Friday, July 8, 2016

Birthday: Shirley Ann Grau, a most singular Southern writer.


Shirley Ann Grau (1929-  )
Recipient, The Pulitzer Prize, 1965

“Oak trees come out of acorns, no matter how unlikely that seems. An acorn is just a tree's way back into the ground. For another try. Another trip through. One life for another.”

The Writer’s Almanac says of Grau: “[Her] novels and short stories, set in the Deep South, explore the intricacies of race and gender. Grau was born in New Orleans (1929), spent her childhood in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, and was educated at finishing schools. She says, “I was probably the only 17-year-old who knew precisely how to set a table if I happened to be giving a dinner for the pope.” The head of the English department at Tulane University turned down her request for a teaching position, telling her, “There will be no females in the English Department.” She married a philosophy teacher, began having children, and kept writing, making notes on scraps of paper and holding “noisy conversations” with her characters. Grau corrected the galleys for her first book, The Black Prince, in her pediatrician’s office, as her son was being treated for measles, spreading the papers on the long examination table.
“Though considered one of the finest portrayers of relationships between blacks and whites in American literature, Grau says, “I’m interested in people, but not as representative of race. I see people first. I do stories first.” She was just 35 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1965 for The Keepers of the House, about a wealthy white man who marries his black housekeeper.”
As Deep South reported last year, Grau hung up on the caller from Columbia University:
“I was awfully short-tempered that morning because I’d been up all night with one of my children,” Grau says. “I thought his voice was so familiar and I had at the time a very amusing friend who was a ghastly practical joker, and I thought I recognized his voice … So, I said to the voice I mistook, ‘yeah and I’m the Queen of England too,’ and I hung up on him.”

Thankfully, the Pulitzer Prize committee member tasked with calling her didn’t give up and called her publisher Alfred A. Knopf. “The news got to me, but that was very embarrassing,” she says.

The Keepers of the House was published in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It covers seven generations of the Howland family and deals with hypocrisy in racism through patriarch William Howland’s relationship and fathering of three children with his black housekeeper Margaret. Keepers is set in Alabama and based on time spent during Grau’s childhood in Montgomery, where she got to know her own sprawling family and witnessed the intricacies of racial politics (a world she compares to the one portrayed in Carson McCullers’ A Member of the Wedding.)

keepers“In those days, there were actually churches where, in the midst of Sunday services, the Klan in full regalia would ride up and march up to the pulpit and leave money, which meant plain and simple the preacher was a member of the Klan,” she says. “You don’t see anything like that anymore, but I doubt anything’s changed.”

Dr. Alison Bertolini, who received her doctorate in English Literature from Louisiana State University in 2009 and is the author of Vigilante Women in Contemporary American Fiction, says, “Shirley Ann Grau writes of our most sublimated and shameful prejudices, about how miscegenation infiltrates every level of society, and about how racial harmony is a pretense that integration alone is unable to address.”

While Keepers received one of the highest honors in literature, it wasn’t well received for Grau at home. A cross was burned on her lawn in Metairie, and she says she also received threats and experienced a few heated exchanges with “semi-literate gentlemen.”

Grau found humor in the incident though, a quality that is easily her most endearing. “It was a hot summer, I was away and my sprinkler hadn’t turned on,” she remembers. “The ground was hard as a rock, so they decided to improvise and put it on the ground. It left a lovely mark. The picture I still cherish.”
Never lacking in human interest material (her husband, a Tulane professor, turned her into a sort of agony aunt for students, sending them over with problems), Grau nevertheless managed to move in all the best literary circles:
Spending summers at Martha’s Vineyard also helped Grau find time to write and stay connected to the New York world of literature and publishing — John Updike had a house on one side of her, Thornton Wilder on the other. While she and her family were looking for a way to escape the hot summers in New Orleans, Grau was also eager to set herself apart from other Southern writers. “The phrase that drives me crazy is ‘woman writer,'” she says. “I want an even break, that’s all.”

Her time at the women’s college of Newcomb led her to becoming a writer in the first place, but she didn’t exactly get the even break she was looking for. Much like her character Joan Mitchell, Grau says she didn’t have much of a career path in mind when she started college. “The little finishing schools I’d gone to were really awfully good fundamental schools, so I didn’t have to work very much,” she says. “I was probably the only 17-year-old who knew precisely how to set a table if I happened to be giving a dinner for the pope.”

A composition teacher by the name of John Husband helped her publish her first short story, “For a Place in the Sun,” in 1948, and her first collection of short stories, The Black Prince, a few years later received glowing reviews from The New York Times, Herald Tribune and Time Magazine, comparing her to Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and J.D. Salinger.
Grau published nine novels, essay collections and books of short stories between 1955 and 1994.

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