Anne Tyler (born 1941) is considered one of America's most important living writers. Her works evince familiarity with an extended literary tradition, with influences ranging from Emerson and Thoreau to Faulkner and Welty.
Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1941; her family moved frequently, generally living in Quaker communities in the Midwest and South, before settling in North Carolina. Tyler attended Duke University, where she majored in Russian. In her first year, she became a pupil of Reynolds Price, who himself would become a major novelist and long-time friend. Price encouraged Tyler to pursue writing more vigorously, but she instead dedicated most of her attention to Russian. She graduated in 1961 then entered Columbia University to continue her studies. In 1962, she returned to Duke as Russian bibliographer for the library. The following year, Tyler married Taghi Modarressi, a psychologist from Iran. In 1964, the two moved to Montreal, where Tyler worked as an assistant librarian at McGill University Law School and wrote her first two novels If Morning Ever Comes (1964) and The Tin Can Tree (1965). In 1967, she and her husband moved to Baltimore, the setting for most of Tyler's subsequent novels. With the publication of A Slipping-Down Life (1970) and The Clock Winder (1972), Tyler began to receive more serious and positive critical attention, but only in the mid-seventies, when such writers as Gail Godwin and John Updike called attention to her, did her novels benefit from widespread recognition. Tyler's stature as an important literary figure was confirmed by the success of Morgan's Passing (1980), which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award and received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. Dinner at Homesick Restaurant (1982) won the PEN/ Faulkner Award for fiction and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. The Accidental Tourist (1985) and Breathing Lessons (1988) were honored respectively with a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
Throughout Tyler's novels, characters struggle to negotiate a balance between self-identity and family identity. In her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, Ben Joe Hawkes returns home from law school because he could not concentrate; he worried what was happening at home while he was gone. The only man in a family of women, Ben feels he must play the role of substitute father. But after only a day back, he is oppressed with the responsibilities he at least partially imposes upon himself. In The Clock Winder, Elizabeth Abbot flees from the roles of gardener and "handyman" in her family, but she winds up acting out the same roles for another family, the Emersons. She tries to escape that family, too, but returns to be caregiver, wife, and mother. In a less traditional rebellion from conventional family roles, Evie Decker of A Slipping-Down Life protests her lot as an unattractive, overweight girl by carving the name of a rock musician into her forehead. The action makes her the center of popular attention, but she eventually marries the musician, whose career she has boosted; she ends up not merely as wife, but as an object of good publicity. Dinner at Homesick Restaurant, portrays the psychological suffering of abused children who cannot permanently leave the site of their abuse, the "homesick restaurant." The children relive the family dinners that were never finished. The novel suggests, much like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, that the defining influence of family cannot be escaped. Tyler's more recent novels, while dealing with psychologically suffering characters, have been slightly less pessimistic. The Accidental Tourist, the movie version of which helped make Tyler an even more well-known name, deals with the grief of Macon Leary—whose marriage collapses after the murder of his son. Like protagonists from Tyler's previous novels, Macon has a close yet ambivalent relationship with his brothers and sisters and must choose between lonely security and the uncertain comforts of human love. Critics find Tyler at the height of her powers of observation in Breathing Lessons, as she defines personality through small details and gestures and emphasizes the influence of a shared history on a marital relationship. Within a day-in-the-life framework augmented by flashbacks, she captures the nuances of compromise, disappointment, and love that make up Ira and Maggie Moran's marriage. The owner of a picture-framing store, Ira is uncommunicative and compulsively neat; Maggie is his warm, clumsy, talkative wife of nearly three decades. Intending to travel to Pennsylvania for a funeral on the Saturday morning of the novel's opening, and to return that afternoon, the couple spend most of the day on the road, making two extended sidetrips caused by Maggie's meddling in the affairs of strangers and relatives. Generously sprinkled with comic set-pieces that reveal her characters' foibles, Breathing Lessons has been called Tyler's funniest novel to date.
Tyler's first two novels received little critical attention; they were seen as slight works by an author who showed significant promise. Tyler herself has essentially disavowed her first novels. Tyler and critics alike viewed A Slipping-Down Life as an important point of development in her career as writer; the portrait of Evie was praised for its accurate depiction of loneliness and desperation. Most critics considered Tyler's fifth novel, Celestial Navigation, a breakthrough for her career. The praise of Gail Godwin and John Updike helped launch the book into further popularity, and with each successive novel, Tyler gained more respect not just as a writer with popular appeal but as a writer of literary importance. As her works began to receive nominations for major literary awards, however, Tyler came under more intense scrutiny from critics, some of whom argued that she too glibly mixed comedy with seriousness. After Dinner with Homesick Restaurant, though, few critics would deny her importance in contemporary fiction.
Further Reading on Anne Tyler
Bestsellers 89, Issue 1, Gale, 1989.
Binding, Paul, Separate Country: A Literary Journey through the American South, Paddington Press, 1979.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 7, 1977; Volume 11, 1979; Volume 18, 1981; Volume 28, 1984; Volume 44, 1987; Volume 59, 1990.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Yearbook: 1982, 1983.
Evans, Elizabeth, Anne Tyler, Twayne, 1993.
Flora, Joseph M., and Robert Bain, Fifty Southern Writers After 1900: A Bio-Bibliographic Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 491-504.
Inge, Tonette Bond, editor, Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, University of Alabama Press, 1990.