Study Guide

Maureen Howard

Maureen Howard Essay - Howard, Maureen (Vol. 151)

Howard, Maureen (Vol. 151)

Introduction

Maureen Howard 1930-

American novelist, memoirist, editor, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Howard's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 14, and 46.

Howard has garnered widespread critical acclaim for her novels about women searching for identity amid their career aspirations and within their socially prescribed roles. The female characters in her novels are frequently conflicted and struggle to assert their individuality, often by breaking from their families—particularly from mother figures. Howard celebrates the assertion of the human will to affect change, yet, in her works, such action does not always insure a happy or conclusive ending. Critics have commended Howard's precise use of language, her double-edged humor, and the loose structure of many of her novels, which allows readers to draw their own conclusions about characters and incidents. Howard is best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Facts of Life (1978), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction.

Biographical Information

Howard was born on June 28, 1930, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The city of Bridgeport played a large role in Howard's formative years, and she would later use the town as the setting for several of her novels. Howard was raised in Bridgeport's Irish neighborhoods, and her Irish-immigrant father, William, was the county detective for Fairfield County. Howard attended Smith College and earned a bachelor's degree in 1952. After college, she worked for several publishing and advertising firms. In 1961, Howard published her first novel, Not a Word about Nightingales. From 1967 to 1968, she worked at the New School for Social Research, in New York City, as a lecturer in English and creative writing. Howard has continued to teach and lecture on such subjects as drama, English, and creative writing, holding positions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Columbia University, Yale University, Amherst College, and Brooklyn College. She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1967 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980. She has also been nominated several times for the American Book Award for autobiography/biography and the PEN/Faulkner Award for nonfiction.

Major Works

Not a Word about Nightingales focuses on the disruptions within a family when the father decides to leave his wife and children to pursue a life of “feeling” during a vacation in Peruvia. After eighteen months, his wife sends their daughter to bring him back; by this time, her father has become disenchanted with his hedonistic lifestyle and returns without much resistance. In Bridgeport Bus (1966), Mary Agnes Keeley, an aspiring middle-aged writer, leaves her hometown of Bridgeport on the bus to begin a new life in New York City. Mary Agnes has difficulty adjusting to life in the city and finds herself surrounded by a neurotic roommate and a suicidal cousin. She eventually returns to Bridgeport, unmarried and pregnant, to take care of her widowed mother. The award-winning memoir Facts of Life directly addresses Howard's affinity for rewriting and reinterpreting personal narratives, this time using her own life story. The work vividly portrays her parents' conflicting personalities and the consequences of her strict Catholic upbringing. Howard uses the memoir genre to call the “facts” of her life into question, demonstrating the differences and discrepancies between perception and memory. In Expensive Habits (1986), Margaret Flood, a famous American writer, undergoes bypass heart surgery and is given a new lease on life. During her recovery, she discovers that her life and career are filled with lies and untruths, some of which have hurt others. As she heals physically, she also attempts to heal the mistakes she has made in the past. Natural History (1992) is both a narrative and an anthropological assortment of facts about Bridgeport, Connecticut. The novel's loose plot focuses on Billy Bray, a county detective and the patriarch of a large family. Set in 1943, the story focuses on Bray's investigation of the murder of a soldier by an officer's wife. Bray quickly closes the investigation, but his family is plagued for years by the murdered man's brother, who seeks revenge for what he feels was Bray's inability to bring his brother's killer to justice. The novel is filled with details concerning the people, history, and culture of Bridgeport. A section titled “Double Entry” juxtaposes the narrative events with arcane Bridgeport trivia. A Lover's Almanac (1998) is stylistically similar to Natural History in that each includes both pages of straight narration and alternative bits of history, weather forecasts, folk wisdom, and trivia. The novel opens with the ending of a romantic relationship between two characters, Louise Moffett and Artie Freeman, who are splitting apart on the eve of the millennium. After the break-up, Louise and Artie attempt to impose order and criteria on their love lives, much as an almanac provides an order for natural events by presenting predictions based on facts. In 2001, Howard published Big As Life: Three Tales for Spring, a mixture of short stories and memoirs, focusing on renewal and the season of Spring.

