Harrison, Barbara Grizzuti
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison 1934-
American journalist, essayist, memoirist, travel writer, short story writer, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Harrison's career through 1996.
Harrison is known for her highly personal essays and memoirs that reflect on her travels and life experiences. Critics commend her utilization of hard-edged journalism and autobiography to explore such diverse topics as sexism in schools, Italian culture, the writings of contemporary authors, and complex theological issues.
Harrison was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 14, 1934. At the age of nine, her mother became a Jehovah's Witness and, as a result, Harrison was immersed in the teachings of this religion. Jehovah's Witness members adhere to a set of strict rules and a fundamentalist ideology. Moreover, they believe in a “New Eden” that will welcome only Witness members after the world ends at Armageddon. Harrison's experiences during these years have become recurring thematic concerns in her writing. For three years, Harrison lived and worked in the giant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. In 1956, she split from the group and lived in various places such as Greenwich Village, India, and Latin America. Her extensive travels in Italy inspired Italian Days (1989) and The Islands of Italy (1991). She has also written articles and conducted interviews for several periodicals, including Esquire, Harper's, The Nation, and New York Times Book Review. She currently lives in New York City and continues to write journalism and fiction.
Harrison's first publication, Unlearning the Lie (1969) examined the widespread impact of sexism in schools; the idea originated from an article about an experiment at her child's school in Brooklyn. Her next work, Visions of Glory (1978) is a history of the Jehovah's Witnesses, which Harrison had been closely associated with for eleven years. Despite her personal involvement with the group, the book is generally perceived as a fairly objective account of their past. Her essay collection Off Center was published in 1980. The collection touches on a wide array of topics that deal with Harrison's strong and oftentimes controversial opinions. Foreign Bodies (1984), a novel, chronicles a woman's obsessive love and its consequences. Considered more than a travelogue, Italian Days combines personal recollections, travel essays, and quotations from various writers to tell the story of Harrison's journeys around Italy. The Astonishing World (1992) is a collection of essays, interviews, and short stories that reflect on Harrison's diverse experiences and interests. Viewed as a confessional memoir, An Accidental Autobiography (1996) explores Harrison's life and the sociopolitical concerns of her time, such as religion, sexism, and family. Eschewing a strictly chronological structure, Harrison instead employs a more impressionistic narrative, relating anecdotes from different periods of her life.
Harrison is generally considered to be a perceptive, humorous author and is best known for her autobiographical essays. Commentators have praised her objectivity, even when dealing with such personal subjects as her difficult childhood and her time as a Jehovah's Witness. Her exploration of complicated religious and theological topics in Visions of Glory has garnered considerable critical appreciation. Reviewers have also applauded her honest and courageous treatment of topical issues, including feminism and sexism in schools. Harrison has established a reputation as a thoughtful interviewer and writer, unafraid to explore personal, literary or social complexities.
Unlearning the Lie: Sexism in School (nonfiction) 1969
Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses (nonfiction) 1978
Off Center: Essays (essays) 1980
Foreign Bodies (novel) 1984
Italian Days (travel essays) 1989
The Islands of Italy: Sicily, Sardinia, and the Aeolian Islands (travel essays) 1991
The Astonishing World: Essays (essays) 1992
An Accidental Autobiography (memoir) 1996
(The entire section is 51 words.)
SOURCE: “What Did You Learn in School Today?” in Washington Post Book World, September 9, 1973, p. 4.
[In the following mixed assessment of Unlearning the Lie, Jacoby considers Harrison's reportage incomplete, asserting that “she may have been too close to the situation to realize that she had left so many unanswered questions.”]
It is a truism among educators that girls do better than boys in the early years of school because they are “verbally oriented” and therefore have an easier time learning to read. At some point, usually in early adolescence, the boys begin to catch up, and by the end of formal education, the position of the sexes in academic achievement has been reversed. One of my favorite college professors attested to this syndrome when he told me: “My girl students are more diligent, but the most brilliant ones are usually boys.”
