Study Guide

Mary Karr

Mary Karr Essay - Karr, Mary

Karr, Mary

Introduction

Mary Karr 1955-

(Born Mary Marlene Karr) American poet, memoirist, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Karr's career through 2001.

With the publication of her memoir The Liars' Club: A Memoir in 1995, Karr, already a respected poet, became a critically acclaimed, best-selling author. The Liars' Club 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, which takes place in a small industrial East Texas town during the mid-1960s when Karr was eight years old, conveys a strong sense of place and effectively 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 speech of East Texas and the unique perspective of a precocious young girl. The Liars' Club inspired a spate of memoirs written in the confessional mode. Cherry: A Memoir (2000), Karr's sequel to The Liars' Club, portrays Karr's adolescent years of intellectual and sexual awakening. While Karr is best known for her memoirs, her body of publications includes three volumes of poetry—Abacus (1987), The Devil's Tour (1993), and Viper Rum (1998). Karr has won the Pushcart prize for both her poetry and essays.

Biographical Information

Karr was born January 16, 1955, in Groves, a small town in East Texas located in the Port Arthur region, known for its oil refineries and chemical plants. Although she has given the town in her memoirs a fictional name, her writing clearly evokes the social and cultural milieu of this region. Karr's father worked in an oil refinery while her mother was an amateur artist and business owner. Karr's sister, two years her elder, is a key figure in her memoirs. Karr developed an early interest in literature; she told a Publishers Weekly interviewer that, at the age of eleven, she wrote in a notebook that her ambition was “to write poetry and autobiography.” Upon graduation 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. Her political involvement in the anti-apartheid movement led her to meet 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 M.F.A. from Goddard College in 1979. Among her mentors at Goddard was Tobias Wolff, whose memoir This Boy's Life served as a major influence on Karr's own writing. She also studied with noted poets Robert Bly and Robert Hass. Her first publication was a poem that appeared in Mother Jones magazine. Karr moved to Boston in 1980, where she held various jobs in the computer and telecommunications industries while continuing to write and publish poetry. In 1983 she married poet Michael Milburn, with whom she had a son, but the couple divorced in 1991. Karr has worked as an assistant professor at several colleges and universities, including Tufts University, Emerson College, Harvard University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches in the department of English at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.

Major Works

The Liars' Club and Cherry are set in the fictional town of Leechfield, Texas, based on Karr's home town. The events of The Liars' Club take place during the years 1961 to 1963, when Karr was seven and eight years old, recounting the traumatic events she experienced during that period in the context of her dysfunctional family life. The novel's title refers to the local American Legion pool room and bar, as well as the back room of a bait shop, where Karr's father and other local men socialized in their free time. Karr asserts that her father was the best storyteller, a skill Karr effectively developed in her own right. 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 confession 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. The Liars' Club explores themes of truth, lies, memory, confession, and storytelling, a set of terms that overlap and merge as her memoir develops. The trope of the “liars' club” thus comes to encompass everyone who has ever told a story or recalled a personal memory, based on the idea that personal perspective belies the possibility of ever conveying objective truth. Cherry, the sequel to The Liars' Club, follows Karr's adolescent years. Cherry has been referred to as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, in which Karr develops a sense of individuality distinct from her family. While some of the most powerful scenes in Cherry are concerned with Karr's sexual awakening, it is also a memoir 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, however, switches to a second-person narrative address, thus suggesting that her own personal experiences as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s were characteristic of an entire generation of adolescent girls.

Karr's poetry, like her memoirs, 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 related in her poetry are revisited in her memoirs. Karr's erudite references to classic literature are worked into her poetry juxtaposed against personal experiences of a hardscrabble childhood in her blue-collar hometown. Her 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 of 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 Devil's Tour invokes the themes of mortality and introspection. The poems in Viper Rum include reflections on Karr's personal life, her relationship with her parents, her struggles with alcoholism, and an awakening to religious sentiment. Karr's polemical essay “Against Decoration,” originally published in 1990, is included at the end of Viper Rum. In “Against Decoration,” Karr launches a critique of the neo-formalist trend in contemporary poetry, which she faults for lacking in emotion and clarity. Karr argues that, “[t]o pay so little attention to the essentially human elements of a poem makes a monster of poetry's primary emotional self, its very reason for being, so that the art becomes exclusively decorative and at times grotesque.” Commentators have noted that Karr's own poetry generally lives up to the aesthetic standards she espouses in “Against Decoration.”

