Maureen Howard 1930-
American novelist, memoirist, editor, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Howard's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 14, and 46.
Howard has garnered widespread critical acclaim for her novels about women searching for identity amid their career aspirations and within their socially prescribed roles. The female characters in her novels are frequently conflicted and struggle to assert their individuality, often by breaking from their families—particularly from mother figures. Howard celebrates the assertion of the human will to affect change, yet, in her works, such action does not always insure a happy or conclusive ending. Critics have commended Howard's precise use of language, her double-edged humor, and the loose structure of many of her novels, which allows readers to draw their own conclusions about characters and incidents. Howard is best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Facts of Life (1978), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction.
Howard was born on June 28, 1930, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The city of Bridgeport played a large role in Howard's formative years, and she would later use the town as the setting for several of her novels. Howard was raised in Bridgeport's Irish neighborhoods, and her Irish-immigrant father, William, was the county detective for Fairfield County. Howard attended Smith College and earned a bachelor's degree in 1952. After college, she worked for several publishing and advertising firms. In 1961, Howard published her first novel, Not a Word about Nightingales. From 1967 to 1968, she worked at the New School for Social Research, in New York City, as a lecturer in English and creative writing. Howard has continued to teach and lecture on such subjects as drama, English, and creative writing, holding positions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Columbia University, Yale University, Amherst College, and Brooklyn College. She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1967 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980. She has also been nominated several times for the American Book Award for autobiography/biography and the PEN/Faulkner Award for nonfiction.
Not a Word about Nightingales focuses on the disruptions within a family when the father decides to leave his wife and children to pursue a life of “feeling” during a vacation in Peruvia. After eighteen months, his wife sends their daughter to bring him back; by this time, her father has become disenchanted with his hedonistic lifestyle and returns without much resistance. In Bridgeport Bus (1966), Mary Agnes Keeley, an aspiring middle-aged writer, leaves her hometown of Bridgeport on the bus to begin a new life in New York City. Mary Agnes has difficulty adjusting to life in the city and finds herself surrounded by a neurotic roommate and a suicidal cousin. She eventually returns to Bridgeport, unmarried and pregnant, to take care of her widowed mother. The award-winning memoir Facts of Life directly addresses Howard's affinity for rewriting and reinterpreting personal narratives, this time using her own life story. The work vividly portrays her parents' conflicting personalities and the consequences of her strict Catholic upbringing. Howard uses the memoir genre to call the “facts” of her life into question, demonstrating the differences and discrepancies between perception and memory. In Expensive Habits (1986), Margaret Flood, a famous American writer, undergoes bypass heart surgery and is given a new lease on life. During her recovery, she discovers that her life and career are filled with lies and untruths, some of which have hurt others. As she heals physically, she also attempts to heal the mistakes she has made in the past. Natural History (1992) is both a narrative and an anthropological assortment of facts about Bridgeport, Connecticut. The novel's loose plot focuses on Billy Bray, a county detective and the patriarch of a large family. Set in 1943, the story focuses on Bray's investigation of the murder of a soldier by an officer's wife. Bray quickly closes the investigation, but his family is plagued for years by the murdered man's brother, who seeks revenge for what he feels was Bray's inability to bring his brother's killer to justice. The novel is filled with details concerning the people, history, and culture of Bridgeport. A section titled “Double Entry” juxtaposes the narrative events with arcane Bridgeport trivia. A Lover's Almanac (1998) is stylistically similar to Natural History in that each includes both pages of straight narration and alternative bits of history, weather forecasts, folk wisdom, and trivia. The novel opens with the ending of a romantic relationship between two characters, Louise Moffett and Artie Freeman, who are splitting apart on the eve of the millennium. After the break-up, Louise and Artie attempt to impose order and criteria on their love lives, much as an almanac provides an order for natural events by presenting predictions based on facts. In 2001, Howard published Big As Life: Three Tales for Spring, a mixture of short stories and memoirs, focusing on renewal and the season of Spring.
Howard has been referred to by some critics as a “woman's writer” due to her recurring focus on female characters searching for self-awareness. Reviewers have consistently praised her prose and her well-drawn characters, both central and minor. Critics have compared her narrative style to that of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Toni Morrison. Howard has been noted for her skill at presenting differing points of view and her ability to seamlessly handle transitions between the past, present, and future. Many critics have applauded how Howard appropriates different literary genres for use in her fiction. For example, Natural History makes use of the screenplay, encyclopedia, diary, and history book genres within the central narrative. However, several critics have objected to Howard's tendency toward digression and loose plot structures. Some reviewers have argued that these tangential details make her novels—most notably Natural History and A Lover's Almanac—self-conscious and difficult to read. Some critics have panned the innovative and experimental narrative techniques used in these two works, such as the use of parallel texts on the right- and left-hand pages in Natural History, which Noel Perrin called “a semi-psychedelic melange.” Critical reaction to Howard's seemingly endless fascination with the city of Bridgeport has also been mixed. Some reviewers have derided her continual use of the city as a focus in her novels as repetitive and uninteresting. However, other commentators have praised Howard's utilization of the city as a major character. Many agreed with Pearl K. Bell, who stated that the depiction of Bridgeport in Howard's works ultimately seeks “to defy the evanescence of memory,. … [and] lament the irrevocable dissolution of vanished experience.”