Whether the professor was a male chauvinist pig is beside the point—he was accurately describing the typical result, circa 1965, of coeducational schooling in the United States. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison [in her Unlearning the Lie: Sexism in School] attempts to examine the ways in which schools stereotype girls and boys, and the process by which concerned parents can cajole or coerce changes in the classroom. Fortunately, Harrison chose to confine her study to one school she knew well instead of drowning her case in...
(The entire section is 808 words.)
SOURCE: “Eight New Feminist Books,” in American Scholar, Vol. 42, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 676–84.
[In the following excerpt, Howe offers a positive assessment of Unlearning the Lie.]
If Frazier and Sadker's tone is too sanguine [in Sexism in School and Society] a useful antidote and complementary account is Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's Unlearning the Lie. Harrison, a writer and the parent of two children who attend the Woodward School in Brooklyn, makes palpable both her own reluctant conversion to feminism and the school's two-year process of beginning change. Indeed, it took two years of parental pressure on a “free,” private elementary (kindergarten through eighth grade) school to gain the cooperation of the staff, if not the agreement of all the parents. In this process, a few teachers and most significantly the director—strong women who had “made it” and who were not easily convinced of the need for change—played key roles. The instrument of change, however, was neither a book nor an individual, but one of those amorphous, leaderless consciousness-raising groups and the information they produced about the experience and history of women in school and society. The “Sex-role Committee,” as the group of white female parents was called, found itself in an adversary position, not only in relation to the school's staff and to male parents, but, since the school is...
(The entire section is 317 words.)
SOURCE: “Door-to-Door,” in Washington Post Book World, September 24, 1978, p. E5.
[In the following review, McCarthy provides a mixed review of Visions of Glory.]
Just after I had read this book, Visions of Glory while I was sitting one evening with friends watching the sunset over Nantucket Sound, a young man carrying a brief case appeared in our midst. He was a Jehovah's Witness.
It was a curious coincidence. He seemed quite literally to have sprung from nowhere. One moment we were laughing and talking among ourselves; the next minute he was there demanding to be heard. He was to me the very embodiment of the Witnesses with whom Barbara Harrison lived and worked for 12 years and whom she describes in this “history and memory”: painfully neat in appearance, persistent in the face of our host's irritation, and faintly censorious of our apparent ease and enjoyment of the present moment.
The Witnesses, she notes in her introduction, are known to the public for their aggressive proselytizing and are generally perceived as drab and eccentric people. For the most part they are drawn from the deprived in our society. Entering into the sect, they gain certainty, a community, formulae for behavior which will gain them acceptance, and a belief which gives them a sense of superiority over those who are, in the eyes of the rest of the world, more fortunate. But the...
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SOURCE: “False Comforters,” in Ms., Vol. 7, No. 4, October, 1978, pp. 43–5.
[In the following laudatory assessment of Visions of Glory, Stimpson asserts that the study is “more than a modern confession; more than a lucid, often brilliant, first-person account of doubt and belief.”]
Visions of Glory is a brave, enormous, painful book. As she exorcises the past, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison asks, “What does it mean to believe in God?,” a question that embarrasses many, but enthralls some.
When she was nine, Barbara Grizzuti and her mother became converts to the Jehovah's Witnesses. An ardent member of that “fundamentalist, apocalyptic, prophetic” religion, she “preached sweet doom” from door to door. After high school, she lived for several years at the Witnesses' central headquarters in Brooklyn. Yet fervor and faith were insufficient. Passionate, intelligent, she could not suppress her curiosity, her doubts, and her rebellion against a Jehovah who would condemn decent, lovable people, who were not Witnesses, to eternal death. In 1956, at 21, close to a nervous breakdown, she left, or, to use the sectarian idiom, she “disfellowshipped” herself.
Reborn into the secular world, she lived in Greenwich Village, in India, and in Latin America. She had affairs, the first with a black jazz musician, that symbol of street wisdom and freedom...
(The entire section is 1169 words.)
