Anne Tyler Tyler, Anne (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anne Tyler 1941–

American novelist, short story writer, and critic.

Tyler is noted as a writer of finely crafted fiction which is straightforward and realistic, yet lyrical. She achieves subtle, sometimes somber, effects of pathos or comedy through her precise choice of words. Tyler is especially adept at depicting tense family situations that result in lonely, confused members who long for meaning and understanding. Critics point out that she is representative of a new generation of Southern writers. Tyler tends toward restrained rather than dramatic effects and her characters do not react in bizarre or grotesque ways to their emotional isolation. Like the characters of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, Tyler's people are heavily influenced by the past, but it is a personal, familial history, rather than a social one, which shapes them.

With her first two novels, If Morning Ever Comes (1964) and The Tin Can Tree (1965), Tyler established a reputation as a young novelist with an unusual command of her craft. Critics were especially impressed with her ability to describe setting, to characterize, and to create realistic dialogue while maintaining a spare and polished prose style. In subsequent works she has grown increasingly ambitious, creating more eccentric and imaginative characters and extending the time span of her stories to include several generations. In all of her works, Tyler's major concern is with the difficulties of human relationships and she focuses on individuals within large families whose members feel alienated from each other. Many critics have praised Tyler for examining the effects that family members have on each other's lives. Others suggest that Tyler has limited herself by not exploring the role that society plays in the shaping of personality.

Tyler's recent novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), has been acclaimed as her most accomplished work. Many critics maintain that it clearly establishes her as a major figure in American literature. As insightful, sensitive, and well-made as her previous works, this novel achieves greater depth through the complexity of its narrative structure. By juxtaposing the personalities of her six central characters and their outlooks on the present and the past, Tyler makes poignant observations on the benefits and limitations of family life.

(See also CLC, Vols. 7, 11, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 11; Something about the Author, Vol. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Year book: 1982.)

Rollene W. Saal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her first novel, "If Morning Ever Comes," 22-year-old Anne Tyler has written a subtle and surprisingly mature story about the lack of communication between human beings, of a man's essential isolation from the world—and especially and more poignantly from his own family.

Ben Joe Hawkes returns to his North Carolina hometown from New York—where, as a law student at Columbia University, he has been suffering the chills of the city's loneliness. Not that the emotional climate in Carolina is much warmer. Though he enjoys feeling responsible for his family, a widowed mother, a grandmother, six sisters (one of whom, the bright and flirtatious Joanne, has left her husband and returned home), they are astonishingly self-contained. From Susannah, who works in the library, to 10-year-old Tessie, the Hawkes women are as cool and crisp as starched petticoats and as able to stand by themselves. One can assume they inherit their restraint from their mother, whose own chilling ways led her husband to set up another household on the wrong side of town….

Why Ellen Hawkes froze her husband from her house remains a mystery, since she never comments on the past. Indeed, she steadily refuses to involve herself even in the affairs of her children—when, like Ben Joe, they cry out for some sign of love, a token of caring. When he inquires about Joanne's shattered marriage, his mother brusquely warns him against meddling in another's life. Though...

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John Allan Long

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Several Southern novels have come out in the past year or so which bear little resemblance to earlier literary legends of the South.

These novels are not about the Tobacco Roads of 40 years ago. Nor do they dwell consciously on the dynamics of Negro-white relationships. Instead they reflect a South not so very different from small-town society anywhere in the United States. As the old agrarian South has become part of the past, life since World War II has grown to be more and more middle-class.

Significantly, these "new" Southern novels are written by the younger, post-war generation. Anne Tyler is a product of this generation. Her first novel ["If Morning Ever Comes"] is set in fictitious Sandill in busily industrializing North Carolina….

The reader must discard any romanticized picture of the South. There is no abject poverty here. Neither is there any remnant of aristocracy. Sitting quietly, unsensationally in their place is the family of Ben Joe Hawkes—the kind of small-town life Miss Tyler knows well.

With poignancy and humor, this young novelist conveys the responses of a college student living among a sea of women—a flock of independent sisters, a proud mother, and an incorrigible grandmother. The head of the household, feeling somehow responsible for the women, Ben Joe leaves Columbia University to make an impulsive trip home….

