Alison Lurie, (1926-2020) was best-known for her novels, often described as social satire, and for her writings on children's literature. Her fiction won her many honors, which include the 1985 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction, the 1989 Prix Femina étanger in France, Guggenheim and Rockefeller grants, and honorary doctorates from Oxford University and the University of Nottingham in Britain. She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
She taught literature, folklore, humor, and writing at Cornell University from 1969 to 2006, and became the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of American Literature Emerita.
She is survived by her husband, Edward Hower, and her three grown sons, John Bishop, Jeremy Bishop, and Joshua Bishop.
Alison Lurie's first novel, Love and Friendship (1962), describes an unexpected love affair between faculty members at a New England college. The Nowhere City (1965) takes place in Los Angeles, where the author and her family lived from 1957 to 1961. The War Between the Tates (1974), a novel of the 1960s—later made into a film—and Truth and Consequences (2005) are set in an upstate New York college similar to Cornell University.
Imaginary Friends (1967)—which later became a television series in Britain—investigates a fictional group of eccentrics who believe that they're in touch with flying saucers. Real People (1969) takes place in an upstate New York artists' colony like one where the author was several times a resident. Only Children (1979), was loosely based on events in the author's own childhood.
From 1970 to 2019, Alison Lurie spent part of her winters in Key West, Florida, the setting for much of The Truth About Lorin Jones (1989), a novel about the biographer of a famous woman painter. Local characters in the Keys are also found in The Last Resort (1998).
Foreign Affairs (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize, takes place in London, and relates the adventures of two American academics abroad. It was made into a film for television.
In her book of short stories, Women and Ghosts (1994) her heroines have strange brushes with the spiritual world.
Her novel for young people, The Cat Agent, (2022) about a kitten who becomes a detective, was written in 2012 and posthumously published.
Alison Lurie's first published book was V. R. Lang, (1975) a memoir of a college friend who became a noted actress and poet.
She wrote another memoir about a friend, the poet James Merrill, in Familiar Spirits (2001).
For many years, she published essays about children's literature in The New York Review of Books. Many of them were collected in Don't Tell the Grownups: Subversive Children's Literature (1990) and Boys and Girls Forever (2003).
She was also the author of four collections of traditional folktales for children: The Heavenly Zoo (1979), Black Geese (1999), Clever Gretchen (1980) and Fabulous Beasts (1981).
Alison Lurie co-edited the 73-volume Garland Library of Children's Classics (1976-79) and was the editor of The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (1975).
She applied a semiotic approach to both fashion and architecture in The Language of Clothes (1981) and The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us (2014).
Her essays on writing and literature were collected in Reading for Fun (2016) and Words and Worlds: From Autobiographies to Zippers (2019).
Young At Heart
By Nicholas Wroe
Alison Lurie was born in Chicago, worked as a receptionist, and had three sons before a privately published memoir launched her literary career. Known for witty and astute comedies of manners, she also helped make the study of children's fiction respectable - and wrote about it in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Alison Lurie's 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Foreign Affairs opens with Vinnie Miner, "an ivy-league college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children's literature", embarking on a trip to England to study playground rhymes. Before boarding her flight, she buys a magazine and is horrified to find in it an article attacking her and her work. The killer line asks, "Do we really need a scholarly study of playground doggerel?" Miner is angry and upset, but she is also forced to acknowledge that in most English departments her subject is, perhaps aptly, "a step-daughter grudgingly tolerated in the chimney-corner while her idle, ugly siblings dine at the chairman's table".
Miner's disappointed assessment of the status of children's literature studies in the early 80s was pretty close to the mark, Lurie says, but adds that over the past few decades the subject has become rather more seriously regarded: "There was a time when there was almost no critical writing about children's literature except for articles on things like Lewis Carroll's interest in math. Only trainee teachers or school librarians studied children's literature with an emphasis on how children could learn to read or behave well from these books. But now you go to conferences and hear papers based on Lacanian psychology and Marxist analysis. All of the approaches used on adult classics are now used on children's classics, sometimes with ridiculous results."
