Barbara Grizzuti Harrison Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison 1934-

American journalist, essayist, memoirist, travel writer, short story writer, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Harrison's career through 1996.

Harrison is known for her highly personal essays and memoirs that reflect on her travels and life experiences. Critics commend her utilization of hard-edged journalism and autobiography to explore such diverse topics as sexism in schools, Italian culture, the writings of contemporary authors, and complex theological issues.

Biographical Information

Harrison was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 14, 1934. At the age of nine, her mother became a Jehovah's Witness and, as a result, Harrison was immersed in the teachings of this religion. Jehovah's Witness members adhere to a set of strict rules and a fundamentalist ideology. Moreover, they believe in a “New Eden” that will welcome only Witness members after the world ends at Armageddon. Harrison's experiences during these years have become recurring thematic concerns in her writing. For three years, Harrison lived and worked in the giant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. In 1956, she split from the group and lived in various places such as Greenwich Village, India, and Latin America. Her extensive travels in Italy inspired Italian Days (1989) and The Islands of Italy (1991). She has also written articles and conducted interviews for several periodicals, including Esquire, Harper's, The Nation, and New York Times Book Review. She currently lives in New York City and continues to write journalism and fiction.

Major Works

Harrison's first publication, Unlearning the Lie (1969) examined the widespread impact of sexism in schools; the idea originated from an article about an experiment at her child's school in Brooklyn. Her next work, Visions of Glory (1978) is a history of the Jehovah's Witnesses, which Harrison had been closely associated with for eleven years. Despite her personal involvement with the group, the book is generally perceived as a fairly objective account of their past. Her essay collection Off Center was published in 1980. The collection touches on a wide array of topics that deal with Harrison's strong and oftentimes controversial opinions. Foreign Bodies (1984), a novel, chronicles a woman's obsessive love and its consequences. Considered more than a travelogue, Italian Days combines personal recollections, travel essays, and quotations from various writers to tell the story of Harrison's journeys around Italy. The Astonishing World (1992) is a collection of essays, interviews, and short stories that reflect on Harrison's diverse experiences and interests. Viewed as a confessional memoir, An Accidental Autobiography (1996) explores Harrison's life and the sociopolitical concerns of her time, such as religion, sexism, and family. Eschewing a strictly chronological structure, Harrison instead employs a more impressionistic narrative, relating anecdotes from different periods of her life.

Critical Reception

Harrison is generally considered to be a perceptive, humorous author and is best known for her autobiographical essays. Commentators have praised her objectivity, even when dealing with such personal subjects as her difficult childhood and her time as a Jehovah's Witness. Her exploration of complicated religious and theological topics in Visions of Glory has garnered considerable critical appreciation. Reviewers have also applauded her honest and courageous treatment of topical issues, including feminism and sexism in schools. Harrison has established a reputation as a thoughtful interviewer and writer, unafraid to explore personal, literary or social complexities.