Marge Piercy 1936-
American novelist, poet, essayist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Piercy's career through 1998. For further information on Piercy's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 14, 18, 27, and 62.
Among the most distinguished contemporary feminist writers, Marge Piercy is recognized as a trenchant poet and novelist whose work is infused with explicit political statement and social critique. Her direct, highly personal writing, informed by her experiences as a radical political activist during the 1960s and 1970s, condemns the victimization—both physical and psychological—of women and other marginalized individuals under the patriarchal, capitalist ideologies of mainstream American society. Piercy's best known novels, including Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Braided Lives (1982), and Gone to Soldiers (1987), reveal her ability to convey such themes in genres ranging from science fiction to social realism and historical fiction. An outspoken feminist and humanitarian, Piercy emphasizes the utilitarian aspect of her work as a vehicle for effective communication, evident in the colloquial, polemical tone of her fiction and free verse.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Piercy was raised by her Welsh father, a machinist, and Jewish mother in a working-class neighborhood of the city; Piercy also had an older half-brother, her mother's child from a previous marriage. While Piercy's creativity was inspired by her mother's curiosity and maternal grandmother's storytelling, her political consciousness was forged by the repressive social climate and economic disparities she experienced during her formative years. Piercy won a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan, becoming the first member of her family to receive a college education. While at Michigan she won Hopwood Awards in poetry and fiction and became involved in radical politics. She traveled to France after completing her A.B. in 1957, then enrolled at Northwestern University where she earned her M.A. degree in 1958. While living in Chicago, Piercy worked odd jobs to support her writing and taught at the Gary extension of Indiana University from 1960-62. Her first marriage to a French-Jewish physicist was short-lived; she remarried in 1962, though this unconventional, open relationship deteriorated by the mid-1970s.
During the 1960s, Piercy became active in the civil rights and antiwar movements as an organizer for the left-wing political organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), though shifted her allegiance to the women's movement by the end of the decade. She published her first volume of poetry, Breaking Camp (1968), and first novel, Going Down Fast (1969), during this period. Piercy won the Borestone Mountain Poetry award in 1968 and 1974. She worked as a writer-in-residence and visiting lecturer at various colleges during the 1970s, and held professorships at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and the University of Cincinnati. After moving between Boston, San Francisco, and New York, Piercy finally settled in rural Cape Cod, where she has made her home since 1971. Piercy married writer Ira Wood, her third husband, in 1982, with whom she has collaborated on several works. She won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and many additional honors, including the Orion Scott Award in the Humanities, the Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prize in 1986 and 1990, a Shaeffer Eaton-PEN New England award in 1989, the Golden Rose Poetry Prize in 1990, the May Sarton Award in 1991, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1993 for He, She, and It (1991).
Piercy's fiction and poetry is a direct expression of her feminist and leftist political commitments. In language that is alternately realistic, didactic, and poetic, Piercy repeatedly draws attention to the suffering of the socially persecuted—women, the poor, racial minorities, lesbians—and the mercenary ethics of their oppressors—the government, corporations, technocrats, abusive men, repressive gender roles—often incorporating multiple narrators to this end. Her first novel, Going Down Fast, exposes the injustice of urban gentrification as callous city planners move to raze an existing low-income neighborhood to build upscale residences. Drawing upon her experiences as an SDS activist, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1971) involves a small band of young political agitators and idealists who abandon the city to organize an alternative, utopian community based on Native American culture. Small Changes (1973), set in Boston during the 1960s, relates the parallel struggles of two young women—a middle-class Jew and working-class lesbian—whose experiences reveal the effects of female subjugation across class lines. Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) portrays the state's manipulation and control of the individual through the horrific experiences of a young Chicano woman who is institutionalized in an insane asylum. There she is anesthetized, stripped of her identity, sterilized, and detained against her will, prompting her to experience hallucinatory leaps into an egalitarian future world where, in stark contrast to the dystopic near present, there are no class, race, or gender divisions among its inhabitants.
The High Cost of Living (1978) relates the dilemmas faced by a lesbian graduate student in Detroit who struggles to reconcile her literary aspirations, financial needs, and self-respect within the demoralizing structure of the academic establishment. Vida (1980), also based on Piercy's involvement with the SDS, features protagonist Davida Asch, a beautiful, renegade political radical whose revolutionary activities during the 1960s have forced her underground. Through flashbacks Vida's recollections document the rise and fall of the “Network,” the militant antiwar faction that she once headed, her long period of hiding and desolation, and newfound love with another fugitive. Braided Lives (1982), Piercy's most autobiographic novel, portrays the cultural oppression of women during the 1950s. The protagonist, a scholarship student and aspiring writer from humble origins in Detroit, struggles to define herself against the social humiliations of her milieu—particularly those surrounding sexuality, marriage, abortion, and rape—while she watches her friends succumb to the conventional roles of their mothers. Fly Away Home (1984), set amid the exclusionary prosperity of Reaganomics, traces the growing awareness of protagonist Daria Walker, a traditional wife who becomes liberated and politically engaged after discovering her husband's dark dealings as a white-collar slum lord and arsonist who victimizes the poor. Gone to Soldiers (1987), a work of historical fiction, follows the lives of ten main characters—six women, four men—on the home front and abroad during the Second World War. Their various experiences as civilians, soldiers, Resistance fighters, and refugees illustrate the personal disruptions, despair, and harrowing realities of the war, especially among women.