Critical Reception

Karr has been lauded for her savvy storytelling, lyrical prose, vivid, sensual detail, emotional honesty, humor, and ability to capture the colloquial speech of small-town East Texas in her memoirs. She has been noted for her frank yet nonjudgmental portrayal of her father and mother, which effectively expresses both the love and the pain associated with each parent. Many reviewers have commented that themes of sexual abuse and dysfunctional family are handled by Karr without the bitterness, self-pity, melodrama, or sentimentality that characterizes many confessional memoirs. Cyra McFadden has observed that Karr “is blessed with a sense of humor that allows her to see whatever happens to her, good, bad or terrible, as just one more example of chaos theory at work.” The Liars' Club is undoubtedly Karr's most highly regarded work. Reviewers admired her use of narrative voice in The Liars' Club, which convincingly portrays the perspective of a young girl. M. Joy Gorence observed that Karr's narrative voice in The Liars' Club expresses “the innocence of a young child but with the understanding of an adult.” The Liars' Club also earned admiration for being skillfully written, powerfully expressive, and entertaining to read. Cherry, while generally liked, has been judged by a number of reviewers as flawed in its use of narrative voice. Such critics felt that the first-person voice in the first half of the story is effective, but the abrupt shift to second-person voice in latter half constitutes a serious flaw in the narrative. Karr's poetry, while not attracting a wide popular readership, is highly regarded by critics. Her use of language has been consistently praised, especially her formal meter capturing the rhythms of everyday speech, her evocative imagery, and her meticulous attention to detail. As with her memoirs, critics applauded Karr's ability to express strong emotions and describe poignant situations without lapsing into melodrama or sentimentality.

Principal Works

Abacus (poetry) 1987

The Devil's Tour (poetry) 1993

The Liars' Club: A Memoir (memoir) 1995

Viper Rum (poetry and essays) 1998

Cherry: A Memoir (memoir) 2000

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Criticism

Mary Karr (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Karr, Mary. “Against Decoration.” In Viper Rum, pp. 49-72. New York, N.Y.: New Directions, 1998.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in Parnassus magazine in 1991, Karr expounds her opinions on modern poetic techniques and presents a critique of contemporary neo-formalist poetry, arguing that it lacks both emotion and clarity.]

1

Decoration abounds in contemporary poetry, much of it marching beneath the banner of neo-formalism. Actually a mix of strict form and free verse, the new formalist poems juggle rhyme, meter, and various syllabic and stanzaic strategies. In the last ten years, the movement has...

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Cyra McFadden (review date 16 July 1995)

SOURCE: McFadden, Cyra. “There's No Lie as Big as the Truth.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 July 1995): 1, 12.

[In the following review, McFadden discusses the themes of lies, truth, memory, and storytelling in The Liars' Club.]

Memoirs inhabit the middle ground between truth and fiction. They can't stick to the facts, and only the facts, because we don't remember past events as clearly as we remember how we felt about them, which is a different kind of truth. And sometimes, as in Mary Karr's memoir about her East Texas childhood, the events themselves are so bizarre, no novelist could get away with them. Who'd believe a grandmother so cruel that when she dies...

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Scott Donaldson (review date 23 July 1995)

SOURCE: Donaldson, Scott. “Mary Karr Recounts Her Tough East Texas Childhood.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 July 1995): 3.

[In the following review, Donaldson applauds Karr for her vivid storytelling and brilliant use of narrative voice in The Liars' Club.]

Getting students to write openly and honestly about their childhood isn't easy. Some of them simply back away. No, nothing has ever happened to make them feel deeply. They've never been angry or embarrassed or jealous or ecstatic. Solid Americans all, they even deny knowing about guilt. Others go in the opposite direction, and rather than simply recounting the tale that brings the emotion to life, they keep...

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Gaby Wood (review date 19 October 1995)

SOURCE: Wood, Gaby. “What Did It Matter Who I Was?” London Review of Books 20, no. 19 (19 October 1995): 39.

