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With two award-winning novels and works published in The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review, Larry Woiwode has attracted critical and popular attention. Writing in a distinctly mannered, traditional style with realistic autobiographical detail, his writing evokes surprising emotional responses in his readers. Woiwode’s work often reflects the biblical view of covenant families resting on God’s grace or rebelling against it.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood and Tragedy
Woiwode was born October 30,1941 and was the second child in a family of three sons and two daughters. Religion was woven into the fabric of their lives. His father, Everett, was a devout Catholic; Audrey, his mother, was raised Protestant but later converted to Catholicism. Both parents were schoolteachers, and while the boys were growing up in Sykes-ton, North Dakota, Everett served at the local school as athletic coach, teacher, and superintendent.
When Woiwode was nine, his father moved the family to Illinois. This event, as Woiwode later reflected, seemed to bend his life in two. His mother, who never adjusted to the move, lost the will to fight her recurrent kidney problems. On January 30, 1951, she died. Her death made her son—who had never understood her disease—fear that his years of negative thoughts about her had brought on her death.
The family rearranged itself after its center dropped out. His father worked odd jobs for a while before going back into teaching, and he shared the children’s upbringing with various relatives. Woiwode spent summers with his maternal grandparents in Minnesota, and he later hired himself out for farm work. Hours of turning rows with a tractor gave him a feel for the contours of land and a habit of listening—to the clattering machinery, to the breathing earth, and to his own thoughts.
Walt Whitman and the Big Apple
In time he followed his brother Dan to the University of Illinois in Urbana. By then, the faith of his father had lost its relevance. Not because of atheism—”I can’t remember a time when I didn’t basically believe, ”he has said—but other matters came to the foreground: girls and goals, alcohol and angst, drama and literature. He was not sure of his direction, and this led to his changing his academic major several times (and finally leaving the university, four and a half years later, without a degree). However, Woiwode had read and written poetry ever since his high school days. And as he read Walt Whitman, he came to recognize the character of a writer’s voice, and was launched on a quest for his own vocabulary and rhythm.
Stung by the end of a romance in his senior year of college, the young Woiwode moved to New York City in the World’s Fair year of 1964. Pursuing writing and acting, he allowed himself one year to become established as a writer and pursued that goal with an important advantage: a professor had already introduced him to William Maxwell, fiction editor of The New Yorker. Maxwell was always receptive to talent, but he shared another bond with his new protege: he, too, was deeply affected by the loss of his mother at an early age.
Over the next several months, Woiwode supported himself with a part-time job at a small press and public-relations firm, while he worked on stories and met Maxwell for sandwiches in Central Park. On Maxwell’s side, their relationship became a struggle to save the young writer’s work from becoming overly intellectual. Woiwode himself recognized his tendency to try to be profound rather than honest, and he finally realized the impossibility of such a thing.
First Novel Wins Faulkner Award
Woiwode made a decision, with Maxwell’s encouragement, to write what he knew, and he turned to his own family for inspiration. His first submitted story to The New Yorker was a tenderly drawn portrait of his grandmother, ”a woman who influenced me more than any writer.” One late afternoon in November 1964, Maxwell called him into his office and announced, ”You’re in.” The story had been accepted for publication. With more financial stability assured, he reunited with his university sweetheart, Carole, and they were married in 1965.
What I’m Going to Do, I Think (1969), is both the title of Woiwode’s first novel and a description of its character Chris’s unsettled state of mind after he is forced into marriage. It was written in the years before abortion was legal— Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that nullified all state and federal laws against abortion, would not be decided until 1973. The story follows the protagonist as he decides whether to break up, or to stay with his new wife; to welcome the child or recommend an abortion; and to accept the ecstasy and grief of commitment or run away. The novel won the William Faulkner Foundation Award the year of its publication.
A Family Chronicle
With his appointment as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1973, Woiwode continued work on his second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, written in the tradition of the family chronicle. The work is a scrapbook bulging with newspaper clippings, journal entries, and countless snapshots in prose, and it spans four generations of a family whose individual members appear and grow and bleed into each other.
Once an ”agnostic humanist, a hedonist roarer,” and later a writer with critical success and money but no peace, Woiwode began a spiritual odyssey that led him to settle with his family on a farm in North Dakota in 1978. His growing religious passion lost him some friends but helped him see his writing as a form of Christian service. As he continued writing, he also engaged in teaching in several university writing programs and continued to win awards for his prose.
With his later novels—Born Brothers (1988), Poppa John (1991), and Indian Affairs (1992)— Woiwode found himself confronted with a thinning audience. His voice was undiminished in power and even more polished in craft, but it was too explicitly religious for a world steeped in skepticism. Not surprisingly, his later novels were not as well-received as his earlier ones. Woiwode’s What I Think I Did (1998), though classified as a memoir, includes novelistic recollections of his early life that are trained along a running narrative of the blizzard of1996, a once-in-a-lifetime storm that threatened the safety of his family and reduced him to burning construction timbers, broken furniture, and even old books for warmth.
