Shirley Ann Grau Essay - Grau, Shirley Ann (Vol. 146)

Grau, Shirley Ann (Vol. 146)


Shirley Ann Grau 1929-

American short story writer and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Grau's life and career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 9.

An accomplished novelist and short story writer, Grau has been described as a “fictional anthropologist” for her authentic portraits of the people and atmosphere of the American South. Although early in her career Grau was classified as a regional writer, she has since been recognized as an author of much wider scope. Critics typically compare her favorably to other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner. Grau has been publishing work since the 1950s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Keepers of the House (1964). The thematic strains of home, gender, race, and ethical concerns play strong roles in Grau's work, and she is well regarded for her skill in developing character and setting, which she uses to endow her material with universal and mythic overtones.

Biographical Information

Grau was born in New Orleans in 1929 to Adolph and Katherine Grau. She was raised primarily in Louisiana and later moved to Montgomery, Alabama. As a high school senior Grau returned to New Orleans to attend the Ursuline Academy. She eventually pursued literary studies at Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University, where she obtained her B. A. Grau began graduate studies at Tulane, with the ambition to become an English professor. However, after learning that the head of Tulane's English department refused to hire female teaching assistants, Grau abandoned her teaching aspirations and began to focus on her writing career. She published her first collection of short stories, The Black Prince and Other Stories, in 1955. Soon after, Grau married James Kern Feibleman, a professor of philosophy and writer. The Black Prince was a critical success, and Grau followed the collection with three novels, The Hard Blue Sky (1958), The House on Coliseum Street (1961), and The Keepers of the House, the last of which earned Grau the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1965. During this period Grau spent a considerable amount of time traveling, living in New York City for a short while, but primarily moving between Metarie, a New Orleans suburb, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Grau took a hiatus after The Keepers of the House but resumed her career in 1971 with the publication of the novel The Condor Passes. Over the next two decades, Grau continued to publish works, including the short fiction collections The Wind Shifting West (1973) and Nine Women (1986), and the novels Evidence of Love (1977) and Roadwalkers (1994).

Major Works

Much of Grau's fiction is concerned with themes of gender, familial power structures, and the race dynamics that characterize southern society. It is also noted for its use of symbolism and multiple points of view. All of these elements are present in The Keepers of the House, which examines three generations of the Howland family in rural Alabama. As she traces the history of this family through the eyes of Will Howland, his black mistress, Margaret, and Abigail, Will and Margaret's daughter, Grau explores the different attitudes that southern culture has developed towards miscegenation and the pursuit of prosperity. Grau also uses varied points of view in The Hard Blue Sky, which is narrated by several different members of a poor fishing community on the small island Isle aux Chiens in Mississippi; The Condor Passes, which explores the racial dynamic in the relationship between Stanley, a black servant, and his employer, wealthy patriarch Thomas Henry Oliver; and Evidence of Love, which investigates how several women attempt to assert their personal identity and strive to find a place for themselves in a patriarchal society. Also known for her use of symbolism, Grau often uses the images of a “house” or “home” as a major recurring symbol in her prose. Critic Anthony Bukoski has noted that Grau frequently uses the house as the “center and substance of [her] fictional world.” In The Keepers of the House, the image of the Howland's home is brought up repeatedly, and houses are used as a point of focus in The Condor Passes and Roadwalkers, two novels which, like The Keepers of the House, center on generational sagas and explore issues of race. Roadwalkers, follows Baby, a six-year-old black girl, as she and her orphaned siblings wander the countryside in search of food, clothing, and shelter in the Depression-era South of 1934. Grau vividly describes Baby's difficult years growing up in an orphanage, but eventually shifts the focus of the book to Baby's daughter, Nanda, who was raised into a life of privilege.

