Joseph McElroy Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The novels of Joseph Prince McElroy are at the forefront of innovative American writing; he has been described as “an important writer working with extraordinary energy and imagination right at the very boundaries of contemporary fiction.” His life has been centered on academe, first as an undergraduate at Williams College, where he earned a B.A. in 1951; subsequently as a graduate student at Columbia University, where he received an M.A. in 1952 and a Ph.D. in 1961; and then as a professor. He has taught at the University of New Hampshire, Queen’s College, The Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, Washington University (St. Louis), Temple University, and Columbia University. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1952 to 1954. McElroy has won an impressive number of academic grants, fellowships, and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1973, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.

To describe his life as academic, East Coast, urban, and “experimental” serves to provide a description of his novels. McElroy’s works have consistently, almost without exception, been compared to those of Thomas Pynchon, with Pynchon’s writings somehow always being read more favorably. His work is methodically difficult and demanding of readers. This difficulty is, in part, a result of the writer’s polydisciplinary domain, which includes literature, science, history, anthropology, economics, and sociology. McElroy’s first novel develops the metaphor indicated by its title A Smuggler’s Bible, which is a hollowed-out Bible used for carrying contraband. The main character, David Brooke, attempts to smuggle himself out of his own identity and into the identities of eight other characters; he then must smuggle himself back into his original identity (but is this now his true identity?). The character asks himself: “Do you see how people try to smuggle themselves out of life?” Brooke must lose himself in order to find himself.

The metaphor of McElroy’s second novel, Hind’s Kidnap, echoes that of the first. The crime is kidnapping rather than smuggling, but both pieces are held together by a matter of missing, whether stolen or hidden, identity. The story is about the unsolved kidnapping of a young man several years before the present action of the novel. It is something of a pointless pursuit, since the boy’s parents are dead and the youth will now be grown. The pursuit takes...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joseph Prince McElroy was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 21, 1930, and has lived near there for most of his life. He received a baccalaureate degree from Williams College in 1951 and a master of arts degree from Columbia University in 1952. After two years with the U.S. Coast Guard (1952-1954), he returned to graduate studies at Columbia, completing his Ph.D. in 1962 with a dissertation on seventeenth century poet Henry King. From 1956 to 1961, he held positions as instructor and assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. Beginning in 1964, he was a full professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York, until his retirement in 1995 (although he maintained his residence in Manhattan). McElroy has been a visiting professor or a writer-in-residence at a number of major universities, has received a wide range of fellowships and awards, and has served editorial terms on several prestigious literary magazines.