Authors: Patricia Highsmith

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer


The author of numerous novels and short stories, Patricia Highsmith examines moral values from unexpected perspectives, challenging conventional ethics and exploring questions of guilt and culpability, aggression, self-doubt, and alienation. The clinically detached voices and amoral points of view of her narrators are compelling, disturbing, even chilling.{$I[AN]9810001777}{$I[A]Highsmith, Patricia}{$S[A]Morgan, Claire;Highsmith, Patricia}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Highsmith, Patricia}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Highsmith, Patricia}{$I[tim]1921;Highsmith, Patricia}

Patricia Highsmith.

(© Hope Curtis)

Highsmith’s childhood was an unhappy one, and she felt distanced from both parents, Mary Coates and Jay Bernard Plangman. Her mother drank turpentine to try to miscarry Patricia, and shortly after Highsmith’s birth, her parents divorced. Highsmith was raised by her grandparents. Her grandmother taught her to read when she was two years old; in Highsmith’s own words, she could “read like a streak.” At age six, she joined her mother and stepfather, both commercial artists, in Greenwich Village, New York City, and took Stanley Highsmith’s last name. Highsmith detested her parents; years later, though she paid for her mother’s nursing home, she refused to visit her. She did not meet her real father until she was twelve. One of her doomed heroines describes her family as Highsmith would her own: “blind” and “uncaring.” Precocious and driven to reach outside this disturbing family setting, she had read the Sherlock Holmes stories by nine and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) twice by fourteen; she read the dictionary and, at fifteen, started keeping “cahiers”–records of dreams, satiric observations, and germs of ideas.

At Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, Highsmith edited the school newspaper and contributed short stories. Later, while an undergraduate at Barnard College, New York, she wrote comic strips (Superman and space stories). She graduated with a B.A. degree in 1942. She published her first short story, “The Heroine,” in Harper’s Bazaar in 1945. The terse style and the depiction of irrational compulsions beneath the surface calm of her early stories established the distinctive voice that Highsmith used throughout her life.

In the late 1940’s, like her female protagonist in Edith’s Diary, Highsmith became a political activist and won the attention of Truman Capote, who helped her enter the Yaddo artists’ colony in upstate New York. There she began her first novel, Strangers on a Train, a perceptive psychological thriller, which has become a suspense classic; it became popular after being adapted into the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title. Tasting success, Highsmith determined to reject hack work and to devote herself to her craft, though at times financial necessity made doing so difficult. She traveled to Europe for the first time in 1949 in celebration of her success. The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story tracing a passionate relationship between a young salesclerk and a married customer, was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. Other novels dealt with the concept of the Doppelgänger and the interplay of hunter and hunted.

Highsmith’s highly popular, prize-winning Ripley series features the charming, amoral, psychopath Tom Ripley, a criminal on the run without a shred of guilt, yet a protagonist for whom readers inevitably cheer. A French film based on The Talented Mr. Ripley, entitled Plein Soleil and starring Alain Delon, proved successful, as did a later American version starring Matt Damon. Highsmith believed, however, that the literary quality of her books, which were respected in Europe for their psychological insights, moral ambiguity, and irony, was too often ignored in America, her books being dismissed as simple crime stories. Despite wide sales, they did not receive critical respect or analytical treatment. Highsmith’s engaging stories study the criminal mind–particularly the minds of murderers–and they focus on human psychology, especially that of men in pairs, rather than on detection or suspense; they make the depraved or psychopathic intriguing and comprehensible. Renowned novelist Graham Greene praised her craft as admirable. Her prose is spare and incisive, her portraits of human folly haunting. In an interview with Village Voice reporter Joan Dupont, Highsmith asserted her belief that a writer should talk about “adult human emotions” and the “nitty-gritty,” which she defined as “anger and a sense of injustice.”

European enthusiasm for her writing made Highsmith settle in England in 1963. A visit to Tunisia provided details for the setting of one of her finest novels, The Tremor of Forgery. It inspired Greene to call Highsmith the “poet of apprehension rather than fear.” Her short stories transform the normal into the abnormal, provide fresh horrors and dark potentialities, and trace controversial modern issues to horrifying conclusions. In 1974, Highsmith moved to a farmhouse near Fontainebleau, France, where, by Dupont’s account, she continued smoking, drinking, swearing, and writing from a male perspective. Eventually, investigations by French tax inspectors led to her final move–to Switzerland. In her later years, she was an enthusiastic gardener; she painted, sculpted, and did carpentry, accompanied by her cats, but she continued to write eight pages daily, happier with fine craftsmanship rather than quantity.