Although Grau's novels are seen as significant achievements in the genre, her short stories are equally well regarded, and in some circles, are considered to be superior to the novels. There is a definite relationship between Grau's short fiction and her novels. The short story “Stanley” from The Wind Shifting West elaborates on narrative material first published in The Condor Passes, and the story “The Patriarch,” from the same collection, was the basis for Evidence of Love. Like her novels, Grau's short stories often explore issues of race and gender. The stories in The Black Prince describe the world of rural Mississippi and the struggle of its black and white inhabitants to survive and coexist. The Wind Shifting West expands upon the descriptions of Mississippi life presented in The Black Prince, with stories that feature characters from a variety of social classes and settings. Grau's collection Nine Women follows the life of nine different women who live in widely disparate worlds.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Grau's fiction has been varied, with some critics appreciating her subtlety in handling social history in a mythic fashion, and others seeing her prose as a superficial, predictable reworking of southern stereotypes. Grau's debut work, The Black Prince and Other Stories, has received almost uniform praise; Paul Schlueter has described its reception as “little short of adulation.” Grau has often been compared to southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, but critic Linda Wagner-Martin has also compared Grau to Paul Bowles and Albert Camus, particularly due to the descriptions of “a nature oblivious to its creatures” inThe Hard Blue Sky. Grau's thematic material is primarily concerned with issues relevant to the American South, and several commentators have praised Grau for her examination of southern culture. L. Elizabeth Bryant lauded Grau's “keen insights into … racist minds and heart,” while D. T. Max has applauded Grau's “uncondescending view of the South's poorer black and white residents.” Critics have been widely split regarding Grau's narrative structure and use of multiple viewpoints. Merle Rubin has observed that “narrative sequence does not flow easily in her work,” using Roadwalkers as his primary example. Other reviewers have taken issue with Grau's constant shifting of narrative voice, but some critics have argued that this technique is a major contributor to the success of The Keepers of the House. Wagner-Martin has agreed that narrative method is “one of the most problematic areas of critical response” to Grau's work, but has asserted that Grau's importance lies in her “relentless, if subtle” concern with “non-white culture” and “the way that culture impinges on the patriarchal matrix that seems to dominate Southern life.”

Principal Works

The Black Prince and Other Stories (short stories) 1955

The Hard Blue Sky (novel) 1958

The House on Coliseum Street (novel) 1961

The Keepers of the House (novel) 1964

The Condor Passes (novel) 1971

The Wind Shifting West (short stories) 1973

Evidence of Love (novel) 1977

Nine Women (short stories) 1986

Roadwalkers (novel) 1994


Marilyn Gardner (review date 23 September 1971)

SOURCE: “Bleak Generations,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 63, No. 253, September 23, 1971, p. 21.

[In the following review of The Condor Passes, Gardner raises questions about Grau's style and fictional depictions of the American South.]

When is a cliché not quite a cliché? When it is cloaked in a novel by Shirley Ann Grau and redeemed by her versatile prose.

The Condor Passes, Miss Grau's first novel since her 1964 Pulitzer-prizewinning The Keepers of the House, comes dangerously close to being a 421-page cliché. Its Southern setting, conjuring up images of murky bayous, wide, sleepy streets, and Spanish moss...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

West Coast Review of Books (review date May 1977)

SOURCE: A review of Evidence of Love, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 3, May, 1977, p. 32.

[In the following review, the critic identifies praiseworthy qualities in Evidence of Love.]

Three of the sections of Grau's new novel [Evidence of Love] are written in the first person by two men—Edward Milton Henley (old, rich and crudely self-indulgent), Stephen Henley (his heir, obsessed with obscurantism, a tight and dour religiosity), and again, Edward Milton Henley (now ancient, wanting and welcoming death). And one section is Lucy's, the wife-widow of Stephen. The style is remarkable in many ways, in the seemingly surface probing of each of the...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Mary Rohrberger (essay date January 1978)

SOURCE: “‘So Distinct a Shade’: Shirley Ann Grau's Evidence of Love,” in Southern Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 195-98.

[In the following essay, Rohrberger explores the psychological world of Grau's characters.]

