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Alice McDermott is the premier chronicler of the ordinary lives of Irish-Catholic New Yorkers in the twentieth century. Her novels generally explore the lives of a large community of family members and neighbors, and her writing evokes the feel and texture of suburban life on Catholic Long Island in the 1950s and 1960s.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Catholic Suburban Childhood
Like many of her characters, McDermott grew up in a middle-class Irish Catholic family on suburban Long Island. She was born on June 27, 1953, the third child and only daughter of Mildred Lynch McDermott, a secretary and homemaker, and William J. McDermott, who worked for Con Edison. Because both parents were first-generation Irish Americans who were orphaned in their youth, McDermott grew up never knowing her biological grandparents. She was, however, part of a large Catholic community, which led her parents to send her to elementary school at St. Boniface in Elmont, Long Island, where classes were taught by nuns. She later attended high school at Sacred Heart Academy in nearby Hempstead.
McDermott claims to have been an indifferent student: ”I liked to read books,” she told an interviewer, ”but I wasn’t really a good student. I was not engaged, let’s say, with what was going on in the classroom in high school.” McDermott also remembers filling up notebooks with stories at the age of nine or ten. Writing was a way of expressing herself privately when dinner-table conversation was dominated by her two older brothers, who both became lawyers. ”Writing was a way for me to make my own world and work out my thoughts,” she recalls.
Becoming a Writer
After graduating from Sacred Heart in 1971, McDermott entered the State University of New York at Oswego. During her undergraduate years, her interest in writing crystallized. At Oswego, McDermott took her first writing class with Paul Briand, who became her mentor. Briand and the other instructors in Oswego’s well-regarded writing program offered encouragement and helped her think of herself as a writer and to teach her to analyze her own writing carefully and closely at the sentence level.
Despite the support she received, McDermott still contemplated other career options after graduating from Oswego with a BA in 1975. For a time, she considered following in the path of her older brothers and attending law school. She settled, instead, on moving to New York City for a brief stint as a clerk-typist at Vantage Press, a vanity publishing house (a publishing house that publishes books at the author’s own expense) that supplied much of the inspiration for the fictional Vista Books of her first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982). Soon, though, McDermott enrolled in the master’s program in fiction writing at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), where she met a second mentor, Mark Smith. Acting on Smith’s advice, McDermott began sending stories to publishers. Her first short story, ”Simple Truth,” appeared in Ms. magazine in July 1978. In the next few years, she published two more stories in Ms. and placed others in Seventeen, Redbook, and Mademoiselle. Meanwhile, UNH had hired McDermott as a lecturer after she completed her MA degree in 1978. She taught English at UNH in the 1978-1979 academic year. Also during this period, McDermott met her future husband, David Armstrong, at a bar while she was celebrating the publication of her first short story. The couple married on June 16, 1979, and they now have three children.
Inspired by her first taste of literary success, McDermott decided to write a novel, which eventually became A Bigamist’s Daughter. She and her new husband moved to New York City, where Armstrong finished medical school and McDermott met Harriet Wasserman, an established literary agent who agreed to represent her. A Bigamist’s Daughter was critically well-received, and following the release of this book, McDermott and her husband moved to La Jolla, California, where Armstrong, by then a neuroscientist, conducted research while McDermott taught at the University of California, Davis. During this time, she worked on her second novel, That Night (1987). The book was published to glowing reviews and became a finalist for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/ Faulkner Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.
In the 1990s, McDermott held a variety of academic positions while she raised her children and continued to write. She taught briefly at American University in 1992, was writer-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 1995 and 1997, and settled into a long-term position as creative-writing professor at Johns Hopkins University in 1996. There, she was hired to replace the retiring novelist John Barth.
Although each of her first three novels was quite successful and helped secure McDermott a solid reputation among a small circle of literary critics, writers, and academics, her fourth novel, Charming Billy, was the one that won her popular acclaim and a much wider readership. After Charming Billy (1998) unexpectedly won the National Book Award, McDermott found herself in demand as a speaker, reader, and interview subject. The book spent several weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. She has since written two more well-received novels, including After This (2006), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. McDermott won a 2008 Corrington Award for Literary Excellence and lives near Washington, D.C.