SOURCE: “Witnesses and Catholics,” in Commonweal, Vol. CV, No. 25, December 22, 1978, pp. 818–19.
[In the following review, Miles contends that although Harrison was extremely harsh in her portrayal of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Visions of Glory, she never condescends to them.]
How can people live like that?” the bluestocking asks of the slum. “How can people think like that?” the religious bluestocking, believing or unbelieving, asks of a group like Jehovah's Witnesses. They refuse blood transfusions. They insult the flag. They decry the Vatican as the fountain of evil. They resist the draft without condemning the war. Most of all, they believe in Armageddon, the imminent and violent End of the World. How can people think like that?
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, feature writer for Esquire, Ms., Saturday Review, New Republic, and others knows how they can. She was one of them for eleven years, from 1944 to 1955, converted at the age of nine with her mother, who is a Witness to this day. Visions of Glory presents the Witnesses' history as a series of digressions from a memoir of the author's conversion to “The Truth,” as Witnesses call their faith, through her apostasy, and on, nearly twenty years later, to her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Both the memoir and the history are full of color, confusion, and pain:...
(The entire section is 1630 words.)
SOURCE: “How I Got Over,” in Nation, Vol. 228, No. 1, January 6, 1979, pp. 22, 24.
[In the following positive assessment of Visions of Glory, Gubernick calls the work “both scholarly and theologically impressive.”]
The subtitle of Visions of Glory is “A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses.” The thorough history—both scholarly and theologically impressive—has a personal edge: Harrison spent twelve years (ages 9 to 21) as a Witness. Her memories do not make her history suspect; instead, the autobiographical fragments give the book balance and weight. Through them she can convey what this peculiar theology feels like, and we sense everywhere the fallout from a youth derailed by proselytizing, spiritual arrogance and an astonishing ignorance of “the world.” (The Witnesses only concern themselves with the “New World” which will replace this one after a bloody Armageddon.) Indeed, the tremendous success of the Witnesses—there are at present more than two million followers—would be scarcely credible without Harrison's personal testimony, for the origins of the sect and its makeshift theology seem on the face of things banal and uninviting.
Jehovah's Witnesses were founded in 1873 by Charles Taze Russell, an erstwhile shirt manufacturer who wrote and published, at his own expense, a booklet prophesying the coming of Judgment Day and the...
(The entire section is 1059 words.)
SOURCE: “Insider's View,” in Christian Century, Vol. XCVI, No. 7, February 28, 1979, p. 224.
[In the following review of Visions of Glory, Mills lauds Harrison's study as both perceptive and insightful.]
Jehovah's Witnesses are believers in a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, prophetic religion; they have been proclaiming, since the 1930s, that “millions of our living will never die.” To the extent that they are known—their notoriety arises from their refusal to receive blood transfusions, salute the flag, or serve in the army of any country, as well as from their aggressive proselytizing—they are perceived as rather drab, somewhat eccentric people and dismissed as irrelevant. But this book Visions of Glory provides both an “inside” and an “outside” story written by one who for 12 years was a Witness and for three of those years served on the Watchtower Society's headquarters staff.
By using historical and psychological analysis, Barbara Harrison describes the religion as a closed system that relished disaster; rejoiced in the evil of human nature: lusted for certitude; ordered its members to disdain the painful present in exchange for a glorious future; and corrupted ritual, ethics and doctrine into ritualism, legalism and dogmatism. To look closely at the psychology of a single all-consuming religion, the author contends, is necessarily to examine human...
(The entire section is 426 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Off Center, in New Republic, Vol. 23, June 7, 1980, pp. 31–2.
[In the following favorable assessment of Off Center, Tyler describes Harrison as “funny, intelligent, refreshingly candid, and very nearly impossible to fool—a woman with her eyes open, every minute.”]
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison was once expelled from an est session after 24 hours of training. It's significant that she was expelled for failing to close her eyes—for flatly refusing to lie on the floor with her eyes shut and give herself over to her fantasies. “I can't,” she said, and out she went, stepping over writhing bodies all the way to the door.
