One of the United States's most prolific and versatile contemporary writers, Joyce Carol Oates (born 1938) focuses upon the spiritual, sexual, and intellectual decline of modern American society.
Oates was born into a working-class Catholic family outside Lockport, New York, and was raised amid a rural setting on her maternal grandparents' farm. She attended a one-room schoolhouse in Erie County, a parallel community to her fictitious Eden County where many of her works are set, and displayed an early interest in storytelling by drawing picture-tales before she could write. Oates has said that her childhood "was dull, ordinary, nothing people would be interested in," but has admitted that "a great deal frightened me." In 1953 at age fifteen, Oates wrote her first novel, though it was rejected by publishers who found its subject matter, which concerned the rehabilitation of a drug dealer, exceedingly depressing for adolescent audiences.
Oates began her academic career at Syracuse University and graduated from there as class valedictorian in 1960. In 1961 she received a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, where she met and married Raymond Joseph Smith, an English educator. The following year, after beginning work on her doctorate in English, Oates inadvertently encountered one of her own stories in Margaret Foley's anthology Best American Short Stories. This discovery prompted Oates to write professionally, and in 1963 she published her first volume of short stories, By the North Gate (1963). Oates taught at the University of Detroit between 1961 and 1967. In 1967 she and her husband moved to Canada to teach at the University of Windsor, where together they founded the Ontario Review. Since leaving the University of Windsor in 1977, Oates has been writer-in-residence at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Oates's first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), fore-shadows her preoccupation with evil and violence in the story of a destructive romance between a teenage girl and a thirty-year-old stock car driver that ends with his death in an accident. Oates's best-known and critically acclaimed early novels form a trilogy exploring three distinct segments of American society. Critics attribute the naturalistic ambience of these works to the influence of such twentieth-century authors as William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell. Oates's first installment, A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), is set in rural Eden County and chronicles the life of the daughter of a migrant worker who marries a wealthy farmer in order to provide for her illegitimate son. The woman's idyllic existence is destroyed, however, when the boy murders his stepfather and kills himself. In Expensive People (1967), the second work in the series, Oates exposes the superficial world of suburbanites whose preoccupation with material comforts reveals their spiritual poverty. The final volume in the trilogy, them (1969), which won the National Book Award for fiction, depicts the violence and degradation endured by three generations of an urban Detroit family. Critics acknowledge that Oates's experiences as a teacher in Detroit during the early 1960s contributed to her accurate rendering of the city and its social problems. Betty DeRamus stated: "Her days in Detroit did more for Joyce Carol Oates than bring her together with new people—it gave her a tradition to write from, the so-called American Gothic tradition of exaggerated horror and gloom and mysterious and violent incidents."
Oates's novels of the 1970s explore characters involved with various American professional and cultural institutions while interweaving elements of human malevolence and tragedy. Wonderland (1971), for example, depicts a brilliant surgeon who is unable to build a satisfying home life, resulting in estrangement from his wife, children, and society. Do with Me What You Will (1973) focuses upon a young attorney who is lauded by his peers for his devotion to liberal causes. The Assassins: A Book of Hours (1975) is a psychological tale which dramatizes the effects of the murder of a conservative politician on his wife and two brothers. Son of the Morning (1978) documents the rise and fall from grace of Nathan Vickery, an evangelist whose spirituality is alternately challenged and affirmed by various events in his life. Unholy Loves (1979) revolves around the lives of several faculty members of a small New York college. Considered the least emotionally disturbing of Oates's novels, Unholy Loves was praised for its indirect humor and gentle satire.
During the early 1980s, Oates published several novels that parody works by such nineteenth-century authors as Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Bellefleur (1980) follows the prescribed formula for a Gothic multigenerational saga, utilizing supernatural occurrences while tracing the lineage of an exploitative American family. Oates included explicit violence in this work; for example, a man deliberately crashes his plane into the Bellefleur mansion, killing himself and his family. A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) displays such elements of Gothic romance as mysterious kidnappings and psychic phenomena in the story of five maiden sisters living in rural Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. In Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), Oates borrowed heavily from the works of Poe as she explored the conventions of the nineteenth-century mystery novel. The protagonist of this work is a brilliant young detective who models his career after the exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. While some critics viewed these works as whimsical, others, citing Oates's accomplished depiction of evil, maintained that they are significant literary achievements.
Oates's recent novels explore the nature and ramifications of obsession. Solstice (1985) revolves around a relationship between a young divorcee and an older woman that evolves into an emotional power struggle. In Marya: A Life (1986), a successful writer and academician attempts to locate her alcoholic mother, who had abused and later abandoned her as a child. Lives of the Twins (1987), which Oates wrote under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith, presents a tale of love and erotic infatuation involving a woman, her lover, and her lover's twin brother. With You Must Remember This (1987), Oates returned to a naturalistic portrait of families under emotional and moral distress. Suicide attempts, violent beatings, disfiguring accidents, and incest figure prominently in this novel, which centers on an intense love affair between a former boxer and his adolescent niece. Set in Eden County and containing references to such historical events as Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist campaign, the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage, and the Korean War, You Must Remember This earned high praise for its evocation of American life during the early 1950s. John Updike stated that this work "rallies all [of Oates's] strengths and is exceedingly fine—a storm of experience whose reality we cannot doubt, a fusion of fact and feeling, vision and circumstance which holds together, and holds us to it, through our terror and dismay."
Oates's works in other genres also address darker aspects of the human condition. Most critics contend that Oates's short fiction, for which she has twice received the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement, is best suited for evoking the urgency and emotional power of her principal themes. Such collections as By the North Gate; Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (1974); The Lamb of Abyssalia (1980); and Raven's Wing (1986) contain pieces that focus upon violent and abusive relationships between the sexes. One widely anthologized story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," a tale of female adolescence and sexual awakening, is considered a classic of modern short fiction and was adapted for film. Oates has also composed several dramas that were produced off-Broadway in New York and has published numerous volumes of poetry. In addition, she is a respected essayist and literary critic whose nonfiction works are praised for the logic and sensibility with which she examines a variety of subjects.
them chronicles three decades, beginning in 1937, in the life of the Wendall family. The novel "is partly made up of 'composite' characters and events, clearly influenced by the disturbances of the long hot summer of 1967," Oates acknowledges. She no longer suggests, as she did in the original author's note, that her protagonist Maureen Wendall was actually her former student. That author's note, later repudiated by Oates as a fiction in itself, describes the book as "a work of history in fictional form," and asserts that Maureen's remembrances shaped the story: "[The book] is based mainly upon Maureen's numerous recollections…. It is to her terrible obsession with her personal history that I owe the voluminous details of this novel." Although regarded as a self-contained work, them can also be considered the concluding volume in a trilogy that explores different subgroups of American society. The trilogy includes A Garden of Earthly Delights, about the migrant poor, and Expensive People, about the suburban rich. The goal of all three novels, as Oates explains in the Saturday Review, is to present a cross-section of "unusually sensitive—but hopefully representative—young men and women, who confront the puzzle of American life in different ways and come to different ends."
Further Reading on Joyce Carol Oates
Allen, Mary, The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties, University of Illinois Press, 1974.
Authors in the News, Volume 1, Gale, 1976.
Bellamy, Joe David, editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, University of Illinois Press, 1974.
Bender, Eileen, Joyce Carol Oates, Indiana University Press, 1987.
Bloom, Harold, editor, Modern Critical Views: Joyce Carol Oates, Chelsea House, 1987.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 19, 1981, Volume 33, 1985.
Creighton, Joanne V., Joyce Carol Oates, G. K. Hall, 1979.