Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1819
The facts about Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s life that one can glean from An Accidental Autobiography are these: She grew up in Brooklyn during the 1930’s and 1940’s; her father, a printer, was an Italian immigrant; her mother, a second- generation Italian, became a zealous Jehovah’s Witness when Barbara was nine. Barbara became her mother’s acolyte on Sunday door-to-door visits and served for three years as a housekeeper in the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters and residence after she graduated from high school. Escaping her servitude, she moved to the East Village, had a love affair with an African American jazz musician (whose name she omits, referring to him throughout as Jazzman), and married a Mr. Harrison (Dale Harrison, an official with CARE, according to another source) with whom she had two children, Anna and Joshua. During her marriage, she lived in Libya and India; after her divorce, she became a freelance writer and passionate traveler. She has suffered throughout her adult life from panic attacks (a result of the childhood trauma of being caught between a sometimes abusive father and a disapproving mother) and in her later life from recurring lung infections: She is obsessed with the act of breathing.
It is with “Breathing Lessons,” that Harrison begins her collection of memories, a collection she has organized alphabetically, rather than chronologically for, as she states in the “Introduction”:
A linear biography would falsify, because it would cast things in a mold and present me with the temptation to find formal patterns where none exist. . . . I have no wish to be imprisoned in a frame of my own creation.
The path of memory is circular and coherent:
like a jazz symphony. Harrison’s autobiography plays in a series of melodies, reprises, and riffs, allowing her to contemplate experiences from various angles, with different interpretations. Often she turns to a solo voice from outside to add color and depth to the mix.
Harrison revels in the sensual delights of life—not only sex and food but also the vistas and aromas of faraway places and New York streets, the color and texture of fabric scraps to be made into a collage, beautiful objects that she must possess, and the “soft and clear, cadenced and authoritative voice” of Red Barber’s broadcasts that filled her childhood summer afternoons.
In the chapter entitled “Home Economics,” she explores the contradictions of domesticity: the drudgery of housekeeping against the joy of serving her children “orichietti with porcini sauteed in truffle oil and sweet butter.” Harrison’s childhood and adolescence were filled with household tasks; while her mother was out preaching for the Witnesses, young Barbara was home washing dishes and ironing. At nineteen she moved into Bethel, the residence hall of the Witnesses and spent her days changing beds and scrubbing floors in the mansion built by Henry Ward Beecher. Her reflections on home economics are augmented with material from books on domestic science by the Beecher sisters and the nutritional philosophies of Adele Davis and Dr. Carlton Fredericks, with whom her mother was infatuated. Similarly in the chapter, “Food, Flesh and Fashion,” Harrison at once delights in the pleasures of the body and bemoans its vulnerability to pain and deterioration—and fat.
The chapter begins with an examination of the fluctuating perceptions of the perfect female form according to fashionable dictates, moves on to a consideration of Anthelme Brillat- Savarin’s nineteenth century The Physiology of Taste; an appreciation of the Italian contentment with food that makes each meal, not a test but a festa; an exploration into the cults of fasting, citing the work of medievalist Caroline Bynum, and concludes with her own dreams of having it all:
I want everything—candlelight and music, soft fabric and strong hands caressing me, perfume and wine, love, sex, food, joy, the dance of the blood, and the unselfconsciousness that is the gift of angels. I want always and consistently to love my lovable body, which has given and received so much pleasure—and I don’t know how. . . . I float above my body, regarding myself from a great height; I regard this body with pity, amusement, weariness, and love.
Harrison manages to collate a vast range of material into a coherent, if quirky, whole.
The “Men and God(s),” who are the recipients of Harrison’s love, adoration, and dissection, include Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey; the aforementioned sportscaster, Red Barber; her high-school English teacher, Arnold Horowitz; her lover Jazzman; and Federico Secundo, Emperor (Stupor Mundi, Wonder of the World, 1194-1250). Throughout this chapter she reveals, perhaps somewhat unwittingly, her genuine delight in a certain kind of male sensibility and her own inability to sustain a committed relationship. She envies the mutual affection and contentment present in the marriage of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane; it presented a vivid contrast to her own marriage, which was beset by emotional seesaws and an underlying mutual dislike. The reader wonders if Harrison’s discovery of Gaudy Night in a dusty Indian shop, shortly before the birth of her second child, contributed to or merely illuminated her marital discontent. Fantasy relationships can be dangerous. Harrison later found an embodiment of that fantasy, however, in the sixty-year marriage of Red and Lylah Barber. When she went to visit her childhood idol (“for me the living gods are men”) in Tallahassee two or three years before his death, she was as enchanted with the mutual love and comfort displayed between husband and wife as she was with the memories Barber evoked. She comes to the realization that the two are probably interlinked. Barber’s broadcasts of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ games provided her childhood with a sunny, safe escape from her contentious and dangerous home—the love of life and happiness in his voice opened a gateway out from the rigid gloom of the Jehovah’s Witnesses “into a world full of muddle and joy. And: no sweat. He made it sweet and easy.”
