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Poet and nonfiction author Mary Karr is widely known for her 1995 best-seller The Liars’ Club: A Memoir. She has been praised for her savvy storytelling, lyrical prose, sensual detail, emotional honesty, humor, and ability to capture the colloquial speech of small-town East Texas.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Small Town Childhood
Karr was born on January 16, 1955, in Groves, a small town in East Texas known for its oil refineries and chemical plants. She later wrote about the town, calling it by the fictional name of Leech-field, in her memoirs. Her writing evokes the social and cultural milieu of the working-class town. Karr’s father worked in an oil refinery and her mother was an amateur artist and business owner. Karr’s sister, older than her by two years, is a key figure in her memoirs.
Karr developed an early interest in literature that she credits with changing her life. As she once told BookPage interviewer Ellen Kanner, ”I’m invigorated by language. Poetry saved my life. Really transformed me, really saved me.” Upon graduating from high school, she traveled with a group of friends to Los Angeles, where she immersed herself in the lifestyle of the California hippie and surfer counter-cultures. Later that year, she enrolled in Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but left school after two years to travel. She has explained her wanderlust as the result of having multiple interests that made it difficult to conform to just one lifestyle: ”I felt like I was strapping things onto myself,” she once said. ”One day I would want to be a hippie and then a surfer, then Emily Dickinson. You change a million times.”
A Writer with a Conscience
Karr became politically involved in the antiapartheid movement that began in 1956. Activists opposed the racial segregation of blacks in South Africa, and the movement culminated in the end of apartheid in that country in 1994. During this time, she met African-American poet Ethridge Knight, who became an important influence on the development of her poetry.
Karr eventually entered graduate school to study creative writing, and earned an MFA from Goddard College. Among her mentors at Goddard was Tobias Wolff, whose memoir This Boy’s Life (1989) served as a major influence on Karr’s own writing. She also studied with noted poets Robert Bly and Robert Hass. Karr graduated from Goddard in 1979 and published her first poem that same year in Mother Jones magazine. She moved to Boston in 1980, where she held various jobs in the computer and telecommunications industries while she continued to write and publish poetry.
In 1983, she married poet Michael Milburn, with whom she had a son, but the couple divorced in 1991. In 1987, Karr published her first volume of poetry, Abacus, and her second, The Devil’s Tour, in 1993. Karr won the Pushcart prize for both her poetry and essays.
Best-Selling Author and Professor
It was in 1995 that Karr became a literary sensation with the publication of her memoir, The Liars’ Club. The book remained on the New York Times best-seller list for over a year and won Karr the 1996 PEN Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction. The Liars’ Club, takes place in a small industrial East Texas town during the mid-1960s when Karr was eight years old. It conveys a strong sense of place and evokes the powerful emotional climate of a family circle characterized by alcoholism, mental illness, and strong passions. Critics applauded Karr’s use of narrative voice, inflected with the colloquial speck of East Texas and the unique perspective of a precocious young girl. In the literary world, The Liars’ Club inspired an explosion of memoirs to be written in the confessional mode. Karr’s next work, Cherry: A Memoir (2000), is a sequel to The Liars’ Club, and portrays Karr’s adolescent years of intellectual and sexual awakening.
Karr has worked as an assistant professor at several academic institutions, including Tufts University, Emerson College, Harvard University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She currently teaches in the department of English at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
Works in Literary Context
Memoir Writing as Confessional Literature
In confessional literature, writers convey intimate details about their real lives and experiences. Mary Karr, whose body of work falls largely in this area, wrestles with the idea that for everyone who has ever told a story or recalled a personal memory, personal perspective makes it impossible to ever convey truth objectively. Nevertheless, Karr strives to convey the truth of her experiences through memoir writing and poetry.
Karr has explained to interviewer Ellen Kanner that ”with memoir, there’s an intimacy, a sense of emotional engagement.” Karr strives to impart both intimacy and emotional engagement in both of her memoirs The Liars’ Club and Cherry. In each of these works, Karr explores themes of truth, lies, memory, confession, and storytelling.
Both books are set in the fictional town of Leechfield, Texas, which is based on Karr’s home town.
The Liars’ Club takes place from 1961 to 1963, when Karr was seven and eight years old. The novel’s title refers to the local American Legion pool room and bar, as well as the back room of the bait shop, where Karr’s father and other local men socialized in their free time. In the book, Karr recounts the traumatic events she experienced in the context of her dysfunctional family life. For example, Karr’s mother, an alcoholic and mentally unstable woman whose artistic and intellectual interests were stifled by small-town life, once burned all of the family’s possessions and called the local police station to report that she had killed her two daughters, a claim that turned out to be untrue. Against this chaotic emotional backdrop, Karr reports being raped by a neighborhood boy at the age of seven and sexually assaulted by an adult male babysitter at the age of eight.
Cherry follows Karr’s adolescent years. It has been referred to as Karr’s coming-of-age story, in which she describes how she developed a sense of individuality distinct from her turbulent family. In Cherry, Karr shares with raw abandon her early experiences of sexual awakening. At the same time, however, the book is also an account of her intellectual awakening and development as a budding writer. The first half of Cherry is narrated by Karr in the first-person voice. The second half of the novel switches to a second-person voice. This switch suggests that in conveying her own personal experiences as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Karr was speaking broadly to an entire generation of adolescent girls.