In Off Center, a collection of 21 essays (some previously published in this magazine), she directs her level gaze toward such diverse subjects as Roseland, Billy Graham, the Godfather movies, and her own hypochondria. She is funny, intelligent, refreshingly candid, and very nearly impossible to fool—a woman with her eyes open, every minute. On the feminist politics in Adrienne Rich's Lies, Secrets and Silence: “My reading of Ms. Rich's book does not even tell me whether I may assume there are any qualitative differences between my son—poised on the brink of adulthood, scared, brave, kind, uncertain—and Idi Amin.” On Werner Erhard: “a forty-one-year-old Gucci-Pucci-Bally California-style guru who ‘got...
(The entire section is 1234 words.)
SOURCE: “Only Reconnect,” in Nation, Vol. 230, No. 23, June 14, 1980, pp. 727–28, 730.
[In the following positive review, Caplan considers the diverse range of essays in Off Center.]
“There are only two things in this world,” according to Werner Erhard, founder of the est therapy franchise, “semantics and nothing.” Such careless nihilism, according to Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, dangerously impoverishes the reality we have to share with Erhard, with one another and with our own consciences. In Off Center, a collection of essays written over the course of the 1970s, Harrison looks at Joan Didion's despairing fiction and Adrienne Rich's militant prose, interviews Jane Fonda and Dick Cavett, reviews her own participation in a women's consciousness-raising group and examines other contemporary cultural practices, including est. Nowhere does she find “only two things”; yet sometimes, as in the case of Erhard's dictum, she finds self-indulgence and oversimplification, two things used too often as justification for each other. If Erhard's world is one of verbal structures, a world that thinking makes so, Harrison's is one of interconnected and competing values—personal, moral, familial, political—a world that must be thought about.
“I grew up,” Harrison tells us, “in Bensonhurst among people who, if they had little else, had the courage of their...
(The entire section is 1483 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Off Center, in America, Vol. 143, No. 3, August 2, 1980, p. 58.
[In the following review, George commends Harrison’s honesty, humor, and insight as evinced in the essays that comprise Off Center.]
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison is more than a fine essayist and critic; she is a truth-teller of the first order. In Off Center, her collection of 20 essays and reviews, Harrison confronts a wide range of subjects, from race riots at her old high school to her youth as a Jehovah’s Witness, from the moral ambivalence of abortion to the mindless psycho-babble of est and the dangerous popularity of cults like the Moonies. It is a mark of her fair dealing that, although these essays originally appeared in periodicals as diverse as The Village Voice and The New Republic, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Ms., Mrs. Harrison never changes her critical voice to suit her forum. She is always intellectually rigorous, honest and outspoken.
Harrison reserves her harshest criticism for those who have failed to integrate the personal and political halves of their lives. A political activist herself, she blames the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their refusal to take any interest in charity or good works. For them, war, famine and drug addiction are not evils to be remedied, but only welcome evidence that the Apocalypse is at hand. Popular novelist and critic...
(The entire section is 537 words.)
SOURCE: “On Target,” in National Review, September 19, 1980, p. 1151.
[In the following favorable assessment of Off Center, Mano examines Harrison’s major thematic concerns and narrative style.]
Ignore the absurd title: Barbara Grizzuti Harrison has a centripetal drive: things suck down to the middle here. Yet she is no ambivalent observer: not a U Thant of the soul, laying out fact like Congoleum tile. BGH writes with metered passion: and with the axis pain that a spinal tap has. She degausses her material: neutralizing both positive and negative charge. Splendid work done at risk: that steeple-high risk you associate with lightning rods. She can detect the fracture point: a midline where human issues, from stress fatigue, craze on their surface, then fall apart. Where society, in isolation, will start talking to itself: and no one can be sure which half of our schizoid I is just personable impostor: which voice, fed enough Thorazine, will take over the microphone and say hello. Not one of these twenty magazine pieces has been written in a fast groove: they long-play out: and their sound reproduction is high tech stuff.