Works in Literary Context
The Irish Catholic New Yorker Experience Exploring Catholic Spirituality
McDermott is sometimes described as a ”quiet” writer whose main purpose is to examine the emotional depth in ordinary lives and commonplace events. Although her novels contain the historically accurate details that bring her characters and their world to life, McDermott states that she is ”more interested in what’s going on in their heads than what’s going on their couches. . . . The spirituality that is tied to Catholicism is much more important to me.” In all of her novels, McDermott probes the dimensions of this spirituality and explores the Catholic viewpoint, particularly on questions relating to life and death.
Works in Critical Context
McDermott has enjoyed almost universal critical acclaim. Several of her novels have been nominated for or won major literary awards. Although her first three novels were successful and helped secure McDermott a solid reputation among a small circle of literary critics, writers, and academics, her fourth novel, Charming Billy, was the one that won her popular acclaim and a much wider readership. Since then, critics have tended to accept that McDermott is a major literary voice of the twenty-first century, and they even liken her to such literary notables as Jane Austen.
A Bigamist’s Daughter
McDermott’s A Bigamist’s Daughter was critically well-received, and reviewers often noted that the book was unusually accomplished for a first novel. Anne Tyler argues that McDermott ”sounds like anything but a first-time novelist.” Rather, she asserts that McDermott ”writes with assurance and skill” and creates a ”fascinatingly prismatic story.” Stephen Harvey of The Village Voice compliments McDermott for writing a tale ”which sounds, for a change, like truth” though it grows from ”commonplaces mined in so much undistinguished fiction.” He admires the author’s ”spare, acidic prose” as well as her refusal to succumb to romantic illusions on the one hand or to maudlin depression on the other. Le Anne Schreiber in The New York Times describes the book as a ”shrewd, sad first novel” written by ”a very tough-minded and talented young writer.” The reviewers, however, did not see the book as flawless. Several commented that Tupper and Elizabeth are not always believable, with Tyler going so far as to say that the book ”is almost done in, at times, by the fatuousness of its two central characters.”
Following her National Book Award-winning fourth novel, McDermott was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with her sixth novel, After This. As with her previous works, critics were generally impressed with the subtlety of her writing. As Jocelyn McClurg noted, ”Alice McDermott writes beautiful, understated sentences so subtle and yet so packed with insight that if you blink, you might miss, say, the death of a character.” Even with the praise given to this book, reviewers did not consider this among McDermott’s best work. Noting that ”McDermott’s talent never fails to impress,” McClurg nonetheless argues that After This ”falls short of her best books.” A reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly, while noting that ”she flawlessly encapsulates an era in the private moments of one family’s life,” states that ”[t]he story of’60s and ’70s suburbia has been told before, and McDermott has little to say about the Vietnam War itself.”
- Hightower, Laura S., ed. Newsmakers. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.
- Cryer, Dan. ”Will Success Spoil Alice McDermott?” Newsday (March 25, 1998): B06.
- Dangel, Mary Jo. ”Charming Alice McDermott: Award-winning Novelist.” St. Anthony Messenger (May 2001).
- Gwinn, Mary Ann. ”A Top Book Award Brings Changes to the ‘Ordinary’ Life of Alice McDermott.” Seattle Times (January 31, 1999): M1.
- Heron, Kim. ”Redeeming Simple Emotions.” New York Times (April 19, 1987).
- McClurg, Jocelyn. ”’After This’: A Beautifully Uneven Family Story.” USA Today (September 5, 2006): D6.
- ”McDermott, Alice. After This.” Publishers Weekly (June 19, 2006).
- Rothstein, Mervyn. ”The Storyteller Is Part of the Tale.” New York Times (May 9, 1987).
- Smith, Wendy. ”Alice McDermott.” Publishers Weekly (March 30, 1992): 85.
- Steinberg, Sally Levitt. ”L.I. Streets Inspire a Novelist.” New York Times (October 29, 1989).
- Weaver, Teresa K. ”Books: Multilayered Stories Are Writer’s Forte.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (April 21, 2002): F4.
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