Anne Tyler 1941–
American novelist, short story writer, critic, nonfiction writer, and editor.
The following entry presents criticism of Tyler's work through 1995. For further information on her life and career, see CLC, Volumes 7, 11, 18, 28, 44, and 59.
Tyler is best known as the award-winning author of the novels The Accidental Tourist (1985) and Breathing Lessons (1988). She writes fiction depicting tense family situations that result in lonely, confused members who long for connection and meaning in their lives, focusing on everyday occurrences instead of more dramatic events. While family history has a strong influence on her characters, she rarely puts them in a historical or social context. Known as a representative of a new generation of Southern writers, Tyler is often compared to Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor.
Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 25, 1941, to an industrial-chemist father and a social-worker mother. Her parents were members of the Society of Friends and long-time activists in liberal causes. Tyler lived her childhood years in various communes in the Midwest and the South with her parents and three younger brothers. She received her early education at the communes, but at the age of eleven she began attending public school. The alienation she felt at this time became a consistent theme in her work. Tyler attended Duke University on scholarship, graduating Phi Beta Kappa at the age of nineteen with a degree in Russian. While she was at Duke she twice received the Anne Flexner Award for creative writing, and she began publishing her short stories in magazines. She then studied Russian at Columbia University for a year. In 1962 she worked as the Russian bibliographer in the Duke University Library. She married Taghi Modaressi, a psychiatrist, in 1963, and the couple moved to Montreal so he could continue his medical studies. While looking for a job in Montreal, Tyler wrote her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964). This was followed a year later by The Tin Can Tree (1965), but her writing slowed while she raised her two daughters. Tyler and Modaressi moved to Baltimore in 1965. With her daughters in school, Tyler began to focus on her writing full time. Starting with The Clock Winder (1972), Baltimore became the setting for her fiction.
Tyler writes narratives that deal with the internal strife and relationships of families. Family communication, or lack of it, is an essential element in her fiction. While generational influence is important to Tyler, she excludes social or historical context as an influence on her down-to-earth characters: there are no fancy surroundings or sophisticated speech, and generally the people who inhabit her novels are not concerned with material wealth. One continuing message in Tyler's fiction is that clutter in one's life is inescapable. Characters such as Morgan in Morgan's Passing (l980) and Delia in Ladder of Years (1995) try to escape from life's baggage only to find themselves in the same life all over again. This pull between returning home and running away occurs often in Tyler's work. Tyler also asserts the importance of differences in life and she frequently brings opposites together, a circumstance she considers nourishing and integral to the ongoing health of the family. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), for instance, Pearl Tull holds herself and her children together through valuable relationships with outsiders when her husband abandons them. The Accidental Tourist, which earned her the National Book Critics' Circle Award, brings together many of Tyler's themes. The main character, Macon Leary, must choose between the security of loneliness and the uncertain comforts of human love. Tyler again takes up the theme of difference in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons. The novel traces a day in the married life of Ira, a realist, and Maggie, a dreamer, with flashbacks showing the importance of their shared past. Tyler shows the compromises, disappointments, and love found in a marriage, and once again shows how differences can be nourishing in a relationship.
Tyler's earlier novels were not given much critical attention, being most often noted as indicators of the author's potential. It was not until novelist Gail Godwin reviewed Celestial Navigation (1974) and John Updike called readers' attention to Searching for Caleb (1976) that Tyler gained widespread acclaim. Critics praise Tyler for her wit and her ability to render detail. While some reviewers complain that her characters are implausible, even bizarre, others assert that she presents them with such compassion that their oddities become simply human. Many reviewers point out the connection between tragedy and comedy in Tyler's fiction, and praise her talent at dealing with both. However, some critics complain of the lack of a moral dimension in Tyler's novels: characters are not good or evil; they are just mistaken or confused. There is much debate over Tyler's relationship to the Southern literary tradition, but there are obvious influences in Tyler's fiction from Faulkner, O'Connor, and Welty. Reviewers point out that Tyler, like Faulkner and O'Connor, emphasizes the importance of personal history. Critics often compare Tyler to Welty in the way she writes about everyday people and their lives, instead of just chronicling major events. However, Tyler's novels do not contain the Gothic overtones typical of her Southern predecessors.