Mary Karr 1955-
(Born Mary Marlene Karr) American poet, memoirist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Karr's career through 2001.
With the publication of her memoir The Liars' Club: A Memoir in 1995, Karr, already a respected poet, became a critically acclaimed, best-selling author. The Liars' Club remained on the New York Times best-seller list for over a year and won Karr the 1996 PEN Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction. The Liars' Club, which takes place in a small industrial East Texas town during the mid-1960s when Karr was eight years old, conveys a strong sense of place and effectively evokes the powerful emotional climate of a family circle characterized by alcoholism, mental illness, and strong passions. Critics applauded Karr's use of narrative voice, inflected with the colloquial speech of East Texas and the unique perspective of a precocious young girl. The Liars' Club inspired a spate of memoirs written in the confessional mode. Cherry: A Memoir (2000), Karr's sequel to The Liars' Club, portrays Karr's adolescent years of intellectual and sexual awakening. While Karr is best known for her memoirs, her body of publications includes three volumes of poetry—Abacus (1987), The Devil's Tour (1993), and Viper Rum (1998). Karr has won the Pushcart prize for both her poetry and essays.
Karr was born January 16, 1955, in Groves, a small town in East Texas located in the Port Arthur region, known for its oil refineries and chemical plants. Although she has given the town in her memoirs a fictional name, her writing clearly evokes the social and cultural milieu of this region. Karr's father worked in an oil refinery while her mother was an amateur artist and business owner. Karr's sister, two years her elder, is a key figure in her memoirs. Karr developed an early interest in literature; she told a Publishers Weekly interviewer that, at the age of eleven, she wrote in a notebook that her ambition was “to write poetry and autobiography.” Upon graduation from high school, she traveled with a group of friends to Los Angeles, where she immersed herself in the lifestyle of the California hippie and surfer counter-cultures. Later that year, she enrolled in Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but left school after two years to travel. Her political involvement in the anti-apartheid movement led her to meet African American poet Ethridge Knight who became an important influence on the development of her poetry. Karr eventually entered graduate school to study creative writing, and earned an M.F.A. from Goddard College in 1979. Among her mentors at Goddard was Tobias Wolff, whose memoir This Boy's Life served as a major influence on Karr's own writing. She also studied with noted poets Robert Bly and Robert Hass. Her first publication was a poem that appeared in Mother Jones magazine. Karr moved to Boston in 1980, where she held various jobs in the computer and telecommunications industries while continuing to write and publish poetry. In 1983 she married poet Michael Milburn, with whom she had a son, but the couple divorced in 1991. Karr has worked as an assistant professor at several colleges and universities, including Tufts University, Emerson College, Harvard University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches in the department of English at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
The Liars' Club and Cherry are set in the fictional town of Leechfield, Texas, based on Karr's home town. The events of The Liars' Club take place during the years 1961 to 1963, when Karr was seven and eight years old, recounting the traumatic events she experienced during that period in the context of her dysfunctional family life. The novel's title refers to the local American Legion pool room and bar, as well as the back room of a bait shop, where Karr's father and other local men socialized in their free time. Karr asserts that her father was the best storyteller, a skill Karr effectively developed in her own right. Karr's mother, an alcoholic and mentally unstable woman whose artistic and intellectual interests were stifled by small-town life, once burned all of the family's possessions and called the local police station to report that she had killed her two daughters, a confession that turned out to be untrue. Against this chaotic emotional backdrop, Karr reports being raped by a neighborhood boy at the age of seven and sexually assaulted by an adult male babysitter at the age of eight. The Liars' Club explores themes of truth, lies, memory, confession, and storytelling, a set of terms that overlap and merge as her memoir develops. The trope of the “liars' club” thus comes to encompass everyone who has ever told a story or recalled a personal memory, based on the idea that personal perspective belies the possibility of ever conveying objective truth. Cherry, the sequel to The Liars' Club, follows Karr's adolescent years. Cherry has been referred to as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, in which Karr develops a sense of individuality distinct from her family. While some of the most powerful scenes in Cherry are concerned with Karr's sexual awakening, it is also a memoir of her intellectual awakening and development as a budding writer. The first half of Cherry is narrated by Karr in the first-person voice; the second half of the novel, however, switches to a second-person narrative address, thus suggesting that her own personal experiences as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s were characteristic of an entire generation of adolescent girls.
Karr's poetry, like her memoirs, has been described as confessional, due to the frank revelations of self-doubt and dysfunctional family that are a common subject of her work. The settings of her poems are primarily of the same working-class East Texas milieu that is treated more extensively in her memoirs, and a number of the characters and incidents related in her poetry are revisited in her memoirs. Karr's erudite references to classic literature are worked into her poetry juxtaposed against personal experiences of a hardscrabble childhood in her blue-collar hometown. Her poetry is characterized by brevity, clarity, meticulous detail, and careful attention to metrical form. She has developed a personal style of using the three-line stanza in many of her poems. The poems of Abacus are introspective reflections on personal relationships, love, friendship, and self-questioning. The Devil's Tour grapples with broader struggles of human existence and consciousness, exploring themes of death, mortality, evolution, and existential angst, as well as parenting and family relationships. The recurring motif of skull imagery in Devil's Tour invokes the themes of mortality and introspection. The poems in Viper Rum include reflections on Karr's personal life, her relationship with her parents, her struggles with alcoholism, and an awakening to religious sentiment. Karr's polemical essay “Against Decoration,” originally published in 1990, is included at the end of Viper Rum. In “Against Decoration,” Karr launches a critique of the neo-formalist trend in contemporary poetry, which she faults for lacking in emotion and clarity. Karr argues that, “[t]o pay so little attention to the essentially human elements of a poem makes a monster of poetry's primary emotional self, its very reason for being, so that the art becomes exclusively decorative and at times grotesque.” Commentators have noted that Karr's own poetry generally lives up to the aesthetic standards she espouses in “Against Decoration.”
Karr has been lauded for her savvy storytelling, lyrical prose, vivid, sensual detail, emotional honesty, humor, and ability to capture the colloquial speech of small-town East Texas in her memoirs. She has been noted for her frank yet nonjudgmental portrayal of her father and mother, which effectively expresses both the love and the pain associated with each parent. Many reviewers have commented that themes of sexual abuse and dysfunctional family are handled by Karr without the bitterness, self-pity, melodrama, or sentimentality that characterizes many confessional memoirs. Cyra McFadden has observed that Karr “is blessed with a sense of humor that allows her to see whatever happens to her, good, bad or terrible, as just one more example of chaos theory at work.” The Liars' Club is undoubtedly Karr's most highly regarded work. Reviewers admired her use of narrative voice in The Liars' Club, which convincingly portrays the perspective of a young girl. M. Joy Gorence observed that Karr's narrative voice in The Liars' Club expresses “the innocence of a young child but with the understanding of an adult.” The Liars' Club also earned admiration for being skillfully written, powerfully expressive, and entertaining to read. Cherry, while generally liked, has been judged by a number of reviewers as flawed in its use of narrative voice. Such critics felt that the first-person voice in the first half of the story is effective, but the abrupt shift to second-person voice in latter half constitutes a serious flaw in the narrative. Karr's poetry, while not attracting a wide popular readership, is highly regarded by critics. Her use of language has been consistently praised, especially her formal meter capturing the rhythms of everyday speech, her evocative imagery, and her meticulous attention to detail. As with her memoirs, critics applauded Karr's ability to express strong emotions and describe poignant situations without lapsing into melodrama or sentimentality.