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison: you can hear the broad equipoise in her name. Rough syllable: suave syllable. Her Italian Brooklyn bloodline and the married (divorced) persona that sounds like—probably was for some time—a kind of pseudonym. Off Center...
(The entire section is 832 words.)
SOURCE: “No Ends to Obsession,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXI, No. 14, August 10, 1984, pp. 441–42.
[In the following negative review of Foreign Bodies, Reedy contends that Harrison “puts forward a wealth of interesting material, but describes the work as “a deeply unfinished novel.”]
Foreign Bodies, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s fourth book and first novel, explores two major sequences in the life of Angela, its principal character and narrator. The first is her late adolescence and early adulthood. Here Angela begins to see the limitations of her mother and falls in love with David Larrimar, her forty-year-old English teacher, who takes her in hand and liberates her from the narrow background of her family. David is also a homosexual; he loves Angela yet cannot give her the active sexual life for which the novel as a whole indicates her predilection. When Angela marries another man, David commits suicide; as a result of his death, as a tribute to his “clarity,” Angela decides to become a writer.
The second sequence of time explored, the major time frame of the book, takes Angela from about age thirty-eight to age forty-three. She has been divorced for eight years, is a successful writer, and lives in Brooklyn with her precocious daughter, Lucy, whose description resembles that of the author’s own daughter in a 1980 collection of essays, Off Center....
(The entire section is 1047 words.)
SOURCE: “Testing the Current,” in Washington Post Book World, No. 220, July 12, 1992, p. 9.
[In the following mixed review of The Astonishing World, McCarthy views the collection as an uneven yet provocative work.]
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison points out in her introduction to The Astonishing World that she has mixed fiction into this collection of interviews, journalistic reports, recollections and travel essays. In her case, she explains, the categories overlap. This does not mean, she adds, that she ever plays fast and loose with facts. “I mean only that the slightest nuance has the power to modify the most obdurate fact, and writers deal in nuance. In fiction, almost nothing I say is the literal truth; in non-fiction, everything I say is the truth as I perceive it—and it comes out, as far as I can see, pretty much the same …”
That could also mean that this prolific and celebrated writer has never really come to terms with fiction and its function of achieving distance and imposing order on experience. Her single and highly autobiographical novel, Foreign Bodies (1984), is perhaps her one disappointing book. She has won an O. Henry award for short fiction, but her strength lies in discursive nonfiction which is marked with amazing vitality, honesty, arresting visual imagery, sympathy and irony. It engages the reader from the first sentence, whatever the...
(The entire section is 945 words.)
SOURCE: “PW Interviews: Barbara Grizzuti Harrison,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 34, July 27, 1992, pp. 44–5.
[In the following interview, Harrison discusses her own interview technique, her experience with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and writers whom she admires.]
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison sits in her compact, 25th-floor Park Avenue apartment, which affords dizzying vistas of sun, sky and East River, and brews coffee for her guest. It is important that it come out right—everything she does with food has to come out right—and when the potful has finished bubbling and she has taken an exploratory sip, she is doubtful. “This isn’t”—she is chagrined—“quite what it should be, is it?” There is a splendid solution at hand, however: a bottle of Sambuca is produced, and the coffee suddenly becomes infinitely palatable. As the interview progresses the pot is drained and the level in the bottle lowers appreciably.
Harrison is an enormously charming woman, vital, frank and funny, who even without the aid of spiked coffee can make anyone feel at home, and on intimate terms, with dazzling speed. She has an earthiness that reminds one of the Italian actress Anna Magnani, though without that lady’s almost manic intensity. The occasion for PW's visit is Ticknor & Fields’s imminent publication of The Astonishing World, a book of essays,...
(The entire section is 2225 words.)
SOURCE: “World Beat,” in Village Voice, Vol. 38, No. 7, February 16, 1993, p. 65.