[In the following review, Wood examines the characteristics of confessional memoirs, arguing that the lies told in The Liars' Club are primarily “tricks of memory.”]

Richard Rayner's The Blue Suit is a memoir, a work of non-fiction. In it his father dies several times: of cancer, in a car crash, missing presumed drowned and, finally, of a heart attack. He makes guest appearances in between, as a sick man in Scotland, as a diplomat in Australia, as a stepfather. These events all form part of a story, a sort of Arabian Nights of the...

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Elizabeth Young (review date 20 October 1995)

SOURCE: Young, Elizabeth. “Wrecked in Texas.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 375 (20 October 1995): 39-40.

[In the following review, Young commends The Liars' Club as a “extraordinarily vivid and beautifully written” memoir, noting that the work transcends the traditionally “salacious” subject material of the American memoir.]

Intellectuals are as prurient as anyone else. They are just as interested in murder, sex and disease but they don't much like to admit it. They scorn tabloids and talk shows. Egg-head voyeurism is catered for in up-market biographies and films that focus on the scandals of the Bloomsbury Group, Anais Nin, Henry Miller and...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Kate Hubbard (review date 4 November 1995)

SOURCE: Hubbard, Kate. “Unhappy in Its Own Way.” Spectator 275, no. 8730 (4 November 1995): 49-50.

[In the following review, Hubbard compliments the “extraordinary vividness” of Karr's writing in The Liars' Club.]

To say that The Liars' Club is a memoir of a dysfunctional Texan family is both true and also reductive. The facts are harrowing—madness, alcoholism, sexual abuse—yet their narration, which crackles with wry humour, affection and defiance, is not. It is fired by a kind of fierce honesty, a determination to shun the comforting lies of memory and the lies which shrouded Mary Karr's childhood. Eschewing self-pity and blame, she tells it...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

William Harmon (review date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Harmon, William. “Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr.” Southern Review 33, no. 1 (winter 1997): 150-55.

[In the following review, Harmon discusses The Liars' Club in conjunction with Karr's poetry and literary criticism, arguing that The Liars' Club “may become a classic.”]

I

To get at the notion of four Mary Karrs—critic, poet, memoirist, and metacritic—let's start in 1991, when I was visiting the poet Robert Morgan near Ithaca, New York. Bob asked if I had seen an essay called “Against Decoration”—by a Mary Karr—in the current Parnassus. Smug with one-upsmanship, I crowed and barked...

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Elizabeth Powers (essay date June 1997)

SOURCE: Powers, Elizabeth. “Doing Daddy Down.” Commentary 103, no. 6 (June 1997): 38-41.

[In the following essay, Powers examines The Liars' Club in conjunction with other contemporary American memoirs that focus on father-daughter relationships. Powers praises Karr for “grafting her story to our oldest literary roots.”]

When I was a child, there were times when I thought my mother should leave my father. Children only slowly get a feel for the limits on action: if, I reasoned, my parents still had checks in their checkbook, then why could they not write one to purchase a new car (or bike, etc.)? If my mother sometimes felt as much pain as she clearly...

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M. Joy Gorence (review date September 1997)

SOURCE: Gorence, M. Joy. “Growing up in America.” English Journal 86, no. 5 (September 1997): 98-9.

[In the following review of The Liars' Club, Gorence commends Karr for her vibrantly descriptive language, candid storytelling, and adept handling of sensitive issues.]

Perhaps the cover or the title on the book attracted my attention to The Liars' Club. Perhaps it was the compact size of the book or the size of the letters on the page. Perhaps it was the opening lines, “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark. I was seven …” Whatever it is that makes us decide to read a book, The Liars' Club enticed me to take it along...

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Barbara Jordan (review date 1998)

SOURCE: Jordan, Barbara. Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr. Chicago Review 44, nos. 3-4 (1998): 213-17.

[In the following review, Jordan applauds the level of detail and complex imagery in Viper Rum, characterizing Karr as “an exceptionally fine poet.”]