Evidence of Love, Shirley Ann Grau's fifth novel, is told through the viewpoint of three characters. Words spoken by Edward Milton Henley begin and end the novel. The middle sections are spoken by Henley's son, Stephen, and by Stephen's wife, Lucy. Grau uses a similar point of view in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hard Blue Sky (1958) and in The Condor Passes (1971). But whereas the earlier novels are tied to...

(The entire section is 1631 words.)

Mary Rohrberger (essay date Summer 1983)

SOURCE: “Shirley Ann Grau and the Short Story,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, Summer, 1983, pp. 83-101.

[In the following essay, Rohrberger provides a detailed assessment of Grau's skills as a short story writer and identifies thematic threads in the writer's work.]

The problem with Shirley Ann Grau is that she has consistently refused to stand still and conform to the stereotypes critics and reviewers have created for her. The problem of course, is not hers but ours, for we have consistently failed to understand the complexity of her statements and the excellence of her forms. Rather than try here to treat the corpus of her fiction, I have decided to...

(The entire section is 7465 words.)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Summer 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Nine Women, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1986, p. 92.

[The following review provides a brief account of the characters and situations in the stories collected in Nine Women.]

[Nine Women] is Shirley Ann Grau's second collection of stories, offering an interesting assortment of characters ranging in age and social position—daughters, mothers, widows, lovers, friends, businesswomen; two of the stories deal with black characters. There is a woman who's the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed her family, and spends her life flying from place to place, courting death; an ambitious realtor and her female...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Barbara Rich (review date August 1986)

SOURCE: “Short and to the Point,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 11, August, 1986, p. 12.

[In the following excerpt, Rich offers descriptions of the stories in Nine Women, and comments on Grau's treatment of themes.]

After poetry, short fiction is the most exacting form of literature. There is time and space, within the pages of even the slimmest novel, to explore and expand character and plot, and should one chapter disappoint, the author may be redeemed in the next. No such dispensations are bestowed upon short story writers. Each word must “tell.” The time-frame is finite, as is the forbearance of the reader, who has every reason to expect...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Shirley Ann Grau with John Canfield (interview date Winter 1987)

SOURCE: “A Conversation with Shirley Ann Grau,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 39-52.

[In the following interview, Grau and Canfield discuss the author's handling of Southern setting and theme, as well as exploring ideas about the craft of fiction.]

The publication of her first book of short stories in 1955, The Black Prince and Other Stories, launched Shirley Ann Grau's career with great promise. Critical acclaim was abundant—perhaps even hyperbolic—providing a challenge for the young author. Now, more than thirty years after she published her first book of short stories, Grau's credits include five novels, three books of short...

(The entire section is 5309 words.)

Anthony Bukoski (essay date Summer 1987)

SOURCE: “The Burden of Home: Shirley Ann Grau's Fiction,” in Critique, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 181-93.

[In the following essay, Bukoski demonstrates how Grau uses “the house” as the center and substance of many of her works.]

In Shirley Ann Grau's fiction, houses provide a loci for the psychological and emotional lives of families.1 Her fictional houses alienate, however, when they become representative of the failure of the family to provide direction to its members. This, I believe, partly answers the critics who see in Grau's work the “absence of … unifying symbol, or theme, or resolving incident.”2 When social and...

(The entire section is 6662 words.)

Linda Wagner-Martin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Shirley Ann Grau's Wise Fictions,” in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, The University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 143-60.

[In the following essay, Wagner-Martin examines several facets of Grau's work, identifying southern themes, feminist undercurrents and stylistic habits.]

As every reviewer of Shirley Ann Grau's fiction points out, she was born in New Orleans in 1929 and spent her childhood between that city, which her mother preferred, and Montgomery, Alabama, the location her father liked. She was educated in the now defunct Booth School, receiving much training in languages, and then, because Booth School was not accredited, transferred to...

(The entire section is 8094 words.)

Elzbieta Oleksy (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The Keepers of the House,” in Louisiana Women Writers, Louisiana State University Press, 1992, pp. 169-82.

