most resemble Woiwode himself. Although it does not contain much criticism about Woiwode’s work, this essay is particularly helpful, since it identifies and evaluates the available secondary sources. Includes a bibliography.Nelson, Shirley. “Stewards of the Imagination: Ron Hanson, Larry Woiwode, and Sue Miller.” Christian Century, January 25, 1995, 82-86. An interview with three novelists in which they discuss their works and careers as well as the role of religion in their lives and writing. Includes an excerpt from Woiwode’s Poppa John.Pesetsky, Bette. Review of Born Brothers, by Larry Woiwode. The New York Times Book Review 93 (August 4, 1988): 13-14. An affirmative evaluation of Woiwode’s narrative mode and a defense of the novel’s difficult thematic structure.Scheick, William J. “Memory in Larry Woiwode’s Novels.” North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1985): 29-40. Scheick discusses the importance of memory in What I’m Going to Do, I Think, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, and Poppa John. He identifies two types of memories, those that make a character feel guilt and long for death and those that develop a sense of connection to one’s family. The ability to order these allows Woiwode’s characters to achieve a balance between them.Siconolfi, Michael T. Review of The Neumiller Stories, by Larry Woiwode. America 163 (December 1, 1990): 434-435. In this lengthy, informative review, Siconolfi discusses the reworkings of stories as they become parts of novels and then resurface as the short stories in this collection. He maintains that while Woiwode’s stories can stand on their own, they also are interrelated “like distant branches of a family tree,” an apt comparison since the stories are rooted in family. While Sinconolfi mentions several of the stories, he focuses on Woiwode’s gift at working the “nurturing, eternal feminine” and on the novelist’s acknowledging of his grandmother’s influence.Tallent, Elizabeth. “Before the Bedroom Wall.” Review of The Neumiller Stories, by Larry Woiwode. The New York Times Book Review (December 17, 1989): 17. Tallent points out that ten of the thirteen stories had appeared before, once in journals and once in revised form, in Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album. In their latest form, the stories seem, to Tallent, to lack some of the immediacy and detail they had in the novel. Her review is of special interest because she notes that Alpha Neumiller’s death in childbirth is the pivotal event in the collection and that the collection begins and ends with a boy’s, then a man’s, projection of Alpha’s persona onto another female character.Woiwode, Larry. Interview by Michele Field. Publishers Weekly 234 (August 5, 1988): 67-68. Woiwode discusses his life, his career, and the relationship between biographical fact and fiction.Woiwode, Larry. “An Interview with Larry Woiwode.” Christianity and Literature 29 (Winter, 1979): 11-18. Woiwode discusses the autobiographical nature of his work, the Jacob/Esau biblical framework of Born Brothers, the “mechanics of memory,” his religious rebirth, the influence of William Maxwell, and his future writing plans. This frank, informative interview contains a considerable amount of biographical information, most of which is applied to Woiwode’s writing, and some perceptive comments about the Christian themes of Born Brothers.Woiwode, Larry. “The Reforming of a Novelist.” Interview by Timothy K. Jones. Christianity Today 36 (October 26, 1992): 86-88. In this interview Woiwode discusses his conversion experience, his church service, the role of faith in his writing, and reactions to his books.Woiwode, Larry. What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Acts. New York: Basic Books, 2000. A respected American novelist tells the story of his growing up and of his early adventures in the literary world.
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