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Annie Proulx is a successful and highly praised novelist and short-story writer. Her stories, published in four collections, deal with themes of a changing American way of life in areas invaded by civilizing forces adverse to the inhabitants. Proulx’s novels, which deal with similar themes, have brought her popularity and success; yet, her short stories, she admits, are the works that give the swift and stunning insights into human behavior she desires most.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life of Wandering
Born Edna Annie Proulx to George Napoleon Proulx and Lois “Nellie” (Gill) Proulx in Norwich, Connecticut, on August 22, 1935, Proulx was the first of five daughters. Her mother’s family came to New England from England in 1635; her father’s family came to Canada from France in 1637 and to New England in the 1860s. Although her family’s roots on this continent were set down early, Proulx’s father moved his family from state to state in New England and then to North Carolina, no doubt contributing to his eldest daughter’s penchant for travel and relocation.
From Freelance Journalist to Novelist
An early chapter in Proulx’s life could have led to a very different existence for the author. After receiving her B.A. and M.A. in history, Proulx completed doctoral orals in Renaissance economic history, the Canadian North, and China; but in 1975 she abandoned academia for fear of not finding a teaching job. The end of her academic career coincided with the end of her third marriage; as a result, Proulx raised her three sons as a single parent.
While she was certainly not an overnight sensation, having written stories from the age of ten and published short fiction since her early twenties, Proulx did present her own remarkable success story, one characterized by hard work and a fierce independence. Proulx was transformed into a novelist after nineteen years of work as a freelance journalist. She wrote articles for magazines on a myriad of topics, including weather, mountain lions, Affrican beadwork, cider, and lettuces. Her work appeared in the publications Country Journal, Organic Gardening, and Yankee. In the early 1980s, Proulx produced a shelf full of on-assignment “how-to” books on food, gardening, and carpentry. Another journalistic venture cast Proulx as the founder and editor of a rural newspaper, the Vershire Behind the Times, from 1984 to 1986. The financial rewards for such work were meager; devoting time to writing short stories was a luxury—Proulx averaged two a year, nearly all of which were published. The experience of working for a rural newspaper would later inform her novel The Shipping News (1993).
In 1983, Proulx’s career as a fiction writer was boosted by a notice in Best American Short Stories, an honor that was repeated in 1987. Proulx published her first book, Heart Songs and Other Stories, in 1988. This collection introduced the reading public to Proulx’s gritty themes and deft, if unconventional, use of language. Against the starkly beautiful backdrop of the New England countryside and in the guise of hunting and fishing stories, Proulx depicts the struggles of men trying to cope with their emotionally and morally tangled lives. Proulx illustrates the stories with vivid verbal pictures, such as a man who eats a fish ”as he would a slice of watermelon” or a woman who is as ”thin as a folded dollar bill, her hand as narrow and cold as a trout.”
When Scribner’s editor Tom Jenks drew up Proulx’s contract for Heart Songs and Other Stories, he suggested that they include a novel in the agreement. The resulting work, Postcards (1992), proved to be a liberating experience for Proulx, who had never before considered undertaking such a task. In many ways, Postcards resembles the stories found in Heart Songs, but given a larger scope.
Several Awards for Fiction
Postcards was a professional and personal success; it proved Proulx’s skill and comfort working in the new form. The most tangible evidence of her achievement was receiving the 1993 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and its $15,000 bonus. Proulx also enjoyed the distinction of being the first woman to be so honored.
The very next year, Proulx capped this success by writing The Shipping News (1993). This novel is a dark but comic tale set in Newfoundland, the story of a luckless newspaper reporter named Quoyle. It is packed with details of the island’s landscape, weather, food, and language, all drawn in a choppy yet vibrant style. The book resulted in a steady stream of awards, all topped by the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Shipping News was the result of a canoeing trip to Newfoundland, followed by careful research. After falling in love with the place, the author took at least seven trips to the island, talking to residents and absorbing the atmosphere. She pulled her characters’ names from telephone directories and words from the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Here the journalist and historian in Proulx surfaced, both in her interest in seemingly arcane details and in her passion for ”getting it right.” Proulx also took inspiration from The Ashley Book of Knots (1944), an expansive encyclopedia of knot-tying she bought at a yard sale.
With this approach to writing fiction, Proulx breaks with the standard advice to ”write what you know.” In researching her next novel, Proulx became an expert on accordion music. She studied not how to play the instrument, but how to take one apart and then reconstruct it. Accordion Crimes, published in 1996, is the tale of an accordion as it moves from owner to owner over the course of one hundred years. In 1999, she followed up with a collection of short stories entitled Close Range: Wyoming Stories. The collection earned her the New Yorker Award for fiction in 2000.
Celebrity In the wake of her fame, Proulx was hard-pressed to find the time she needed to research and write. On top of her schedule of book signings and readings, she was inundated with requests for interviews, many of which took place in her remote Vermont home. As a result, Proulx developed a reputation for shunning the media and coveting her private life. She soon bought a second place in Newfoundland, and by the spring of 1995, she had moved to Wyoming, where she resides today. The author’s latest collection of short stories, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3, was released in 2008.