Who handles the family's finances? Who does the shopping? Why are the sisters up all times of night, wandering outside and inside the house? One sister has just left her husband. Father left mother years back for another woman.

Yet in all this confusion—or is it really?—the women are not only surviving but persevering, caught up in the business of day-to-day living.

His long weekend exhausted, realizing his uselessness, Ben Joe returns to college. With a sweet touch of irony, he takes with him a remnant of his youth.

This small book is certainly not wrought with the drama or melodrama of earlier Southern novels. But its simplicity and rare sensitivity to the everyday make Anne Tyler's novel worth reading.

John Allan Long, "'New' Southern Novel," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1965 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), January 21, 1965, p. 9.

Millicent Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fact that 24-year-old Anne Tyler … grew up in Raleigh, N.C., must seem to her significant enough to make her publishers note on the jacket of ["The Tin Can Tree"] that she "considers herself a Southerner." And this novel, in so far as it goes in for regional subject matter, does report upon life in still another rural Southern pocket. Her characters are the eight inhabitants of a three-family house on the edge of backwater tobacco fields—two bachelor brothers, two spinster sisters and the Pike family, whose small daughter has just been killed in a tractor accident when the book opens.

There are, indeed, some fine scenes and sounds of a regional sort, especially in one chapter in which a group of women talk over the Pike tragedy while tying tobacco. Here, as elsewhere in the book, she makes use of a nice specificity of local detail and neatly captures the casual and yet complex movement of Southern rural speech with its indirections and interruptions, its reticences and awkwardnesses which manage to express emotion.

Yet rurality and Southernism are not really Miss Tyler's chief interest. Despite some obvious debts to the tradition of the Southern novel, she has none of the Faulknerian anguish over a present rooted in past wrongs. Nor does she share the late Flannery O'Connor's sense of a religious soil out of which characters are thrust forth into the withering present, taking grotesque and tragic...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Writers are rare who can swiftly generate a story with instantly distinguishable characters and the prospect of development. Rarer still is the fiction artist who controls his material with such subtle dexterity that his presence is barely felt. To do so is essentially the dramatist's craft, normally mastered in middle age, when the artist is exhausted of illusions that any part of the world spins at the lashing of his single will and when he is ripe in his understanding of the inherent mechanism of things. It requires an eye, an ear and a knowledge of character. Remarkably, Anne Tyler, at the age of 24, has now produced two novels ["If Morning Ever Comes" and "The Tin Can Tree"] that display her understanding of the dramatic mode, as distinct from the lyrical.

Her second book, "The Tin Can Tree" tells a story that seems unpromisingly slight in summary. Janie Rose Pike, a plump, strong-willed 10-year-old girl, has been killed in a tractor accident just before the novel begins. The waves of this barely audible "plunk" in the universe wash over the members of her family and the people of a small Southern community whose emotional lives are intertwined with theirs.

Janie Rose's mother submerges herself in numb grief. The vacuum she creates sucks her husband and Joan, a niece who lives with them, out of their accustomed channels, and leaves her son Simon alone, perplexed and foundering. The changes in Simon and Joan...

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Sara Blackburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Clock Winder seems to have] many of the virtues that we associate with "southern" writing—an easy, almost confidential directness, fine skill at quick characterization, a sure eye for atmosphere, and a special nostalgic humor—and none of its liabilities—sentimentality, a sometimes cloying innocence wise beyond its pretense, a tendency toward over-rich metaphor. The title character is 20-year-old Elizabeth, a strong figure who is both oddly timeless and perfectly contemporary; she arrives vaguely from Ellington, North Carolina, to manage and eventually become a loving part of the lives of an eccentric but not very unusual Baltimore family who have enormous and even agonizing trouble relating to one another….

If the result smacks of a group of hurt and inept people propping one another up to live a bearable, cozy life—another quality, come to think of it, of "southern" writing—it's neither sentimental nor intrusive enough to detract from the strength of its delightful heroine: Elizabeth, in her ashamed passivity, her struggle against it, her bursts of energy and what prevents them, her wry, open humor, is a recognizable and even memorable character who encompasses many of the contradictions that women are seeking to resolve today. And the author has created a group of minor characters to surround her who ring absolutely true. Anne Tyler has a special talent; she is a solid writer with real skill, but modest about her reach.

Sara Blackburn, in a review of "The Clock Winder," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1972 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), May 14, 1972, p. 13.