Returning to small-scale interpersonal drama in her next novel, Summer People (1989) revolves around real estate dealings on Cape Cod and the deterioration of a long-term love triangle involving a married couple and their female neighbor. He, She, and It, a work of science fiction that borrows from the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, involves a Jewish woman's relationship with an illegal cyborg, Yod, in a dystopic twenty-first century world. Yod, like a golem of the Hebrew folklore, is designed to protect her Jewish community from danger—in this case, the evils of the corporate state and criminal underworld—raising ethical questions about the creation and destructive potential of technology. The Longings of Women (1994) juxtaposes the precarious lives of three very different women—a sixty-one-year-old homeless housekeeper, an unhappily married college professor, and a young wife accused of murdering her husband—each of whom seek, on their own separate terms, the keys to emotional and physical security. City of Darkness, City of Light (1996), an extensively researched work of historical fiction, is a reinterpretation of events surrounding the French Revolution that parallels the vicissitudes of American leftist politics during the 1960s and 1970s. Presented through the perspective of six historical personages, both male and female, Piercy traces the formative events in each characters' life and their involvement in the radical politics, murderous rampages, and fractious alliances of their time.
In Storm Tide (1998), written in collaboration with husband Ira Wood, Piercy returns to a Cape Cod setting where the protagonist, a divorced, former professional baseball player, becomes entangled in a web of sexual intrigue, small-town politics, and guilt over a deadly accident. Three Women (1999), which centers upon strained mother-daughter relationships, involves a successful lawyer whose midlife contentment is suddenly shattered when she must take in her unemployed, emotionally scarred daughter and demanding, stroke-afflicted mother. As in her novels, Piercy's poetry reveals her effort to merge literature and political engagement. Her socially and ecologically conscious verse, influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman and Muriel Rukeyser, is characterized by its informality, autobiographic content, striking imagery, depiction of everyday life and objects, and political message. Her first several volumes, Breaking Camp, Hard Loving (1969), and To Be of Use (1973), composed while active in the civil rights, peace, and women's movements, contain some of her most polemical verse. Living in the Open (1976) marks a shift in focus from urban to rural environments following her move from New York to Cape Cod. Nature themes are also present in The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing (1978) and The Moon Is Always Female (1980), which explore personal and feminist concerns in relation to the archetypal cycles of Mother Earth and the moon. Circles on the Water (1982) contains selections from her six previous volumes along with several new poems. Piercy's subsequent volumes—Stone, Paper, Knife (1983), My Mother's Body (1985), Available Light (1988), Mars and Her Children (1992), and What Are Big Girls Made Of? (1997)—are less overtly political, though continue to focus on her private struggles with love, sexuality, family relationships, female self-identity, domestic life, and the redemptive pleasures of the natural world. The Art of Blessing the Day (1999) contains previous and new poems in which Piercy explores her Jewish heritage and religious faith. Early Grrrl (1999), another collection of new and previous poems, is dedicated to the new generation of fringe feminists behind the small magazine and Internet-based “Grrrl” movement. Piercy has also published a collection of her articles, book reviews, and interviews in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (1982).
Piercy is widely recognized as a major contemporary feminist poet and novelist. Her writing in both genres is praised for its intensity, clarity, and important social message. While some critics disapprove of her emotional tenor and propagandistic condemnation of social, economic, and environmental ills, others praise the passion and immediacy of her depictions of injustice and exploitation. “Piercy has always seemed to be ahead of her time in dealing with contemporary social and political issues,” writes Sue Walker, “and she has done this with some risk to popular acclaim, but with an authenticity that should merit more lasting critical recognition and attention.” Critics also appreciate Piercy's insight into the aspirations and shortcomings of organized activism and her ability to present compelling, multidimensional characters whose individual complexity often rises above the socially malignant stereotype they are intended to illustrate. “If Piercy is accused of being preachy,” Joyce R. Ladenson explains, “it is because her characters are struck by pain which they need to explain and about which they are enraged once they examine its social sources.” Among her many novels Woman on the Edge of Time is generally regarded as her most original and important, considered by many a classic of feminist science fiction. Small Changes, Braided Lives, and Gone to Soldiers have also attracted favorable reviews and continued critical interest, though other novels such as Summer People, Fly Away Home, and He, She, and It have been deemed less successful. As Judith Wynn comments in a review of The Longings of Women, “Piercy is not an elegant writer. Interesting, swift-moving plots and careful social observation are her main strengths.” Despite the bleak circumstances she often describes, Piercy's fiction and poetry is noted for its essentially optimistic outlook which, in keeping with her artistic commitment to political action, continually presents alternatives to the status quo and inspires the possibility of communal solidarity and meaningful change.