Lurie is best-known for witty and astute comedies of manners like Foreign Affairs, The War Between the Tates (1974) and most recently The Last Resort (1998). She has a reputation for social observation and a steely-eyed treatment of her characters. Christopher Isherwood claimed she was "perhaps more shocking than she knows - shocking like Jane Austen, not Genet". Gore Vidal went further, referring to her as "the Queen Herod of contemporary fiction".
For more than 30 years Lurie has taught a children's literature course at Cornell University where she is Whiton Professor of American Literature. This year she published a collection of essays, Boys and Girls Forever, in which studies of children's classics are linked under a thesis that the authors have "in some sense remained children themselves".
The book follows on from her 1990 collection of essays, Don't Tell the Grown-ups, in which Lurie asserted that many children's classics were essentially subversive. Jerry Griswold, a professor of literature at San Diego State University and a specialist in children's literature, says that while Lurie is not seen as a strictly academic figure - "she doesn't appear in obscure scholarly journals that are read by 100 people worldwide" - she has been influential in the field. "First, her prose is so lucid that cats and dogs can understand it," he says. "And when Don't Tell the Grown-ups was published, it seemed that the right, particularly in America, had captured the classics of children's literature as moralistic and conservative. But Lurie's book showed how works like Tom Sawyer and Little Women challenged the traditional order. It gave sustenance for those of us who think of ourselves as progressive thinkers in the academy to recover the classics."
Lurie says that in her criticism she tries to explore "the relation between the writer and the book, what the book is saying to adults and what it is saying to children, and its relation to what is going on in the world, which of course changes. For instance, Little Women was quite radical when it came out and appealed to girls who were tomboys and rebellious. Now it seems conservative and appeals to girls who are rather old-fashioned and feminine because women have changed so much."
David Lodge says Lurie's critical style is classically English. "Much American criticism, especially by academics, is always striving for effect, and using jargon to impress people. She doesn't do any of that, and since she is often talking about children's literature, that is very appropriate. Her voice is calm, perceptive and economical. She respects both the material and the needs of her readers."
Her observant interrogations of works can produce some revelatory insights. She notes that in much 19th-century fiction girls tend to eat much more sugar and much less protein than boys, which may help explain why they matured so much later than do girls today. We learn that Doctor Seuss's father was in charge of the local zoo and that L. Frank Baum, creator of The Wizard of Oz, married into a leading feminist family, which helps to locate the source of the progressive sexual politics in his work where nearly all positions of power are held by women. Lurie also comes out in favour of Harry Potter. "I'm particularly sympathetic now that there are so many fundamentalist Christians out to get it," she says. "The same people tried to ban The Wizard of Oz because it had good witches in it and there are fundamentalist towns in America that have banned both books."
Boys and Girls Forever has been generally welcomed, although the writer Francis Spufford was disappointed. "Alison Lurie has joined the ranks of those who treat the whole genre as a kind of model village, where even the biggest monuments are only knee-high," he wrote in London's Evening Standard before complaining about Lurie's championing of "imagination" and "magic". "They're the children's-lit equivalent of motherhood and apple pie, which everyone is in favour of." John Bayley, in the New York Review of Books, was enthusiastic: "Alison Lurie's is the best book on the classics of the genre I have ever read."
In the essays Lurie examines the consumers as well as the producers of the books and is dismissive of complaints that children's attention spans are getting shorter. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I was a child we learned long poems by heart, but now they think children can’t, so they don't ask them to."
Lurie was born in Chicago in 1926; a high-forceps delivery left her deaf in one ear. The family then moved to New York State - "it was farmland then and is suburbia now" - where she and her younger sister, Jennifer, were brought up. Their mother, Bernice Stewart, had been a journalist writing book reviews and features for the Detroit Free Press before having children. Their father, Harry, was born in Latvia but by the time Alison arrived, was a prominent sociologist who later ran an umbrella organisation for Jewish welfare agencies in America. He was an atheist, a socialist and, although active in the Jewish community, an anti-Zionist.