The two other men who swung open that gateway were Arnold Horowitz and Jazzman. At New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, where Jewish girls were supposed to be smart and Italian girls were expected to get married, Barbara Grizzuti was singled out for her intelligence and talent by two English teachers: David Zeiger befriended her and Arnold Horowitz loved her. Both encouraged her to go to college, an option forbidden to her by her religion; Arnold cajoled her into taking the early entrance exam for the University of Chicago. She passed, but was not yet ready to forego her faith. She did, however, defy both her mother and the president of the Watch Tower Society, who forbade her to continue seeing Arnold—his was the only heart that spoke to hers. Although highly charged with passionate intensity, their relationship was never physically consummated, perhaps because of the diabetes which would claim Arnold’s life shortly after Barbara married and moved abroad. Physical passion she found with Jazzman.
Having suffered a panic attack, Barbara left Bethel House, moved back home, and got a job at Macmillan. One night she went to Minton’s with a girlfriend and fell in love with the nightclub’s horn player. She bought him a drink, and he wooed her. The affair lasted three years, during which time Barbara moved into an East Village apartment, sat on Frank Sinatra’s lap, was befriended by Billie Holiday, discovered that her lover was married, traveled to Kansas City and Indiana to meet his relatives, and became addicted to the sexual and spiritual pleasures that Jazzman shared with her. When he left her to return to his wife, Barbara married Mr. Harrison. Thirty-some years later, she telephoned Jazzman, and they once again became lovers. After a period of delirious renewed delight, their passion began to unravel. Jazzman did not want his children to see him with her; Barbara called Jazzman’s wife and told her they were having an affair. Predictably, that was the end. The volatility of their personalities and circumstances prevented anything else. Despite Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s longing for the tranquil life and her stated envy of those who lead one, she seems temperamentally unsuited for it.
Her admiration for Federico Secundo underscores her own passionate sensibility. Harrison describes this Holy Roman Emperor who did battle with a succession of popes as “sentimental, affable, bold, friendly, dignified, mystical, pragmatic, rational, skeptical, irascible, messianic, tolerant, stubborn, pacific, profligate, virile, cunning, happy, gracious to people of all stations and classes, vivacious. . . . wounded as well as flawed.” The litany of adjectives, many of which might be used to describe Harrison herself, reveals an exuberant personality that would be difficult to confine within a simple life.
The final four chapters of An Accidental Autobiography are constructed in two somewhat paradoxical pairs: “Notes from Abroad” with “Rooms: Signs and Symbols” and “Scars and Distinguishing Marks” with “Swimming.” The vistas of foreign sojourns contrast with the often stifling enclosures of familiar rooms; the joys of casual friendships and chance encounters balance the heated claustrophobia of those forced to live together. Scarred by parental cruelties, Harrison discovered how to surrender her vulnerable body to water late in life. She was fifty years old before a friend taught her to swim after many earlier, failed attempts. In contrast to the paralyzing panic attacks to which she is accustomed, she experiences a blissful loss of self- consciousness and control in the water: “It closely resembles death.” By the end of An Accidental Autobiography, the reader senses that Harrison, who continues to live “with great exuberance” (according to the book’s dust jacket) has also come to terms with her own mortality.
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s life has a quintessentially twentieth century American quality. Only in the United States could the daughter of Italian immigrants be baptized into the American melting pot over the radio by a sports commentator from Florida, be intellectually nurtured by a Jewish teacher, and be initiated into the pleasures of love and jazz by an African American musician. Growing up during World War II, Harrison experienced the worldwide spread of American influence as she traveled and lived abroad with a husband who was an official with an international aid agency. Divorced during the 1960’s, she benefited from and contributed to the feminist movement that opened career doors and psychological closets. Although beloved by children and friends, she has had to face the necessity of growing old alone and self- sufficient. Harrison’s dazzling kaleidoscopic imagery well befits the world she has inhabited and described.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. June 30, 1996, XIV, p. 2.
Commonweal. CXXIII, September 13, 1996, p. 31.
Library Journal. CXXI, April 1, 1996, p. 94.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 7, 1996, p. 6.
The Nation. CCLXII, June 24, 1996, p. 33.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, June 9, 1996, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, April 1, 1996, p. 60.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, July 7, 1996, p. 8.
Women’s Review of Books. XIV, November, 1996, p. 20.