Poetry as Confessional Literature
Like her memoirs, Karr’s poetry has been described as confessional due to the frank revelations of self doubt and dysfunctional family that are a common subject of her work. The settings of her poems are primarily of the same working-class East Texas milieu that is treated more extensively in her memoirs, and a number of the characters and incidents introduced in her poetry are revisited in her memoirs. Karr’s poetry is characterized by brevity, clarity, meticulous detail, and careful attention to metrical form. She has developed a personal style of using the three-line stanza in many of her poems.
The poems in her collection Abacus are introspective reflections on personal relationships, love, friendship, and self-questioning. The Devil’s Tour grapples with broader struggles of human existence and consciousness, exploring themes of death, mortality, evolution, and existential angst, as well as parenting and family relationships. The recurring motif of skull imagery in The Devil’s Tour invokes the themes of mortality and introspection. The poems in Viper Rum continue to explore these themes, and include reflections on Karr’s personal life, her relationship with her parents, her struggle with alcoholism, and an awakening to religious sentiment.
Works in Critical Context
Karr had already risen as a celebrated and award-winning poet by the time The Liars’ Club earned her even more acclaim in the literary community.
The Liars’ Club
The Liars’ Club is undoubtedly Karr’s most highly regarded work. Reviewers comment that themes of sexual abuse and dysfunctional family in this book are handled by Karr without the bitterness, self-pity, melodrama, or sentimentality that characterizes many other confessional memoirs. Writer Scott Donaldson commends Karr in that she ”neither shies away from the truth nor erects signposts to guide her readers’ reactions. . . . Instead, she lets her story speak for itself.” She has been praised for her frank yet nonjudgmental portrayal of her father and mother, which effectively expresses both the love and the pain associated with each parent. Reviewers admire her use of narrative voice in the book, which convincingly portrays the perspective of a young girl.
Some critics, including Gaby Wood of the London Review of Books, have questioned the authenticity of the memories collected in works like The Liars’ Club. He writes: ”[T]he story is one of incredible torment, told by the injured party. It is remembered as Karr saw it when she was eight… here the ‘lies’ are tricks of memory.” But even as some are suspicious of the nature of memories conveyed in autobiographical memoirs, readers continue to admire The Liars’ Club for being skillfully written, powerfully expressive, and entertaining to read. Reviewer Cyra McFadden comments on Karr’s skillful use of language and praises the author for her multifaceted writing efforts: ”The Language of The Liars’ Club crackles with energy and wit. Then Karr’s tone will shift abruptly again; when called for, she can be tender.”
Although not as many people have read Karr’s poetry as her memoirs, her collections of verse have been highly regarded by critics. Her use of language is consistently praised, especially her use of formal meter, which captures the rhythms of everyday speech. Her evocative imagery and meticulous attention to detail are also frequently credited with making her poetry enjoyable to read. As with her memoirs, critics have applauded Karr’s ability to express strong emotions and describe poignant situations without lapsing into melodrama or sentimentality. As Barbara Jordan of the Chicago Review writes, ”Karrisa poet who refuses to flinch, even if the landscape of memory and experience resembles a particularly gruesome…canvas.”
Karr reprinted her Pushcart Award-winning essay ”Against Decoration” in Viper Rum. In this piece, Karr decries how overemphasizing form in poetry often trumps the true meaning and emotion behind the words. Writer Judith Kitchen commends Karr for her faithfulness to clarity of meaning over form. ”Karr has made her case for the emotive voice, for the poetry of feeling,” says Kitchen. ”She has not shunned form [but] found a form in which she can explore the qualities of language . . . that will lead toward clarity.”
- Donaldson, Scott. ”Mary Karr Recounts her Tough East Texas Childhood.” Chicago Tribune Books, (July 23, 1995): p. 3.
- Jordan, Barbara. ”Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr.” Chicago Review 44, nos. 3 (1998): p. 213-217.
- Kitchen, Judith. ”Against.” Georgia Review 52, no. 4 (1998): p. 755-772.
- McFadden, Cyra. ”There’s No Lie as Big as the Truth.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (July 16,1995): p. 1,12.
- Witalec, Janet, ed. ”Mary Karr (1955-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 188. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004. p. 1-67. \
- Wood, Gaby. ”What Did It Matter Who I was?” London Review of Books (October 19, 1995): p. 39.
- Garner, Dwight. A Scrappy Little Beast. Retrieved December 4, 2008, from http://www.salon.com/ may97/karr970521.html.
- Gerrard, Nicci. Sex, drugs and poetry. Retrieved December 4, 2008, from http://www.guardian. co.uk/books/2001/jun/24/biography.features1.
- Kanner, Ellen. Mary Karr: Remembering the Agonies and Ecstasies of Adolescence. Retrieved December 3, 2008 from http://www.bookpage.com/0010bp/mary_ karr.html. Last updated in 2000.
- Robinson, Harriet Hanson. Dostoevsky and Existentialism. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from http://fyod ordostoevsky.com. Last updated on May 17, 2007.
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