[In the following essay, Oleksy presents a comparative study of Grau's The Keepers of the House and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, focusing on traits shared by the central heroines.]

Gone with the Wind (1936) is Margaret Mitchell's only surviving work of fiction; The Keepers of the House (1964) is Shirley Ann Grau's most ambitious, and in many ways most successful. Although the popular appeal of Mitchell's record-breaking classic far surpasses that of The Keepers, the books are oddly similar. Both won the...

(The entire section is 5659 words.)

Nan Levinson (review date July 1994)

SOURCE: “Upwardly Mobile,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1994, p. 48.

[In the following review, Levinson outlines the plot of Roadwalkers and comments on the novel's successes and failures.]

With Roadwalkers, Shirley Ann Grau has written a distinctly unfashionable book. In an era of identity politics, she is a white woman writing from the perspective of two black women; at a time when no belly-button goes unscrutinized, she offers a novel nearly devoid of psychological musings or insight; and in defiance of every writing teacher's mantra, she tells her tale with little interest in showing action or interaction. It is a...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

D. T. Max (review date 31 July 1994)

SOURCE: “The Road from There to Here,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 31, 1994, p. 2.

[In the following review, Max presents a detailed synopsis of Roadwalkers, while placing the novel in the larger context of Grau's oeuvre.]

Pulitzer Prize-winner Shirley Ann Grau's ninth work of fiction [Roadwalkers] begins promisingly as a sweeping social novel in the no-longer-fashionable fashion of John Steinbeck:

In 1934 this is the way it was. Homeless people were moving in a steady flow across the southern part of the country, back and forth across the surface of the earth, seaweed on a tide that ebbed and rose...

(The entire section is 848 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 1 August 1994)

SOURCE: “The Life Journey of a ‘Roadwalker,’” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 86, August 1, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following review, Rubin discusses the features of Grau's style and craftsmanship in Roadwalkers.]

Roadwalkers is Shirley Ann Grau's ninth book. Her first, The Black Prince and Other Stories, came out in 1955. Three books and 10 years later, she won a Pulitzer Prize with her novel The Keepers of the House. Following her 1977 novel, Evidence of Love, there was a seven-year hiatus before the appearance of her story collection Nine Women, and nine years have intervened between that book and this new one.


(The entire section is 599 words.)

L. Elizabeth Bryant (review date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Roadwalkers, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, p. 86.

[In the following review of Roadwalkers, Bryant describes Grau's skill in evoking the narrator's viewpoint.]

Time is an indeterminate factor in this new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Shirley Ann Grau. Roadwalkers begins with the story of Baby, a homeless and abandoned black girl whose early nomadic life struggle leaves her with a wispy memory, and forces her to approach life with stunning inventiveness. This first section of the book is appropriately and beautifully ethereal: events recalled in the language of a child who has never known a definitive...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Thomas J. Richardson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Roadwalker in the Magic Kingdom: Shirley Ann Grau,” in Literary New Orleans in the Modern World, Louisiana State University Press, 1998, pp. 123-35.

[In the following essay, Richardson looks at the context of critical commentary on Grau and lists some observations of his own about Grau's fiction.]

Shirley Ann Grau's connections to New Orleans seem to be well established. She was born in the Crescent City in 1929, and she graduated from high school at Ursuline Academy. Her college years were spent at Sophie Newcomb, where she finished in 1950 and where she edited Carnival, the campus literary magazine in which her first stories appeared. Her early...

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Further Reading


Canfield, John. “Women Alone.” Southern Review 22, No. 4 (Autumn 1986): 904–06.

Canfield discusses how elements of Grau's previous work are further developed in Nine Women.

Combs, Maxine. “Grau Shows Spirited Women.” New Directions for Women 15 (September/October 1986): 14.

In this review of Nine Women, Combs identifies some of the significant features of Grau's heroines—which include strength and passion.

Additional coverage of Grau's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89–92;...

(The entire section is 107 words.)