Paul A. Doyle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Anne Tyler] writes of lonely, unhappy, confused individuals who seek meaning, comfort, and a bit of human understanding and contact. Her closest progenitor is Carson McCullers, but I find Miss Tyler's work to be more wistful, delicate, and touching.

In ["The Clock Winder"] one can not only witness and understand the incredible difficulty of human relationships but also the ambivalent burdens of family life. Parents cannot understand their children, and children cannot understand their parents. "Why," asks the aged Mrs. Emerson, "are my children always leaving?" and "Why are they always coming back?" Advancing age on all sides further complicates the situation. Miss Tyler has probed this puzzle maturely and carefully and continually conveys much of the mystery, the loneliness, and the aloneness of existence. Her art is quiet, delicate, sensitive, and acutely tender. She is not cheaply sensational and artifically flamboyant, and in this day and age I could pay no higher compliment. Readers who appreciate depth of perception, thoughtful analysis of life and people, and a graceful, fresh prose style will enjoy and meditate. "The Clock Winder" is one of Miss Tyler's best novels which is to say that it is one of the most perceptive novels written in America in several years. (p. 149)

Paul A. Doyle, in a review of "The Clock Winder," in Best Sellers (copyright 1972, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 32, No. 6, June 15, 1972, pp. 148-49.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

New work by a young writer who's both greatly gifted and prolific often points readers' minds toward the future. You finish the book and immediately begin speculating about works to come—achievements down the road that will cross the borders defined by the work at hand. Anne Tyler's books have been having this effect on me for nearly a decade. Repeatedly they've been brilliant—"wickedly good," as John Updike recently described one of them. "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" is Anne Tyler's ninth novel; her career began in 1964 with a fully realized first novel (the title was "If Morning Ever Comes," and there are piquant links between it and her latest book); everything I've read of hers since then—stories,...

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Vivian Gornick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Good writers often have preoccupations. Sets of characters or pieces of experience repeat themselves in book after book because an idea of life is being obsessed over. If a reader is responsive to the preoccupation, each new book deepens the tale being told. If a reader is not responsive, the writer is silently instructed: "Tell another story, you've told this one already."

Anne Tyler is a writer with a preoccupation. Writing in a time and place that is stimulated by the idea of the separately maturing self, Tyler's novels are relentlessly devoted to the idea of never growing up, never leaving home. Not only do her characters refuse to leave their parents' houses, they inevitably marry surrogate...

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R. Z. Sheppard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Every other year or so since 1964, loyal readers pick up their new Anne Tyler novel as they would buy a favored brand of sensible shoe. Each of her nine books is solidly constructed from authentic and durable materials. Yet traditional style and comfort do not necessarily mean dullness. Tyler's characters have character: quirks, odd angles of vision, colorful mean streaks and harmonic longings. They usually live in ordinary settings, like Baltimore, the author's current home, and do not seem to have been overly influenced by the 7 o'clock news. An issue in a Tyler novel is likely to mean a new child; a cause, the reason behind a malfunction in an appliance or a marriage.

Tyler does not trivialize...

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Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' is redeemed by its singularity from being yet another three-generation 'Depression to Post-Vietnam' American family saga. True, its coy title smacks of Carson McCullers ('Ballad of the Sad Café'), and the structure—a section for each member of the family, beginning with the ailing, reminiscing mother ('Dying, you don't get to see how it all turns out')—owes something to Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying.' But the writing, like the restaurant's cooking, is deliciously idiosyncratic, enough to make one wish that Anne Tyler were better known over here [in England].

Beck Tull, travelling salesman, runs away from his oppressive wife Pearl, who leads a 'stunted' life,...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anne Tyler, [like John Cheever], has sought brightness in the ordinary, and her art has needed only the darkening that would give her beautifully sketched shapes solidity. So evenly has her imagination moved across the details of the mundane that the novels, each admirable, sink in the mind without leaving an impression of essential, compulsive subject matter—the phobia portrayed in Celestial Navigation being something of an exception. Now, in [Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant], she has arrived, I think, at a new level of power, and gives us a lucid and delightful yet complex and somber improvisation on her favorite theme, family life. Searching for Caleb is the earlier book it most resembles,...

(The entire section is 1162 words.)