[In the following mixed assessment of The Astonishing World, Baker maintains that the collection reflects “a thoroughly savvy contemporary woman with a gift for informed enthusiasm and occasional necessary malice.”]
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, one of the best essayists around, first came to wide attention with Italian Days three years ago. Though she had been writing frequently, and increasingly well, for a dozen years before that, the luminous prose and freshness of vision in her Italian book seemed to take everyone by surprise. No surprise this time, however, to find that her new collection [The Astonishing World]—essays, profiles, a few slender short stories—continues to reflect a thoroughly savvy contemporary woman with a gift for informed enthusiasm and occasional necessary malice.
The first bubbles to the surface of an extraordinary interview she conducted over several days with Mario Cuomo (and which appeared in rather different form in the July Playboy). Some kind of magnetic transference apparently took place between them—a shared Italianness, perhaps, a sexual spark—for Harrison records the governor as admirers would like to imagine him but usually find themselves unable to do, confronted with his often depressing political persona: lively, witty, deeply...
(The entire section is 700 words.)
SOURCE: “Wayward Witness,” in Nation, Vol. 262, No. 25, June 24, 1996, pp. 33–4.
[In the following review, Laurino considers the role of memory in An Accidental Autobiography.]
When Barbara Grizzuti Harrison guided readers along the terrain of her mother country in Italian Days, describing with equal agility luminous works of Renaissance art and the palette of colors in an antipasto, she provided a clue to the way she collects, catalogues and tells a story. Recalling how a stroll with her daughter in Rome reminded her of a scene from Little Women—the first book she read after her daughter was born—Harrison explained, “This is how memory works; it curls, it is baroque.”
Sinuous curves of memory weave their way through An Accidental Autobiography. Using food, housekeeping, collecting, traveling and men as starting points for her reflections, she retraces her childhood in the Italian-American community in Bensonhurst and the harrowing years from age 9 to 22 when she served as a Jehovah’s Witness. Harrison explains the nature of this journey: “Memory is no more linear than it is hierarchical. … I have been conscious of only one imperative, not to corrupt the way my thoughts came to me by seeking to impose upon them a pattern.”
To explore memory we must accept that the sharp sting of pain can stifle moments of great joy; that pain,...
(The entire section is 1003 words.)
SOURCE: “No Accident,” in Chicago Tribune Books, June 30, 1996, p. 2.
[In the following positive review, Dunford explores stylistic aspects of An Accidental Autobiography.]
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison supplies her own metaphor for An Accidental Autobiography—a collage she has made up from a tangle of silk swatches:
“… floral and geometric, reminiscent of Klimt, reminiscent of Morris, reminiscent of Braque … marbled, watered, paisley; silk postcards of … pheasants and peacocks and fans and lions and pagodas and lilies. …”
The unmistakable Harrison thumbprint. The most tactile, most sensuous of writers, she has always luxuriated in texture, color, scent, silkiness. No books are better candidates than hers for the title “My Five Senses and Sensibility.”
For Harrison to single out any one book as her autobiography seems gratuitous. No current writer has ever extended a more open invitation to read her work by the light of her childhood. In every one you feel the author’s self, always aware of the act of writing, always peering over her shoulder. As she has told us before, she was born in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, an unrelentingly parochial ethnic neighborhood where a smart Italian kid like Harrison was a freak. Only the Jews were supposed to be smart. When she was 9, her mother...
(The entire section is 1380 words.)
SOURCE: “A Tell-All That Sees All,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 7, 1996, p. 6.
[In the following review, Isaacs provides a favorable assessment of Harrison’s An Accidental Autobiography.]
Watch out for the kid with the pen.
We are now in the age of very personal memoir. What began as shocking revelations of abuse, lunacy or coldheartedness by children of public personalities—Gary Crosby’s Going My Own Way and Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest—has become a form favored by the literary offspring of more private parents. In The Duke of Deception and This Boy’s Life, Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, respectively, delineated the pain of their parents’ disastrous marriage. In The Shadow Man, novelist Mary Gordon exposed everything from her (formerly Jewish) father’s malignant anti-Semitism to the repulsive and provocative wet kisses she received from his toothless mouth.
