Patricia Highsmith (née Mary Patricia Plangman) was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921, to Jay Plangman and Mary Coates. Highsmith’s parents separated five months prior to her birth, and in interviews Highsmith has revealed that her mother tried to terminate her pregnancy by drinking turpentine.
Highsmith was initially raised by her maternal grandmother. She moved to New York in 1927 when her mother wed Stanley Highsmith. Their tempestuous marriage involved multiple separations. At age ten, Patricia learned Stanley was not her biological father, and at twelve she met her biological father for the first time. Although Stanley eventually adopted Patricia in 1944, the girl’s early life was characterized by feelings of abandonment and alienation.
After graduating from New York’s Julia Richman High, Highsmith attended Barnard College, earning a B.A. in English, Latin, and Greek in 1942. Highsmith began her literary career writing story lines for comic books. In 1945 she published “The Heroine” in Harper’s Bazaar—the story was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946. Highsmith’s early success (and the help of Truman Capote) won her acceptance into the Yaddo Artists’ Colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she wrote most of her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950).
Highsmith discovered her authorial voice and genre of choice with a series of successful suspense novels: Strangers on a Train (later purchased and filmed by Alfred Hitchcock), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), and Deep Water (1957). In her lifetime, Highsmith published twenty-two novels, seven short-story collections, and one work of nonfiction, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966). In addition to receiving an O. Henry Memorial Award and an Edgar Allan Poe Scroll from the Mystery Writers of America, Highsmith was recognized with France’s Grand Prix de Litterature Policière (1957), the British Crime Writers Association’s Silver Dagger (1964), and the Grand Master Award (1979) from the Swedish Academy of Detection.
Despite such numerous honors, Highsmith was not well known in her native country. A best-selling writer in Germany, France, Austria, and England, Highsmith lacked a substantial American audience and was better known for the film adaptations of her work. In 1963 she moved abroad, living in England, France, and finally Switzerland, where she resided until her death.
Highsmith’s poor reception in the United States, in addition to her childhood abandonment, social anxiety, and brief flirtation with Communism, contributed to her sense of being an outsider. Perhaps the greatest source of Highsmith’s perceived exclusion, however, was her lesbianism. Highsmith struggled to understand her sexuality, undergoing psychoanalysis and even writing a novel about lesbians, The Price of Salt (1952), under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Highsmith continued to wrestle with her sexuality, resisting any public discussion of her private self and not claiming The Price of Salt until 1991.
Ironically, the “outsider” Patricia Highsmith became a household name in America only after her death in 1995. With the release of Anthony Minghella’s successful film The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Highsmith’s work reached a new audience who eagerly consumed her re-released novels. Several collections of her short stories were released posthumously by W. W. Norton, and Andrew Wilson’s encyclopedic biography Beautiful Shadow (2003) opened the door to new and exciting research on one of America’s great writers.
Suspense literature has often been dismissed as “popular” fiction and, as a result, has not received the serious consideration it deserves. However, Highsmith’s Cold War novels demand a reconsideration of suspense fiction’s place in American letters. Highsmith’s fiction provides a snapshot of the postwar United States and Americans’ attempts to comprehend loss, fear, and change, while traveling through uncharted cultural, political, and...
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