Lurie was first sent to a local day school and then a progressive co-ed boarding school in Connecticut where she remembers spending her time "reading and avoiding sports". She went to Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to read history and literature in 1943. Doris Palca, a fellow freshman, was a director of publications for the Whitney Museum, who assembled the pictures for Lurie's 1981 book The Language of Clothes. "I remember thinking, 'this is a very strange girl'," recalls Palca. "I'd come from a very conventional high school, and she'd gone to a more intellectual and progressive school which prided itself on individuality and eccentricity. But we were put in the same dormitory and got on very well. I remember her once playing the recorder, rather loudly and badly, when I was trying to work, and I slammed my door. Alison came into my room and just said, 'don't you like me?' My group just didn't say personal things like that, you'd hedge around it. But she would just come out and say what was on her mind."
Barbara Epstein, co-editor of the New York Review of Books, which has published many of Lurie's essays, was another Radcliffe contemporary. She remembers Lurie as "really, really smart and extremely sophisticated, witty, skeptical and articulate. I knew she was a serious writer, as many were at that time, but in her case, it was very clear that she was extremely gifted."
Lurie's early literary tastes were divided between her academic and private reading. Her thesis was on Jacobean comedy but, she says, "there was a gap between what you studied and what you discovered in the bookshop. No one suggested we should read Auden or Hemingway. I remember the poet Robert Creeley, who was a friend, coming into this beer joint with an early edition of Dylan Thomas which he read aloud to us. None of our teachers had so much as mentioned his existence. But we were always making these discoveries, which in a way was more exciting than now when the minute someone publishes a book it is being discussed in a class."
Lurie graduated from Radcliffe in 1946 and became an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press in New York, reading unsolicited manuscripts and sending out publicity material. She had met Jonathan Bishop, son of the poet John Peale Bishop, at college. They married in 1948 and moved back to Boston when he began a post-graduate course at Harvard. Lurie worked as a receptionist and secretary for a group of psychoanalysts and for a Boston public library magazine covering rare books. She didn't consider an academic career. "Women didn't go to graduate school," she explains. "There were a couple of women teaching at Harvard, but it was very unusual and there was not a single woman professor then."
After leaving college Lurie did publish some stories and poems in magazines but found a more reliable artistic outlet in the Poets' Theatre, a loose grouping of young writers that included, among others, John Ashbury, James Merrill, and Frank O'Hara. Dylan Thomas gave the first American reading of Under Milk Wood for the group and Samuel Beckett gave them permission for the first American production of All That Fall (1957). Lurie wrote for the stage as well as developing her long-standing interest in costumes. "There were all these guys who had been away at war who came back to Harvard. They were restless just sitting in lectures taking notes and wanted to do something different. They were not as famous as they are now, but they were a lot of fun. What we were doing was very exciting and different from the very solemn style of literature and art that was around during the war."
Judie Newman, professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham, and author of Alison Lurie, A Critical Study (2000), says the Poets' Theatre was very important to Lurie: "[It was] an early example of the utopian closed communities she uses. It is also the source of her use of gay characters in her fiction. A lot of the dramatic interest in her books comes from them."
"Some of them were the first gay people I'd ever known," says Lurie. "Which meant even though they were falling in love with each other, they weren't falling in love with me. This was good as there weren't the problems with my marriage that you can sometimes get in that hot-house atmosphere of theatre groups."
Lurie's first son, John, was born in 1953 when her husband was still a student. He is now a computer programmer in New Hampshire. Jeremy was born in 1955 and is a website designer in Oregon and the youngest, Josh, was born in 1960: he lives in London and works for an environmental group. She has three grandchildren.
In 1954 Jonathan Bishop got a job teaching at Amherst College, Massachusetts. Lurie was continuing to write but couldn't get published and after the birth of their second son Bishop suggested she stop writing altogether. "He meant well," she explains now. "And he was right that I wasn't getting anywhere and was making myself miserable. I thought if I did stop, I'd have more time to enjoy myself, but in fact that year was the most boring of my life and so I started writing again even though I knew I might never be published."
Lurie acknowledges that although she was bringing up a young family, she also had plenty of time to write, and completed two unpublished novels. "Capitalist society seems to have pulled a fast one on young couples today in that it seems necessary for every middle-class family to have two incomes. It didn't use to be like that. In fact if you owned too many things other writers would look down at you. As far as we knew Auden wasn't rich and Dylan Thomas wasn't rich. We almost never ate out and I got most of my clothes from the Salvation Army, but I didn't feel deprived. And I'm the same now. I drive a 1997 car and so long as it doesn't break down, I'll keep it for 10 or 12 years. At this moment I'm wearing three items of clothing from a second-hand store. I don't mind that my jacket cost three dollars."