Critical Reception

Howard has been referred to by some critics as a “woman's writer” due to her recurring focus on female characters searching for self-awareness. Reviewers have consistently praised her prose and her well-drawn characters, both central and minor. Critics have compared her narrative style to that of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Toni Morrison. Howard has been noted for her skill at presenting differing points of view and her ability to seamlessly handle transitions between the past, present, and future. Many critics have applauded how Howard appropriates different literary genres for use in her fiction. For example, Natural History makes use of the screenplay, encyclopedia, diary, and history book genres within the central narrative. However, several critics have objected to Howard's tendency toward digression and loose plot structures. Some reviewers have argued that these tangential details make her novels—most notably Natural History and A Lover's Almanac—self-conscious and difficult to read. Some critics have panned the innovative and experimental narrative techniques used in these two works, such as the use of parallel texts on the right- and left-hand pages in Natural History, which Noel Perrin called “a semi-psychedelic melange.” Critical reaction to Howard's seemingly endless fascination with the city of Bridgeport has also been mixed. Some reviewers have derided her continual use of the city as a focus in her novels as repetitive and uninteresting. However, other commentators have praised Howard's utilization of the city as a major character. Many agreed with Pearl K. Bell, who stated that the depiction of Bridgeport in Howard's works ultimately seeks “to defy the evanescence of memory,. … [and] lament the irrevocable dissolution of vanished experience.”

Principal Works

Not a Word about Nightingales (novel) 1961

Bridgeport Bus (novel) 1966

Before My Time (novel) 1975

Seven American Women Writers of the Twentieth Century [editor] (nonfiction) 1977

Facts of Life (memoirs) 1978

Grace Abounding (novel) 1982

The Penguin Book of Contemporary American Essays [editor] (nonfiction) 1984

Expensive Habits (novel) 1986

Natural History (novel) 1992

A Lover's Almanac (novel) 1998

Big As Life: Three Tales for Spring (short stories and memoirs) 2001

Criticism

Noel Perrin (review date 27 May 1984)

SOURCE: “The Lure of the Bright Lights,” in Washington Post Book World, May 27, 1984, p. 11.

[In the following review, Perrin offers a positive assessment of Bridgeport Bus, praising Howard's treatment of the theme of personal transformation.]

Mary Agnes Keeley, 35 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall, thin as a pencil, lives with her widowed mother in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her father, a Bridgeport fireman, died when she was 15. Right after high school she went to work to help put her brother through Fordham. He is now an FBI agent, assigned to the Buffalo, New York, office, with a wife and three children. Mary Agnes is secretary to the president of Standard...

(The entire section is 1203 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 11 May 1986)

SOURCE: “Maureen Howard: Satire and Sympathy,” in Washington Post Book World, May 11, 1986, p. 3.

[In the following review, Yardley offers a positive assessment of Expensive Habits, commenting on the ways that the novel breaks from Howard's earlier work.]

By contrast with Maureen Howard's four previous novels, Expensive Habits is long and, in the conventional sense, ambitious: the other books are delicate miniatures, elegantly crafted and somewhat elliptical in narrative method, but Expensive Habits attempts to paint a relatively large canvas and does so in a rather straightforward manner. The novel appears—the impression is fortified by the...

(The entire section is 1230 words.)

Nora Johnson (review date 18 May 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Expensive Habits, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 18, 1986, p. 1.

[In the following mixed review, Johnson argues that Expensive Habits is a well-written work, but argues that there are several unclear plot elements and character motivations.]

Maureen Howard's fine fifth novel attempts more, and accomplishes more, than all the others, marking her steady progress toward the highest rank of American fiction writers. The prose of Expensive Habits is dense, complex, disturbing, authoritative. Its several voices suit her story and vividly demonstrate her literary intelligence. It's dazzling to see how deftly she wields her...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

Thomas R. Edwards (review date 3 September 1992)

SOURCE: “Design for Living,” in New York Review of Books, December 3, 1992, pp. 30–32.

[In the following review, Edwards argues Natural History's unconventional narrative structure complements the novel's thematic material.]

Anyone who loves natural history museums knows that the first moment we enter one, particularly as children, we understand that the collections are not the main point; they are for soberer minds. The point is the dioramas, those magical windows opening on times and places we will never actually visit. And the best dioramas, for our purposes, include not just simulacra of animals and plants but also the human forms posed among them, as...

(The entire section is 2802 words.)

Carol Anshaw (review date 25 October 1992)

SOURCE: “Circling Back to Bridgeport: Maureen Howard's Unconventional Saga of a Family and a City,” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 25, 1992, p. 1.

[In the following positive review of Natural History, Anshaw commends the novel's “subtle and subjective notion of story.”]

