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Marge Piercy’s reputation as an important fiction writer began with the appearance of her first published novel, Going Down Fast (1969). Since then, she has lectured at over four hundred institutions, won countless awards for her work, and has taken her place in the history of American letters as an important feminist writer.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Inner-City Detroit
Born on March 31, 1936, Marge Piercy grew up in inner-city Detroit as part of a patriarchal working-class family. Her father, Robert Douglas Piercy, who was born into a Presbyterian family but observed no religion, came from Welsh-English stock and grew up in a soft-coal mining town in Pennsylvania. He worked for Westinghouse all his adult life but was laid off for a year and a half during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Piercy’s mother, Bert Bernice Bunnin Piercy, grew up in poverty and never finished the tenth grade. She taught her daughter to observe closely, value curiosity, and love books, fostering in her the characteristics that Piercy claims made her a poet and writer of fiction.
Early Career Shadowed by Divorce
After attending public schools in Detroit, Piercy enrolled at the University of Michigan, winning Hopwood Awards for poetry and fiction in 1956 and for poetry in 1957. She earned her BA in 1957, having been elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi. After earning an MA from Northwestern University in 1958, Piercy married Michel Schiff, a jewish particle physicist, and went with him to live in France. Piercy ascribes the breakup of this marriage to Schiff’s inability to pay serious attention to her writing. Divorced at twenty-three, Piercy supported herself with various part-time jobs: secretary, switchboard operator, department store clerk, artists’s model, and instructor at the Gary extension of Indiana University (1960-1962). During this time she wrote several unpublished novels and also became active in the civil rights movement.
Second Marriage, to Robert Shapiro
In 1962 Piercy married Robert Shapiro, a computer scientist. The open marriage that they established meant that other men and women often shared the house with them. over the next few years the couple lived in Cambridge, San Francisco, and Boston. In spring 1965, Piercy and her husband moved to New York City, where she did research on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), helped found the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), and continued to be active in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As she continued writing and attempting to get her work published, Piercy and her husband became increasingly active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Her time was consumed by these political and literary activities during 1969, the year in which her first published novel appeared. During this period, Piercy also published the first of seventeen volumes of poetry, Breaking Camp (1968).
Feminist Beliefs Find Literary Expression
Growing out of her political involvement during the 1960s, Going Down Fast demonstrates how power corrupts even when it seems to represent progress. Such progressive developments as urban renewal and the building of a university extension may result in mere demolition, which Piercy likens to legalized rape. In Going Down Fast and the novels that followed, Piercy’s radical beliefs about the oppression of women found literary expression.
Involvement in Women’s Movement
In the years following the publishing of GoingDown Fast the political movement Piercy was part of gradually fragmented, and she became involved in the women’s movement—writing articles, organizing consciousness-raising groups, and attending feminist functions. In 1971 Piercy and her husband moved to Cape Cod, where she still lives. Once there, Piercy’s creativity and sense of peace blossomed. She discovered that she loved gardening, became active with local women’s groups, and made frequent trips to Boston. However, Piercy’s marriage began to fail, and she and Shapiro were divorced in 1980.
During these years, Piercy’s fiction grew progressively stronger, and her intense interest in history and politics is again evident in Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970). Classified as dystopian science fiction, the novel recalls the author’s experiences as a member of SDS and anticipates her later interest in futuristic worlds. In Small Changes (1973) Piercy takes these ideas further, registering the meager alterations in the lives of women in spite of the so-called radical movements of the 1960s.
In an autobiographical essay in volume one of Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Piercy says that her next novel, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), arose from ”a tension between the harshness of much of my earlier life and the gratitude I felt toward the land where I was living.”
Piercy’s works of the late 1970s and early 1980s emphasize the politics of city planning and the poet’s sensual pleasure in such activities as gardening, making love, and cooking. For example, in The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing (1978), she captures sense of place within a structure based upon the four seasons. Secure in love, Piercy employs a gentle wit while exploring the vicissitudes of political and domestic life. Stone, Paper, Knife (1983) contains poems championing nature, women, animals, and the pleasures of gardening, as well as pieces assailing such figures of oppression as the slum landlord, pornographers, and the military.
On June 2, 1982, Piercy married Ira Wood, whom she had known for six years. Early in their relationship they wrote a play, The Last White Class (1979) , and poems. Later they wrote a novel, Storm Tide (1998). Piercy credits Wood with giving her an emotional and artistic security that nourishes her activism and her writing.
From the beginning Piercy’s novels expressed a fundamental belief in the possibilities of freedom for all people, regardless of age, sex, race, religion, or sexual preference. She recognizes history as a continuing lesson in how people may exist together as true individuals while creating a stable society based on understanding and respect. Piercy continues to build on her progressive themes in her later fiction.
Piercy’s next novel, The High Cost of Living(1978), is set in Detroit and focuses on the types of compromises a lesbian graduate student must make in her search for love, acceptance, financial security, and self-respect. Vida (1980) , like Dance the Eagle to Sleep, is based on Piercy’s experiences with SDS. In Braided Lives (1982), considered Piercy’s most autobiographical novel, the conformist atmosphere of the late 1950s is evoked in intensely poetic language. Fly Away Home (1984) is perhaps Piercy’s most successful attempt to combine political themes with domestic drama.
