Anne Tyler 1941-
The following entry presents an overview of Tyler's career through 2004. See also Anne Tyler Criticism (Volume 7), and Volumes 11, 28, 103.
Tyler is regarded as one of the best novelists in contemporary American literature. She is known for her quiet, subtle fiction that explores complex, dysfunctional family relationships and individuals' search for meaning and identity in a changing world. Often discussed as a representative of a new generation of Southern writers, Tyler is compared to such iconic Southern authors as Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor.
Tyler was born on October 25, 1941, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 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. As a young child, she was educated at these communes, and at the age of eleven, she began attending public school in Raleigh, North Carolina. The alienation she felt at this time resurfaces as a consistent theme in her later 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 in 1963 and moved to Montreal so that her husband 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, but her writing slowed while she raised her two daughters. In 1967 she moved with her family to Baltimore and began to focus on her writing full time. Starting with The Clock Winder (1972), Baltimore became the permanent setting for her fiction. Tyler has continued to write short stories and essays for periodicals. She has received several awards for her work, including an Award for Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1977, a PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 1983, a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Breathing Lessons (1988).
Tyler writes narratives that deal with the dynamics of familial relationships; family communication, or the lack of it, is an essential element in her fiction. One recurring message in Tyler's work is that clutter in one's life is inescapable. Characters such as Morgan in Morgan's Passing (1980) and Delia in Ladder of Years (1995) try to flee from emotional baggage only to find themselves in the same situation all over again. This pull between returning home and running away is a frequent theme in Tyler's work. In A Slipping-Down Life (1970) Evie runs away from her father's home to marry a rock star, only to return there after her father's death. In the process, she explores her own identity and finds peace. 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 a family. The Clock Winder chronicles the unlikely marriage of the staid, steady Matthew Emerson and the unpredictable Elizabeth Emerson.
Family disintegration and reformation are the central focus of Celestial Navigation (1974). An agoraphobic artist, Jeremy, marries a single mother who moves into his large boarding house. For years, Jeremy struggles with the intricacies of family life and his art, but he fails and eventually his wife leaves him. Searching for Caleb (1976) also concerns an individual struggling with family ties. When Justine marries her first cousin, Duncan, she reluctantly supports her new husband's efforts to sever the bonds with his stifling family. In Earthly Possessions (1977), Charlotte is kidnapped by an armed robber but ends up helping the young criminal with his personal relationships. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) Pearl Tull holds herself and her children together through valuable relationships with outsiders when her husband abandons them. The Accidental Tourist (1985) brings together many of Tyler's themes. The main character, Macon Leary, must choose between the safety of loneliness and the uncertain comforts of human love. The novel was adapted as a widely celebrated film in 1988. Tyler again takes up the theme of difference in Breathing Lessons. The novel traces a day in the married life of Ira, a realist, and Maggie, a dreamer, with flashbacks showing key moments in their shared past. Tyler demonstrates the compromises, disappointments, and love that comprise a marriage, and reveals how diversity can nourish a relationship.
In Saint Maybe (1991) and A Patchwork Planet (1998) Tyler revisits the themes of escape and the resilience of the human spirit. Ian Bedloe, the protagonist of Saint Maybe, feels trapped by the responsibilities caring for three orphaned children. When he finds romance it renews his interest in religion and he achieves peace within his life. In A Patchwork Planet Barnaby Gaitlin rejects his family's wealth and social connections to work for an agency that performs services for senior citizens. As Barnaby struggles to get his life together, he is accused of stealing money from one of his clients. The ensuing controversy provides him with an opportunity to assess his own life and his relationships with those around him. Back When We Were Grownups (2001) focuses on the character of Rebecca Davitch, the matriarch of a close-knit family, who feels dissatisfied with her life. Out of loneliness, she makes contact with her college boyfriend, only to discover that she must accept her past choices and her life as it is. Tyler's most recent novel, The Amateur Marriage (2004), chronicles the thirty-year marriage of Michael and Pauline Barclay. Inherently incompatible, they struggle through years of growing estrangement until their divorce. The novel focuses on the ability of individuals to adapt to changing circumstances and the human capacity for love and forgiveness.
Critics view Tyler as one of America's most talented novelists. They praise her wit, her deft use of detail, and her understated, seamless prose. 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 commentators point out the connection between tragedy and comedy in Tyler's fiction, and they commend her talent at depicting both. However, some critics deride the lack of a moral dimension as well as historical and social context in Tyler's novels. Many reviewers have underscored the role of family in her work and have examined her depiction of dysfunctional parent-child and husband-wife relationships. Feminist critics have investigated Tyler's portrayal of changing gender roles in the American family in her fiction; some have censured her for ignoring the progress women have made since the feminist movement began and for falling back on traditional gender expectations. The connection between place and identity in her novels is another recurring topic of critical discussion. She is often placed within the context of the Southern literary tradition and her work is frequently associated with the key figures of that movement.