Although engaged to be married at one time, Highsmith preferred solitude and kept her life and loves private. Suffering for ten years from lung cancer and a wasting blood disease, she spent her final years a recluse in a house she designed in the Maggia valley of Switzerland. Her posthumous novel Small g: A Summer Idyll, set in Zurich, is about a youthful love triangle in which the boy loses: Girl gets girl. At her death in 1995, Highsmith left a fortune of six million dollars, an indication of the popularity of her works in spite of their challenge to moral complacency and the demanding participation in unconventional mindsets and perspectives.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. “Patricia Highsmith.” In Lesbian and Bisexual Fiction Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1997. Highsmith is discussed by several scholars of gay and lesbian studies, who contextualize her work in terms of that discipline. Bibliographic references.Brophy, Brigid. “Highsmith.” In Don’t Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews. New York: Henry Holt, 1966. Brophy compares Highsmith’s artistic achievements to those of Georges Simenon to argue that Highsmith’s crime novels, with their moral ambiguity, “transcend the limits of the genre while staying strictly inside its rules.” She claims that “what Sophocles did for the tragedy of fate Miss Highsmith does for the melodrama of coincidence.”Chin, Paula. “Through a Mind, Darkly.” People Weekly 39 (January 11, 1993): 93-94. A biographical sketch of Highsmith’s eccentric, reclusive, and forbiddingly private life. Discusses her popularity in Europe and her cult status in America; lists her many honors.Coburn, Marcia Froelke. “And the Enemy Is Us: Patricia Highsmith.” Film Comment 20 (September/October, 1984): 44-45. Argues that Highsmith is something of an anomaly among writers of hard-boiled mystery, since she concentrates on the criminals’ point of view and often allows them to avoid being caught. Notes Highsmith’s focus on the inescapable effects of thought in which consideration of sin is as bad as sinning and often leads inextricably to a forbidden act.Cochran, David. “’Some Torture That Perversely Eased’: Patricia Highsmith and the Schizophrenia of American Life.” In America Noir. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2000. A work of cultural criticism focused on the repressed tensions of American culture that produce symptomatic structures in Highsmith’s fiction.Dubose, Martha Hailey, with Margaret Caldwell Thomas. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2000. Highsmith’s works and life experiences are compared to those of Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers, among others. Bibliographic references and index.Dupont, Joan. “Criminal Pursuits.” The New York Times Magazine, June 12, 1988, p. 60. Notes that although Highsmith is a celebrity in the rest of the world, she is relatively unknown in her native United States; suggests that because Highsmith has lived abroad and has never been in the United States to promote her books, she has never developed a strong link with publishers or readers. Others believe it is because her books are not clearly classifiable as thrillers, mysteries, or literature.Harrison, Russell. Patricia Highsmith. New York: Twayne, 1997. This first book-length study of Highsmith in English explores the aesthetic, philosophical, and sociopolitical dimensions of her writing. Study of her short fiction is limited to discussion of Slowly Slowly in the Wind and The Black House, which represent, in Harrison’s opinion, the strongest collections.Highsmith, Patricia. Interview by Craig Little. Publishers Weekly 239 (November 2, 1992): 46-47. A brief biographical and critical discussion of Highsmith, commenting on the Hitchcock film version of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, and her popularity in Europe over the last forty years.Highsmith, Patricia. “Not Thinking with the Dishes.” Writer’s Digest 62 (October, 1983): 26. Highsmith says she follows no set rules for story writing; she begins with a theme, an unusual circumstance or a situation of surprise or coincidence, and creates the narrative around it. Her focus is on subjective attitudes, what is happening in the minds of her protagonists. Her settings are always ones she knows personally.Hilfer, Anthony Channell. “Not Really Such a Monster: Highsmith’s Ripley as Thriller Protagonist and Protean Man.” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought 25 (Summer, 1984): 361-374. Hilfer studies Highsmith’s Ripley as a “subversive variation” of a suspense thriller protagonist, one through which Highsmith flouts moral and literary expectations. He argues that Ripley’s lack of a determinate identity makes his role-playing credible.Lindsay, Elizabeth Blakesley, ed. “Patricia Highsmith.” In Great Women Mystery Writers. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007. Essay containing biographical detail as well as analysis of her works.Meaker, Marijane. Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950’s, a Memoir. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2003. A portrait of Highsmith written by a woman who had a relationship with her.Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. A definitive Highsmith biography, over 700 pages.Summers, Claude J., ed. Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. New York: H. Holt, 1995. Includes an excellent essay by Gina Macdonald on Highsmith’s life work to the time of her death in 1995.Sutcliffe, Thomas. “Graphs of Innocence and Guilt.” The Times Literary Supplement, no. 4696 (October 2, 1981): 1118. Sutcliffe argues that the uneasy, disquieting force of Highsmith’s works comes from her depiction of reason persisting in inappropriate conditions. Her focus on “what it is like to remain sane” while committing horrendous deeds blurs complacent distinctions. At their best, her short stories are brilliant studies of “fear and loathing, moral absolution and culpability”–“the fragility of … untested moral structures.”Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. Symons calls Highsmith “the most important crime novelist at present,” more appreciated in Europe than in the United States, but a fine writer, whose tricky plot devices are merely starting points “for profound and subtle character studies,” particularly of likable figures attracted by crime and violence. It is her imaginative power that gives her criminal heroes a “terrifying reality” amid carefully chosen settings. She is at her best describing subtle, deadly games of pursuit.Tolkin, Michael. “In Memory of Patricia Highsmith.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, February l2, 1995, p. 8. A tribute to Highsmith as “our best expatriate writer since Henry James,” and an excellent analysis of why her heroes, especially Ripley, are not appreciated in America.Wilson, Andrew. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. This biography of Highsmith examines the author’s troubled life and devotion to her work. A rare source of biographical information.
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