The cover of Mary Karr's recent Viper Rum—a dead snake coiled in formaldehyde—gives clear warning to anyone looking to find rhapsodies on butterflies or the vagaries of autumn. This poetry eats that kind of poetry, Karr might say. Her last book of poems, The Devil's Tour, featured a medieval scene where two skeletons hold, above the head of a coy maiden, a mirror that reflects...

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Judith Kitchen (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “Against.” Georgia Review 52, no. 4 (winter 1998): 755-72.

[In the following essay, Kitchen contrasts Viper Rum with several recent poetry collections, asserting that Karr's verse stands up favorably to the literary values she presented in her critical essay “Against Decoration.”]

For the past week, I've seemed—even to myself—to be against everything. Well, not quite everything, but a lot more than usual. I've been against little things: the way you can never—ever—get a real human on the phone when a company has voice mail; the people who don't like the color of the new lampposts where I work; the way the bank can't give...

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Robert McDowell (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: McDowell, Robert. “Expansive Poetry.” Hudson Review 51, no. 4 (winter 1999): 792-802.

[In the following essay, McDowell discusses the emergence of the “Expansive poetry” or “neo-formalist” style in a selection of poetry volumes, analyzing Viper Rum within the context of Karr's critical essay “Against Decoration.”]

More than a decade has passed since the anthologies Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, edited by David Lehman, and The Direction of Poetry, edited by Robert Richman, made the first ensemble attempts to recognize a change in our poetry: the renewed interest in form. It has been ten years since the special issue of...

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Leslie Ullman (review date February 1999)

SOURCE: Ullman, Leslie. Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr. Poetry 173, no. 4 (February 1999): 314-16.

[In the following review, Ullman asserts that the poems in Karr's Viper Rum effectively address “the persistent and unanswerable questions of the human condition” through themes of family, religion, faith, and death.]

Mary Karr's third collection [Viper Rum] probes, without sentimentality or loss of vitality, autobiographical material she has handled in previous collections and in her celebrated memoir, The Liars' Club—a hard-drinking father whom she holds close ten years after his death, a once-volatile mother now subdued by disease...

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Eric Murphy Selinger (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Selinger, Eric Murphy. “This Personal Maze Is Not the Prize.” Parnassus 24, no. 2 (2000): 77-116.

[In the following essay, Selinger offers a critical reading of The Liars' Club within the context of the prose memoir genre and in conjunction with Karr's poetry volume Viper Rum and her literary essay “Against Decoration.”]

Five years ago, with The Liars' Club still reeling at the view from its lofty perch on the Times bestseller list, Mary Karr offered the readers of Parnassus “A Memoirist's Apology.” What was she apologizing for? Not the book's success—it could scarcely have been published when the essay was...

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Sue Churchill (review date winter 2000)

SOURCE: Churchill, Sue. Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr. Southern Humanities Review 34, no. 1 (winter 2000): 97-100.

[In the following review, Churchill expounds on the recurring thematic motifs in Viper Rum and analyzes the impact of Karr's struggles with her aging mother, the death of her father, and alcoholism on her verse.]

In her first book of poetry, Abacus (1987), Mary Karr spoke as a “distant, contemporary cousin” of Diogenes and used the persona to broaden the implications of her experience. In Viper Rum, Christ replaces the Greek Cynic, and Karr's life becomes a contemporary testing ground for Catholic thought and symbol. The...

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Mary Karr and Wendy Smith (interview date 2 October 2000)

SOURCE: Karr, Mary, and Wendy Smith. “Mary Karr: A Life Saved by Stories.” Publishers Weekly 247, no. 40 (2 October 2000): 52-3.

[In the following interview, Karr discusses her literary career, her memoir Cherry, and her assessment of the memoir genre.]

Mary Karr says she had one complaint when The Liars' Club was published in 1995. Karr's account of her childhood in Port Arthur, Tex., buffeted by the stormy interactions of her hard-drinking parents, was the critical hit of the season, praised by reviewers for its gallows humor, hard-won compassion, earthy yet elegant prose, and for a gift for storytelling the author had obviously inherited from her...

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Liz Marlantes (review date 12 October 2000)

SOURCE: Marlantes, Liz. “Youngest Member of Liars' Club Keeps Telling Truth.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 225 (12 October 2000): 20.