Stories can't always be held within conventional forms. Although novels most often put one page after the other in a forward progression, most narratives in life are not composed of a neatly chronological sequence of events, or even of just the events themselves. In truth, stories jump forward then back again, head off in several directions at once and include the imaginings of the...

(The entire section is 1087 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 25 October 1992)

SOURCE: “The Fragmentation of Reality,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 25, 1992, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder offers a mixed assessment of Natural History, noting that Howard's narrative technique is too unfocused and self-conscious.]

Natural History is a novel about the dissolution of American immigrant values in the second half of the 20th Century, and of our industrial cities where those values once flourished. This, though, is like saying that Magritte's famous painting is about a curved wooden pipe. What the painting really is about is a displacement of reality achieved by the words at the bottom: “This is not a pipe.”...

(The entire section is 1351 words.)

Marc Robinson (review date 9 November 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Natural History, in New Republic, November 9, 1992, pp. 46–49.

[In the following review, Robinson praises the experimental narrative techniques used by Howard in Natural History.]

Maureen Howard writes about her abiding subject, the family, with fierce rigor, as though she were at the same time writing in defense of the family novel itself. Not for her the cozy domestic zones where passions are labeled and personal histories are smugly untangled into “relationships.” In the seven books she has published since 1960, Howard's humor and ready sympathy are buttressed by a stubborn refusal to slim down her people and their stories. She...

(The entire section is 2569 words.)

Noel Perrin (review date 22 November 1992)

SOURCE: “Lost in Bridgeport,” in Washington Post Book World, November 22, 1992, p. 6.

[In the following review, Perrin offers a negative assessment of Natural History, calling the novel “almost unreadable.”]

In 1965, Maureen Howard published a stunningly good novel called Bridgeport Bus. It's about a 35-year-old virgin named Mary Agnes Keeley. She lives in Bridgeport, Conn., with her suffocating Irish mother (her fireman father is dead) and works as secretary to the president of a zipper company. Then she breaks loose and goes to New York. She finds men, adventures, a somewhat better job; she writes one part of the book herself in a surrealistic...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Gail Pool (review date December 1992)

SOURCE: “Tales of Two Cities,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 3, December, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Pool argues that the series of “natural, social, and personal histories” portrayed in Natural History do not add up to a compelling whole.]

Anyone seeking to pinpoint the nature of the contemporary novel will have a rough time of it. Wearing old-fashioned stays, postmodern garb, or singular outfits with no designer labels at all, our novels march their many ways, fulfilling the possibilities or landing in the pitfalls of their chosen modes.

Both of these novels, for example, revolve around an American city and...

(The entire section is 1580 words.)

Hope Hale Davis (review date 14 December 1992)

SOURCE: “Around and over and about Bridgeport,” in New Leader, December 14, 1992, pp. 24–25.

[In the following review, Davis offers a mixed assessment of Natural History.]

Matched in her spectacular range perhaps only by Toni Morrison, Maureen Howard can write in any style she chooses. Almost defiantly she follows her fancy wherever it leads, gathering unlikely personalities along the way. Natural History might be called, as one of its characters, P. T. Barnum, in a letter to Mark Twain, called his own most famous production, “a colossal traveling exhibition never before equaled.” The novel's multimedia form (well over a hundred pages are screenplay)...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 14 December 1992)

SOURCE: “Novel Strains for Effect,” in Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 1992, p. 12.

[In the following review, Rubin offers a negative assessment of Natural History, criticizing the novel's format and structure.]

Maureen Howard's much-heralded novel Natural History, is a penitential, quasi-Joycean chronicle/collage that purports to do for Bridgeport, Conn., what James Joyce did for Dublin. Winner of a National Book Critics Circle prize for her memoir Facts of Life, and the author of five previous novels, Howard is a sincere and serious writer. Her intentions are doubtless worthy, but this novel never gets off the ground.

...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

Pearl K. Bell (review date 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Natural History, in Partisan Review, Vol. LX, No. 1, 1993, pp. 68–70.

[In the following review, Bell argues that Natural History's “uncontainable ingenuity” overshadows the novel's plot.]

The hero of Maureen Howard's Natural History is Bridgeport, Connecticut, where she was born and bred in an Irish Catholic family. A once-thriving manufacturing center on Long Island Sound, Bridgeport, like many such industrial towns of New England, fell victim to blight and decay after the Second World War. In several of her novels and the memoir Facts of Life, Bridgeport has been Howard's Dublin, the native ground that has...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Irving Malin (review date 12 February 1993)

SOURCE: “On the Other Hand …,” in Commonweal, February 12, 1993, p. 23.