Works in Literary Context
Proulx has made an important contribution to the American short story. Her realistic, carefully researched and detailed stories have been collected and published in four volumes. She is known for her carefully chosen details that pare down the narrative to the essential kernel of meaning, and her artful use of characterization to make her people vital and real. Two important themes that emerge in her writing include the idea of rural life interrupted and accidental love.
Rural Life Interrupted
Many of Proulx’s stories show rural life in great detail and exposition. She questions the effects of modernization on such an existence. In ”On the Antler,” the first story in Heart Songs, the outdoors become a central image. The story presents the lore that has been kept alive by men throughout the centuries in ”how-to” books and hunters and fishermen’s true adventures, which preserve a way of life that seems to be disappearing. The Hawkheel character sees the nature he loves and lives for becoming devalued and stolen from him; the skills he has learned for survival are useless in the
cruel competitive environment of the late twentieth century. Proulx uses this type of character when writing about rural New England, Wyoming, and other the locales of her novels.
In her statements about rural life, Proulx often pits outsiders against locals. Her story ”Stone City” shows an outsider coming to Chopping County mainly for grouse hunting. Proulx uses humor in satirizing the narrator, a city dweller who infiltrates the backwoods territory, feeling superior to the locals. Interestingly, the story deals with the mean slyness and murderous rage of the Stones, a family with deeply entrenched roots in the area. The tale deals with the complexities of human emotion and both the nobility and squalor of rural life.
”Brokeback Mountain,” the last story in the Close Range: Wyoming Stories, won prestigious awards and attracted notice from a wide audience. A film adaptation of the story was released in 2005 to critical acclaim. The story describes the relationship between two men, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, who meet in their late teens; fall in love without calling it that; separate and marry women; and have children. However, they meet for short vacations, keeping alive their secret relationship until one dies in early middle age. The story is simply and significantly a love story. The enemy in the story is the hard, narrow, and violent antipathy toward such a relationship in the male-dominated society of the West. Their love for each other surprises and confuses them, and the course of their relationship is beset by the same jealousy, tenderness, and disputes as any heterosexual love. Proulx’s message seems to be that people find love only accidentally and improbably in this world, and the love lives on only with great sacrifice and suffering.
Works in Critical Context
Proulx first attracted widespread critical and public attention when her novel Postcards (1992), won the 1993 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Critics have praised her affirmative portrayal of the human condition through the lives of quirky, often less than heroic characters, and her juxtaposition of lavish language against the stern northern settings of her short stories and novels.
The publication of Heart Songs (1988), a collection of short stories, marked the beginning of Proulx’s transformation from journalist to full-time fiction writer. Of these tales, critic Kenneth Rosen of the New York Times Book Review concludes: ”Their sometimes enigmatic, often lyrical images seem to complement New England’s lavish but barren beauty.” There were also some more critical of her work. Jane Gardam concedes Proulx’s command of language: ”She describes the minute, unspoken ritual events in these lives. … She is very funny.” However, Gardam adds that ”in spite of her good dialogue and distilled construction … I find these stories quite unconsciously derivative, and . . . rather ordinary.”
The Shipping News
Proulx’s second novel, The Shipping News, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994. Howard Norman of the New York Times Book Review acknowledges ”Proulx’s surreal humor and her zest for the strange foibles of humanity.” Sandra Scofeld, writing for the Washington Post Book World, also praises Proulx’s humor, calling the book a ”wildly comic, heart-thumping romance … [Proulx] uses language that is riotous yet clearly under control. . . . She is capable of precision, the perfect description, the keenest insight.” William Green writes in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: ”Proulx captures the flavor of Newfoundland as convincingly as if she were born there. … The Shipping News is brimming with eccentric characters and rich subplots.”
Still, there were some who thought that the novel lacked emotional depth. Verlyn Klinkenborg writes that there is ”a distinction to be made between a successful writer and the gravy that is ladled over that writer by the literary press.” She goes on to say that Proulx was ”served up hot.” More often than not, however, Proulx’s works collectively have been received with enthusiasm from popular and scholarly reviews.
- Rood, Karen L. Understanding Annie Proulx. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
- Bolick, Katie. ”Imagination Is Everything.” Atlantic Unbound (November 1997).
- Gardam, Jane. ”Rather Ordinary Horror and Hatred.” Spectator (March 25, 1995): 33-34.
- Green, William. ”Oh, to Be Less of an Oaf in Newfoundland.” Los Angeles Times BookReview (July 18,1993): 9.
- Klinkenborg, Verlyn. ”The Princess of Tides.” New Republic (May 30, 1994): 35-37.
- Scofeld, Sandra. ”Harbors of the Heart.” Washington Post Book World (August 1, 1993): 5.
- Steinberg, Sybil. ”E. Annie Proulx: An American Odyssey.” Publishers Weekly (June 1996): 57-58.
- Withworth, John. ”Was Love Then a Bag of Sweets?” Spectator (December 1993). ”An Interview with Annie Proulx.” Missouri Review 22, no. 2 (1999): 77-79.
- Rosen, Kenneth. In Short; Fiction. Retrieved November 23, 2008, from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/ fbllpage.html?res=950DE0DF153EF93AA15752 C0A96F948260.
- Norman, Howard. In Killick-Claw, Everybody Reads The Gammy Bird. Accessed November 23, 2008, from http://partners.nytimes.com/books/99/05/23/ specials/proulx-shipping.html.
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