Now it is journalist-travel writer-novelist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s turn to look back and tell all. An Accidental Autobiography, it should be noted, is painted on a much broader canvas than the works cited above. An impressionistic series of essays rather than a formal, chronological account, the book covers the author’s entire life, not just her beginnings. Still, stylistically and emotionally, it begins and ends with her parents....
(The entire section is 1178 words.)
SOURCE: A review of An Accidental Autobiography, in Commonweal, Vol. 123, No. 15, September 13, 1996, pp. 31–2.
[In the following review, Antonucci urges the reader not to be alienated by the sensational, confessional aspects of An Accidental Autobiography.]
The events of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s life are the stuff of a good half-dozen novels. An intense childhood in a troubled Italian family in Brooklyn (a mother who demeans her and a father who tries to kill her); a long, bleak servitude in the Jehovah Witnesses from the age of nine to nineteen till her escape to the East Village to make a life of her own; first love with a black musician, the painful end of that affair (and its surprising reprise thirty-two years later); an unhappy marriage in exotic places that ends in divorce. With two adored small children she makes an independent life for herself and finds success as an esteemed writer. She suffers physical and psychological ailments that would undo most of us. Yet she prevails, traveling the world, interviewing celebrities, writing well-received books, and even living in a Park Avenue high-rise with a pool on the roof. It is the great myth come true: poor Brooklyn ethnic artist invades and conquers Manhattan (see John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever).
But don’t be put off by the apparent sensational confessional aspects of [An Accidental...
(The entire section is 861 words.)
SOURCE: “Performing Artist,” in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 2, November, 1996, pp. 20–22.
[In the following laudatory review, Stone examines the organizing principles of An Accidental Autobiography.]
Most autobiographies are narratives, getting you from here to there in the author’s life. As such, they are implied explanations of how it all came to pass. An Accidental Autobiography gives no such account of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s sixty years of being alive. “A linear autobiography would falsify because it would cast things in a mold and present me with the temptation to find formal patterns where none exist,” she writes in the Introduction. If she created a pattern, she might imprison herself in it, she says, robbing her own memory of its diverse versions of her own experience, all of which are true.
How then to organize? “Memories gather around puzzles, passions and possessions,” she says. With these three Ps as hubs, she goes where her thoughts chance to lead her—hence the book’s “accidental” character. As such, this autobiography is not “about” her life; it is a performance of her distinctive style, intelligence and sensibility, a stylized free association—of memories and thoughts—focused on what compels her.
For this venture, six years in the making, Harrison first identified her perpetual itches, then...
(The entire section is 1737 words.)
Craft, Robert. “Days of Wine and Pasta.” Washington Post Book World 19, No. 36 (3 September 1989): 6.
In the following essay, Craft recommends Harrison’s Italian Days, predicting that the book “will be the companion of visitors there for years to come.”
Grumbach, Doris. “Fine Print.” New Republic 169, No. 15 (13 October 1973): 31.
Calls Unlearning the Lie “instructive, heartening reading.”
Johnson, Alexandra. “A Seasoned Traveler Finds a World Made of Pain of Delight.” Chicago Tribune Books (26 July 1992): 5-6.
In this positive assessment of The Astonishing World, Johnson praises Harrison’s “acute questioning intelligence.”
Kummer, Corby. “Roman Rapture.” The Atlantic 264, No. 2 (August 1989): 89-91.
In this favorable review of Italian Days, Kummer applauds the warm, honest, and evocative portrayal of Harrison’s Italian travels.
Moore, Arthur J. Review of Visions of Glory, by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. Commonweal CVI, No. 4 (2 March 1979): 124.
Mixed assessment of Visions of Glory.
A review of Visions of Glory, by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. New York Review of Books XXV, No. 16 (26 October...
(The entire section is 245 words.)