[In the following review, Malin offers a positive assessment of Natural History, complimenting the novel's complexity and depth.]

Natural History deserves more than a brief review. It moves on at least three levels: it is, first, a study of the Bray family—Billy and Nell, the parents, and James and Catherine their children; it is also a study of “history,” a meditation, if you will, on what the word means not only to the Bray children but to all who want to recapture the “past” and discover that it never existed as implacable fact; it is, finally about the “mix” of...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

George O'Brien (essay date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: “Assimilation Blues: Maureen Howard's Facts of Life,” in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 95–102.

[In the following essay, O'Brien explores the themes of assimilation and ethnic identity in Facts of Life.]

Narratives of exile and immigration arguably bring into sharper focus than other autobiographical modes the concept identified by Philippe Lejuene as “the autobiographical pact.”1 One reason why this may be the case is that there is an implicit struggle in autobiography, an application to the self of the sense of confrontation and critique that is applied to the objective world in Realist fiction. The experience typified...

(The entire section is 3252 words.)

Paula Friedman (review date 25 January 1998)

SOURCE: “Millennium Light,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 25, 1998, p. 6.

[In the following review, Friedman offers a positive assessment of A Lover's Almanac.]

“Lightness is his affliction,” Louise Moffett says of her lover Artie in Maureen Howard's comic tour de force, A Lover's Almanac, a novel about love, art and life precariously poised at the edge of the third millennium. Patching into the narrative excerpts from works dating as far back as the Greek and Roman classics and as contemporary as the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song, Howard extends the boundaries of her love story into a broader meditation on Western thought. The story begins...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)

Diane Simon (review date 26 January 1998)

SOURCE: “Seasoning Love,” in Nation, January 26, 1998, pp. 29–32.

[In the following review, Simon offers a positive assessment of A Lover's Almanac, noting its stylistic similarities to Natural History.]

About your arcade. You do see the pathos and pretension of the great Parisian arcades popping up in Bridgeport—your little glassed-over alley!

—Maureen Howard, Natural History

Once celebrated as a hallmark of America's cheery future, its robust inner health, the suburb has fallen from grace. No longer do aluminum siding, pink shutters and identically plotted lawns signal...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)

Susan Dooley (review date 8 February 1998)

SOURCE: “Stormy Weather,” in Washington Post Book World, February 8, 1998, p. 5.

[In the following review, Dooley offers a negative assessment of A Lover's Almanac, criticizing the novel's lack of focus and cohesion.]

For more than 600 years, almanacs have been counting us through the calendar, helping us to calculate the position of the sun, moon and planets, entertaining us with feeble jokes, providing us with reminders of famous birthdays, cautioning that on such and such a day people in such and such an area will rise to find their world buried under snow. Once the almanac may have filled a need, but now it is a magpie collection of bright and shiny...

(The entire section is 853 words.)

Jack Schwartz (review date 27 March 1998)

SOURCE: “Far from Home,” in Commonweal, March 27, 1998, p. 24.

[In the following review, Schwartz offers a mixed assessment of A Lover's Almanac, arguing that the novel's minor characters are more compelling than the protagonist.]

In A Lover's Almanac, Maureen Howard moves far afield from the literary precincts of spirited Irish-Catholic women where she has made her mark. In this more youthful, futuristic venue, Howard's protagonists are a star-tossed couple, Louise (Lou, Lou-Lou) Moffett, an aspiring artist on the cusp of Downtown success, and her boyfriend Arthur (Artie) Freeman, a computer-graphics adept for a cyberspace ad agency. The opening...

(The entire section is 951 words.)

Michael Wood (review date 16 July 1998)

SOURCE: “On the Love Boat,” in New York Review of Books, July 16, 1998, pp. 31–35.

[In the following review, Wood explores the literary technique of utilizing correspondence to narrate a story, citing A Lover's Almanac as a prime example.]

1.

Milan Kundera's new novel, Identity, written in French and marked at its end as “completed in France, Autumn 1996,” reads like a modest commentary on a famous page in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Charles Swann's love for Odette de Crécy, entering its unhappiest phase, is described as an illness, in which physical desire, and even Odette's person, play only a small...

(The entire section is 6466 words.)