Lurie has written about clothes, is highly attuned to how people look and act and dresses stylishly herself. But she is far from vain. Lodge first encountered her one winter more than 20 years ago at a conference of British and American writers in Norfolk. The delegates were in the hotel pool and Lodge realised that "Alison evidently hadn't brought her swimming costume, so she wore a tee-shirt and a very serviceable pair of thick dark knickers that I suspect had been brought as a protection against the British climate. I remember her swimming steadily up and down the pool and being impressed by her independence of spirit and total lack of vanity."
One of Lurie's first projects when she began to write again was a memoir of her Poets' Theatre friend VR (Bunny) Lang, who had died of cancer in 1956. It was published privately in 1959. "I wrote it because I was afraid I would forget all that stuff and I wanted some sort of record," she says. "Some friends got 200 copies printed in Europe and we sent them out. Someone then sent a copy to an editor in New York, who wrote to me asking if I had a novel. But if the photocopy hadn't been invented, who knows, I might never have been published."
Lurie had written her memoir of Lang while living in Los Angeles when her husband was teaching at UCLA. She used the location for her 1965 novel, The Nowhere City. The novelist Diane Johnson was also an aspiring writer at the time, and they would look after each other's children while the other worked on her novel. "Alison had lots of time-saving household hints like telling me not to bother using clothes pegs but just to throw them over the line. She was also well positioned to be a literary mentor. She helped me to address the whole project of novel writing as a profession with an expectation of being published. She opened up a literary world by representing it to me, which was a wonderful help."
In 1961 the Bishops moved to Ithaca, New York, after Jonathan was appointed to a post at Cornell and the following year Lurie's debut novel, Love and Friendship, was published. Its satirical treatment of academic lives and loves in Convers - a fictionalised Amherst - was well reviewed, although officials at one midwestern town wrote to the publisher to say they had taken the book out of the library and burned it because it mentioned contraception. The choice of title of the book also marked the beginning of Lurie's reputation as an anglophile writer.
Lodge says, "She nailed her flag to the mast by calling her first book Love and Friendship, the title of one of Jane Austen's juvenile works. It was a realistic novel of manners in the English tradition, although done in an American academic setting. She has a capacity in her novels for noting the little vanities and foibles, the revealing mannerisms and contradictions in human social behaviour, which often reminds one of Austen."
For the past 30 years Lurie has been a regular visitor to London, where she has a flat and many friends from the literary world. Antonia Fraser first met Lurie in the late 60s and remembers how struck she was by the apparent difference between her appearance and personality. "She looked rather quiet and demure but was in fact extremely sharp-witted and a lively talker. She loves gossip but not in any malicious way. Speaking with her is more like chattering in an 18th-century salon."
Judie Newman can see why Lurie is tagged as an honorary Brit, "but I see her as an extremely American writer who is very involved with utopian ideas. There is usually some sort of protected environment - a millennial sect, a group of beats, the campus - in her novels. She sets up these very nice, well-meaning, liberal groups. And then guns them down."
In The Nowhere City (1965) there is a clash between east- and west-coast sensibilities, Imaginary Friends (1967) sees modish sociological beliefs tested against a new-age community and Real People (1969) was based in an artists' colony similar to the Yaddo retreat where Lurie had spent time in the early 60s. Newman says Lurie's particularly cold-eyed treatment of liberal fuzziness can be traced to her childhood. "Her childhood home wasn't liberal; it was very left-wing, and it shows through. Her books do have that harder political edge."
Lurie has always shown support for progressive causes and was once arrested at Cornell protesting about the college's financial links to apartheid South Africa. While her early novels pre-dated the women's movement, they did anticipate it, and as Epstein says, "She certainly understood women, particularly the woes of the smart, well-educated and talented housewife." Lurie now declares herself "distressed" by much of contemporary American politics. "There are two things you always see in the paper. First there is some rich businessman arrested for stealing and the other is that we should investigate the tax credits of the working poor. Then there is drilling for oil in Alaska or standing by in Iraq when the library and the hospitals were looted while soldiers stood guard over the oil wells."