[In the following review, Marlantes argues that Cherry both captures and mirrors adolescence perfectly through its portrayal of boredom, loneliness, and self-consciousness.]

Adolescence is an ambiguous stage of life. Less free and innocent than childhood, less settled and secure than adulthood, it hangs between in a kind of limbo. Cherry, Mary Karr's second memoir, not only captures this neither-here-nor-there phase perfectly, it mirrors it. The book itself seems to serve as a transition piece between The...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates (review date 2 November 2000)

SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “Pilgrim's Progress.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 17 (2 November 2000): 30-2.

[In the following review, Oates presents a critical reading of The Liars' Club and Cherry within the context of the memoir literature genre. Oates praises both works but observes that the narrative in Cherry is not as powerful as The Liars' Club.]

My memory of eight surreal months in Beaumont, Texas, in 1961-1962, overlapping minimally with the time span chronicled by Mary Karr in The Liars' Club (1995) and in her new sequel to that best-selling memoir, Cherry, is almost exclusively visceral. When the air is saturated...

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Valerie Sayers (review date 3 November 2000)

SOURCE: Sayers, Valerie. “Tattletale.” Commonweal 127, no. 19 (3 November 2000): 27-8.

[In the following review, Sayers comments that, though Cherry avoids many of the pitfalls of contemporary confessional memoirs, the volume's narrative voice is ultimately flawed.]

Mary Karr has now written two narratives of her childhood, which can stand as Exhibits A and B in the Case of the Contemporary Memoir. Past evidence suggests that we are a nation of first-person narrators, confessing our own sordid histories while we peek in on the neighbors' stories. We don't often invoke our right to privacy—on the contrary, we're ready to spill all—and we certainly don't...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Alix Kates Shulman (review date December 2000)

SOURCE: Shulman, Alix Kates. “Hungry for More.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 3 (December 2000): 19-20.

[In the following review, Shulman argues that, despite some problematic elements with the narrative voice in the volume's second half, Cherry is an admirable and “worthy sequel” to The Liars' Club.]

The plot is an ordinary plot: American girl traverses the tricky terrain of adolescence. First bra, first pimple, first love, first kissing game, first date, first real kiss, first period, first smoke (marijuana, it being the late sixties), first betrayal, first run-in with the principal, first sex. Familiar territory: in its key events Mary Karr's school...

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Sanford Pinsker (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Citizens of Somewhere Else: Memoir and the Place of Place.” Georgia Review 55, no. 1 (spring 2001): 162-69.

[In the following essay, Pinsker examines a selection of recent memoirs, including The Liars' Club, and comments that a strong sense of place is a key element to a successful memoir. Pinsker additionally compliments Karr's “deliciously vernacular voice” in The Liars' Club.]

Krochmalna Street in pre-World War I Warsaw … Leechfield, Texas, in the 1970's … an Alexandria, Egypt, that abides in the imagination—these are the times and places that fuel the respective memoirs of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mary Karr, and André...

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Jennie Bristow (review date 25 June 2001)

SOURCE: Bristow, Jennie. “Teenage Confessions.” New Statesman 130, no. 4543 (25 June 2001): 51.

[In the following review, Bristow describes Karr's Cherry as “an amusing, warm account of growing up in late 1960s Texas” but comments that the story lacks a compelling plot or unifying element.]

Mary Karr tells us, on page 25 of Cherry, that her ambition aged 11 was to write poetry and autobiography—the exact literary path she later followed. When a pre-pubescent decides to make a career in memoir-writing, autobiography clearly ain't what it used to be.

Karr fits well into the great confessional-writing craze of the late 1990s. In...

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Vicki Woods (review date 30 June 2001)

SOURCE: Woods, Vicki. “Escaping from the Boondocks.” Spectator 286, no. 9021 (30 June 2001): 42-3.

[In the following review, Woods offers a mixed assessment of Cherry and observes that the central subject of the work is not sexual awakening but rather an intellectual awakening.]

The fin-de-siècle fancy for novelised memoirs is still going strong—and very harrowing they are, too. Millions of people have read Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and his sequel 'Tis, and the desperately gloomy A Boy Called ‘It’, and the sharply post-post-modernist A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Why though? Why? I can understand...

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