Jay Parini Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jay Parini 1948-

(Full name Jay Lee Parini) American novelist, poet, critic, essayist, biographer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Parini's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 54.

Though Jay Parini first came to the attention of critics through his poetry, he also garners praise for his novels, biographies, and several works of criticism. Within each of these genres Parini works with a diverse array of subject matter—from the Pennsylvania coal mines of his youth to classical mythology to prominent historical and literary figures. While his poetry reflects an affinity for both nature and mining, his novels—particularly his biographical fiction—incorporate his interest in literary history, as evident in The Last Station (1990) and Benjamin's Crossing (1996). Parini provided significant contributions to contemporary literary scholarship with his nonfiction biographies of John Steinbeck and Robert Frost, and as the co-editor of The Columbia History of American Poetry (1993).

Biographical Information

The son of a minister, Parini was born in Pittston, Pennsylvania, and his childhood was spent among the coal mines of nearby Scranton. He attended Lafayette College and later earned his Ph.D. at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. While at St. Andrews, Parini published his first collection of poetry, Singing in Time (1972). Following his graduation in 1975, he began working as an assistant professor of English and the director of the creative writing program at Dartmouth College. During his time there, he founded and served as co-editor of the New England Review and released his first book of criticism, Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic (1979), as well as his first novel, The Love Run (1980). In 1981, Parini married Devon Stacey Jersild, with whom he shares three children. Upon leaving Dartmouth, Parini published his most critically acclaimed book of poetry, Anthracite County (1982), and joined the English faculty at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he remains still.

Major Works

A versatile author and scholar, Parini initially attracted critical recognition for his second book of poetry, Anthracite County. Several of the poems in this volume deal with his childhood amid the Scranton coal mines, while others consider themes of nature, love, and death. Both nostalgic and serious in tone, these poems present sincere emotion through a field of experience. This nostalgic quality also permeates his next poetry collection, Town Life (1988), an autobiographic, cyclical work in which the middle-aged poet reflects upon his life and future. These highly personal poems employ a conversational yet introspective tone in their investigation of personal consciousness and demonstrate Parini's firm command over his art. In The Love Run, the author's first novel, Parini transposes the myth of Apollo and Daphne from Ovid's Metamorphoses to contemporary times. Drawing attention to love's obsessive power, in Parini's version a dull-witted Teddy Leskovitch kidnaps Dartmouth College student Maisie Danston, who actually comes to choose the ardent Teddy over her romantically dull boyfriend. For his second novel, The Patch Boys (1986), Parini returns to the world of his childhood. While it takes place in 1925, decades before the author's birth, the novel is set in the Pennsylvania coal mining country and brings to life the long-since-gone world of the Scranton anthracite mines. Narrated in the protagonist's Italian-American idiom, the story focuses on the coming-of-age of fifteen-year-old Sammy diCantini, who lives near the “patches” of houses built near the anthracite mines.

With the novel The Last Station Parini enters the realm of biographical fiction, creating a fictional account of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy during his last year of life that culminates in Tolstoy's fatal abandonment of the estate where he spent his entire life. The story is told from the various perspectives of several narrators, among them Tolstoy's wife, daughter, and doctor. The novel Bay of Arrows (1992) is an unconventional commemoration of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the Americas. The story juxtaposes a portrait of the famed explorer with that of Christopher Genovese, a contemporary English professor-poet who, after being accused of sexual harassment by a student, moves with his family to the Dominican Republic. In Benjamin's Crossing Parini revisits the genre of biographical fiction, this time taking as his subject Walter Benjamin, the renowned German Jewish intellectual whose writings significantly influenced contemporary literary theory. The novel focuses on Benjamin's final days as he attempts to flee occupied France to escape the Nazis; after being refused entry into Spain, and suffering from heart disease, Benjamin apparently commits suicide. Parini also writes in a more traditional biographical form as evident in John Steinbeck: A Biography (1995) in which he delivers a sympathetic reconsideration of a writer whose literary reputation has not fared as well as other more acclaimed contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. In Robert Frost: A Life (1999), Parini offers a portrait of his favorite poet which reveals Frost's own attempts to overcome personal tragedy through artistic creativity. Parini also edited and contributed to Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain (1992), a volume of scholarly essays and reviews on an author famous for his own biographical fiction, though, as Parini contends, remains underappreciated. Having already worked on numerous anthologies, Parini took on his most challenging editorial task with The Columbia History of American Poetry, a volume of scholarly essays that highlights a diverse array of important American poets and poetic movements from the colonial era to the present day.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Parini's writings is almost as varied as his literary output. His volumes of poetry, particularly Anthracite County and Town Life, attract positive assessment and helped establish his literary reputation. Reviewers praise Anthracite County for the honesty and risk-taking of Parini's poems and his deft handling of language. Parini also received favorable reviews for his first two novels, notably The Patch Boys, which critics commend for its insightful portrayal of adolescent discovery and complex depiction of labor problems. The Last Station was a welcome surprise to the literary establishment, considering that its protagonist, Tolstoy, had heretofore been the subject of an immense number of biographies and other critical works. Critics praise the biographical novel for offering a faithful rendering of Tolstoy's last months and for presenting a intricate portrait of Tolstoy's art and difficult personal life. Parini's subsequent novels, Bay of Arrows and Benjamin's Crossing, however, are not consistently well regarded. While Bay of Arrows is praised as an entertaining and stimulating novel, it is also criticized for exhibiting a lack of substance. Benjamin's Crossing is acknowledged for presenting an accurate account of Benjamin's last days and for succinctly describing many of his ideas, but is also faulted in its portrayal of Benjamin as an intellectual. Parini's nonfiction biographies of Steinbeck and Frost also received differing reviews. John Steinbeck is praised for both its readability and its reconsideration of an author often neglected by university academics, though Parini is panned by some for a lack of objective distance, failing to bolster Steinbeck scholarship, and an overly sympathetic treatment of his subject. In contrast Robert Frost—which received the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award for the Best Work of Nonfiction in 1999—finds almost universal critical acclaim and is regarded as an informative perspective on the popular American poet's approach to his craft, though somewhat wanting in analysis of Frost's inner, especially intellectual, life. As editor of Gore Vidal, Parini received near unanimous praise for his part in establishing academic interest in Vidal's writings. In numerous major periodicals, critics highly extol The Norton Book of American Autobiography, which Parini edited and published in 1999. Critics are not as generous, however, in their appraisal of Parini's work as editor of The Columbia History of American Poetry. As expected, reviewers fault the work for its omission of various poets. Critics generally agree that, despite its many excellent essays and the difficult and contentious question of what exactly constitutes “American” poetry, The Columbia History of American Poetry falls short as a definitive “history” of American poetry due to its inability to unify its disparate subjects and perspectives, but still offers the reader a provocative consideration of what William Carlos Williams called “the American language.”