A more recent foray into nonfiction, A Step From Death (2008), continues the meditative, autobiographical narrative written in the nonchronological and scattered way of memory. This memoir extends Woiwode’s story of starting out as an actor in New York City, where he became a lifelong friend of ”Bob” DeNiro before shifting to writing. This work, based on a near-death experience, is the tale of almost losing his life as the result of a horrendous accident where he became entangled with a spinning tractor shaft that jerked him to the ground and resulted in a two-hour desperate struggle. During the agony, recalling how field mice sometimes die of sheer panic with only a forepaw caught in a trap, he thus persisted to free himself from the shaft. His memoir has been recognized as a portrait that is ”full of wisdom, generosity, humility, love of wife and family and reverence for the earth.” Woiwode continues crafting his memoirs, indicating in this latest that he has several other books nearing readiness for publication.
Works in Literary Context
Woiwode, like other Great Plains writers—Willa Cather, Wright Morris, Sharon Butala, and Kathleen Norris—articulates the absolute necessity of the residents of the Plains to establish and maintain a connectedness to place and to understand the relationship between one’s existence and place. A demanding environment that challenges survival wraps his recurrent themes of the meaning and impact of death and the intricate negotiations between one’s psyche and personal moral code within the demands of family and society. His religious and intellectual prose achieves a powerful psychological realism and depth of insight in an intensely imagined, lyrical style remarkable for its clarity and precision. Woiwode’s view of art as a vehicle for access to truth places in him the company of artists and writers such as Madeleine L’Engle and C. S. Lewis.
American Realists and Experimentation
Following World War II, American writers began to create innovative and self-aware, or reflexive works that reflected the shape and texture of everyday life and popular culture. From chronicling the elite classes of society, writers increasingly rooted their work in the landscape of everyday existence. Woiwode’s stories and characters echo this realism as they depict everyday struggles of family life. Recognizing Woiwode’s unique use of language in his characterizations, he is acclaimed for his ability to paint authentic characters with distinctive sensibilities through the use of thought and consciousness.
Woiwode’s writing often reflects complex and historical family relationships that encompass alternately resisting or resting in God’s grace. Critic Brent MacLaine comments that in Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Woiwode explores the literary tradition of the family chronicle utilizing
the metaphor of the family photo album as a narrative device to explore the tensions between the public, immediately accessible meaning of the photograph and its private, often mysterious and inaccessible meaning, which, when revealed, shows or tells a quite different picture.
Works in Critical Context
”At his best,” say critics Paul Marx and Loretta Cobb, ”Woiwode renders the commonplace with such emotional and psychological truth that all the reader’s capacity for empathy and compassion is tapped.” They also note his powers of description, stating that ”at his best, his readers see and feel and learn with him, making easy transfers of their fictional experience to their own lives.”
Beyond the Bedroom Wall
After What I’m Going to Do, I Think earned Woiwode critical success, Beyond the Bedroom Wall extended that success to mainstream readers, ultimately selling over two million copies. Author John Gardner, reviewing the work for The New York Times Book Review, is generous with his praise, stating, ”It seems to me that nothing more beautiful and moving has been written in years.” Gardner acknowledges that the writing is ”patently sentimental” and even sometimes embarrassing, yet he still credits the author’s work as ”simply brilliant.” An unnamed reviewer for The New Yorker declares that ”Mr. Woiwode’s voice is a strong and clear one, and his sense of the intricacy of family ties is extraordinary.” Peter S. Prescott, in a review for Newsweek, notes that Woiwode ”writes very well about the big subjects,” but points out that the book ”is better in its parts than in its whole. As long as three ordinary novels, it need have been no longer than two.”
An informal commentary on the New Testament, Acts (1992) gained praise as a ”tough, moving personal testament” by Kirkus Reviews. However, as noted by J. B. Cheaney, the novel ”was also dismissed as shaky in scholarship and naive in its insistence on a literal interpretation of scripture.” Paul Marx and Loretta Cobb write that Acts ”is applied apologetics, a book ready to put into the hands of those who ask why we act in the way we do.” Having headed university writing programs, Woiwode has noted that with Acts he tried to ”address students who might be hearing about the church and biblical concepts for the first time.”
- Cole, Kevin L. In The Gift of Story: Narrating Hope in a Postmodern World. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2006.
- Marx, Paul and Lorreta Cobb. ”Woiwode, Larry.” Contemporary Novelists. Detroit: St. James Press, 2001.
- Cheaney, J. B. ”Taming Memory—The Fiction of Larry Woiwode.” Worland 17.10 (October 2002): 256.
- Cockrell, Eddie. ”Jungle Rudy: Chronicle of a Family.” Variety 407.8 (July 16, 2007): 35.
- Gardner, John. Review of Beyond the Bedroom Wall. The New York Times Book Review (September 28,1975): 1-2.
- Hansen, Ron. ”A Crazy-Making Existence.” America 199.4 (August 18, 2008): 26.
- MacLaine, Brent. ”Photofiction as Family Album: David Galloway, Paul Theroux and Anita Brookner.” Mosaic 24 (Spring 1991): 131-149.
- Prescott, Peter S. ”Home Truths.” Newsweek (September 29, 1975): 85-86.
- Publishers Weekly 240.13 (March 1993): 44.
- Review of Beyond the Bedroom Wall. The New Yorker (December 29, 1975): 55-56.
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