Gone to Soldiers (1987) takes a bold step forward from her previous work. The book is a war story that examines women’s position in what has traditionally been masculine terrain. Piercy uses war to present a religious, gay, feminist-psychological slant on ethnicity. In He, She, & It (1991), language—specifically the power of naming—is central, as it often is in Piercy’s work, and she speaks of failed relationships, violence, oppression, and humankind’s inability to conserve and use well the habitable earth. In 1993 He, She, & It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. City of Darkness, City of Light (1996) views the French Revolution from a feminist perspective. The novel also focuses on the roots of modern feminism in the French Revolution, examining how revolutionaries abandon their original ideals as they become corrupted by power.
Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Piercy continued to publish poetry and fiction but turned increasingly toward nonfiction work, including So You Want to Learn to Write (2001), her memoir Sleeping with Cats (2003), and Pesach for the Rest of Us (2007).
Works in Literary Context
Piercy is a prominent feminist writer whose political commitment informs her works, which focus on individuals struggling to escape restrictive social roles to realize personal potential. Frankly polemical, Piercy’s colloquial, free verse poetry passionately excoriates such phenomena as sexism, capitalism, and pollution, using exaggerated imagery and unabashed emotionalism in service of her social commentary. Piercy’s novels share these characteristics while concentrating on individuals often deemed marginal by mainstream American society, including working-class Jews, lesbians, urban African Americans, and immigrants of various nationalities. Although Piercy’s depiction of the evils of poverty are often bleakly realistic, her works display a fundamental optimism in the power of the collective will expressed in political action.
Piercy is one of the best known of that group of American women writers who have created popular fictions about the changing face of radical America and, in particular, about changing perceptions of and about women. Piercy writes about, and on behalf of, radical political causes, but her main interest is in sexual politics. Taken together, her novels offer a feminist’s eye-view of American history from World War II ( Gone to Soldiers), through the 1950s (Braided Lives) to the heady days of the 1960s’ student activism and anti-Vietnam war campaigns (treated retrospectively in Vida), and the raising of consciousness of the women’s movement of the late 1960s and 1970s (The High Cost of Living, Small Changes, and Fly Away Home).
There seems to be a general consensus that by far the most interesting and accomplished of Piercy’s novels is one of her earliest creations, Woman on the Edge of Time. Like much contemporary feminist fantasy fiction Woman on the Edge of Time uses the science fiction genre to enact the vision of women overcoming oppressive social and psychological conditions by transcending both the physical and ideological constraints of patriarchal society.
Works in Critical Context
”Almost alone among her American contemporaries, Marge Piercy is radical and writer simultaneously, her literary identity so indivisible that it is difficult to say where
one leaves off and the other begins,” writes Elinor Langer in the New York Times Book Review. Piercy’s moralistic stance, more typical of nineteenth- than twentieth-century writers, has alienated some critics, producing charges that she is more committed to her politics than to her craft. Other critics maintain that Piercy at her angriest is Piercy at her best.
For example, Piercy considers Braided Lives one of her best and most original works. In general, critics liked the writing too, but some note that the novel deals too excessively with the problems of women. Brina Caplan in a review for the Nation points out that Braided Lives seems ”to accommodate almost every humiliation to which women are liable.” Similarly, Katha Pollitt in the New York Times finds that Piercy ”makes Jill & Company victims of every possible social cruelty and male treachery, usually more than once.” Pollitt hails, however, Piercy’s representation of female characters as fighters by noting that even those who did not survive the cultural oppression fought against the attitudes of the day. Pollitt concludes that the book ”is a tribute to Piercy’s strengths” and ”by virtue of her sheer force of conviction, plus a flair for scene writing, she writes thought-provoking, persuasive novels, fiction that is both political and aimed at a popular audience but that is never just a polemic or just a potboiler.”
- Bartkowski, Frances. Feminist Utopias. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
- Freedman, Diane P. An Alchemy of Genres: Cross-Genre Writing by American Feminist Poet-Critics. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1992.
- Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. ”The Double Narrative Structure of Small Changes.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1985.
- Hoegland, Lisa Maria. Feminism and Its Fictions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
- Jones, Anne Hudson. ”Feminist Science Fiction and Medical Ethics.” In The Intersectional of Science Fiction and Philosophy, edited by Robert E. Myers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.
- Keulen, Margaret. Radical Imagination: Feminist Conception of the Future in Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Sally Miller. New York: Peter Lang, 1991.
- Kress, Susan. ”In and Out of Time.” In Future Females: A Critical Anthology, edited by Marlene Barr. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981.
- Michael, Magali Cornier. Feminism and the Postmodern Impulse: Post-World War II Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
- Musleah, Rachel. One on One: Portrait of Marge Piercy. New York: Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of American, Inc., 2000.
- Ruddick, Sara. ”Thinking Mothers / Conceiving Self.” In Representations of Motherhood, edited by Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 29-35.
- Shands, Kerstin W. The Repair ofthe World: the Novels of Marge Piercy. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.
- Thielmann, Pia. Marge Piercy’s Women: Visions Captured and Subdued. Frankfurt, Germany: R. G. Fischer, 1986.
- Walker, Sue, and Eugenie Hamner, eds. Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy. Mobile, Ala.: Negative Capability Press, 1991.
- Orr, Elaine. ”Mothering as Good Fiction: Instances from Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.” Journal of Narrative Technique 23 (Spring 1993): 61-79.
- Sizemore, Christine W. ”Masculine and Feminine Cities: Marge Piercy’s Going Down Fast and Fly Away Home.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 13, no. 1 (1992): 90-110.
- Marge Piercy. Retrieved November 18, 2008, from http://margepiercy.com.
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