She says her radicalism in the 60s was constrained by having young children. "But I probably did all the usual things in a very mild way. If you went to a party, you were more likely to be offered grass than wine or beer and everyone dabbled in new-age things. I learned how to do astrology, but I didn't really go overboard."
She began teaching part-time at Cornell in 1969 and has continued ever since, despite now being formally retired. "It took me four novels to get a job teaching one course at the lowest possible level. That's how it was for women back then." There hadn't been a children's literature course since the previous teacher died five years before and so Lurie took it on. She has gone on to invent new courses to suit her own interests - she is teaching a humour in literature course - as well as teaching creative writing.
Fellow writer and Cornell professor James McConkey, who gets a couple of walk-on roles in Lurie's fiction, first met her on an English department ice-skating excursion at a frozen creek. "People started to play football on the ice and it became somewhat violent," he recalls. "Alison and I moved off to the side and climbed a little elevation to watch the increasing mayhem and she turned to me and said, as one writer to another, 'you can have this'. Neither of us did ever use the scene, but that type of humour attracted me to her."
Lurie said teaching gave her new things to write about and her 1974 novel, The War Between the Tates, topped the New York Times best-seller list. It was located in Corinth University (Cornell) and featured the marital vicissitudes of Brian and Erica Tate set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. The following year Lurie's own marriage ended when she separated from Bishop. "When we married, he was an agnostic like me," she explains. "But then he became very deeply involved in Catholicism and began to feel he should never have married and in fact should have gone into the church. So he tried to reject marriage, but at the same time he didn't believe in divorce, and it took a while to persuade him." The marriage wasn't finally annulled until 1985. In 1976 Lurie was promoted to professor at Cornell and the same year began a relationship with Edward Hower, a novelist and Cornell professor specialising in post-colonial literature. They married in 1995.
Lurie has not written any original fiction for children herself but has re-told various folk and fairy tales. "People were saying that these stories were terrible for kids because they were all about rich young men sweeping girls off their feet. But I'd read a lot of folk tales and knew there were plenty of other stories around. I didn't invent any, but it would be nice if I could have. I've never had an idea that I thought would have worked as children's fiction." For some it proved a controversial approach, with the writer and critic Brigid Brophy saying she would "as soon give a child a ticket for Psycho as a collection of such tales".
Lurie's 1981 book, The Language of Clothes, in which she drew on her knowledge of costume, was another departure. "I remembered that Balzac said clothes are a language," she says, "so I thought they must have nouns and verbs and adjectives. And maybe different dialects and ways of lying and ways of telling the truth." Nearly everyone comments on Lurie's highly developed observational skills as a critic, novelist, and companion. It is instructive to see her in a busy room where she draws quick sketches of people while they are talking and constantly assesses people’s clothes, manner, and health. McConkey says, "Some people get the notion that she is a bit sharp. But her skill at seeing things is based on a very compassionate awareness of people."
Indeed, one of the criticisms most often voiced about her most recent novel, The Last Resort, was that Lurie had gone soft. The book is set in Key West, Florida, where Lurie and Hower spend their winters. Newman says: "Despite the subject matter of ageing, death, Aids, etc., there was a kind of happy ending for as many of the characters as she could reasonably get a happy ending for." Lurie says, "I want them all to have happy endings although I do realise this is not true to life. But I get attached to my characters and I don't really want to do them in. And I think it is significant that the only book of mine that got a big literary award [the Pulitzer for Foreign Affairs] was the only one in which I've killed off a major character. Somehow tragedy attracts awards and comedy doesn't."
She says the main result of winning the Pulitzer Prize is that every time "someone mentions my name they say the word Pulitzer Prize. It affects your reputation but not your work. I carry on just as before." She is working on a new novel - whose subject she hasn't even told her husband about - and continues to write and lecture on children's literature. "It might seem bizarre to hear groups of very serious adults speaking rather earnestly and technically about books designed to be read and enjoyed by children," she explains. "But children's books are extremely important. Most adults don't read many books and if they do it will probably be some form of popular fiction. So a children's classic may be the last, or in some cases the only, piece of serious literature they have read. As such these books are very influential and so I think it is our responsibility to consider them as seriously and carefully as any other great literature."
- The Guardian (UK)