Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 718
Rita Dove was born in the highly industrialized city of Akron, Ohio, on August 28, 1952. On her mother’s side, her family had well-established roots in this northern urban center, and they had achieved a certain level of comfort and prosperity. Her father’s side of the family had moved to the North during the great migration of African Americans that took place in the years after World War I. Brought up in a strict but loving environment, Rita Dove became a precocious and highly inquisitive young student. Her first attempt at writing was a childhood story titled “The Rabbit with a Droopy Ear.” The young author solved the rabbit’s problem and straightened his ear by having him hang upside down from a tree.
The city of Akron left a deep and lasting impression on Dove’s mind. The parks and hilly streets, the Goodyear rubber and tire factories, and the Quaker Oats oatmeal plant all became graphic images that she employed in the poetry and fiction of her mature life. In a real sense, Dove never left Akron.
After completing high school in Akron, Dove moved to the college town of Oxford, Ohio, to continue her education at Miami University. The surrounding countryside, with its barns and silos and its abundant corn and bean fields, also left her with vivid memories that she would later use in her writing. After her graduation from Miami University, Dove moved to Germany to continue her studies at the Universität Tübingen. While in Germany, she met her husband, the novelist Fred Viebahn, with whom she had a daughter, Aviva. She returned to the United States to study at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. In 1977, she received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Iowa and joined the ranks of the school’s famous graduates, many of whom were regular contributors to literary publications such as The American Poetry Review, Georgia Review, and Poetry.
With this rich and complicated background, Dove began to publish widely in little magazines. Her first book of poems, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), appeared when she was twenty-eight, and it was soon followed by a second book of poems, Museum (1983). Both of these books bear the strong influence of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: They contain many surrealistic poems and literary imitations in a style made famous by that university program. The poems are still undeniable literary accomplishments, but Dove had not yet come entirely into her own.
That situation was to change dramatically with the publication of Dove’s first book of prose, a collection of short stories titled Fifth Sunday (1985), and a masterful volume of narrative poems titled Thomas and Beulah (1986). Dove was clearly speaking in her own unique voice and following the inspiration of her own poetic muse, a fact recognized by a national literary audience; in 1987, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In a short time, she published Grace Notes (1989), a singularly beautiful book of lyric poems, and Through the Ivory Gate (1992), a highly poetic novel that makes extensive use of autobiographical details. The years from 1980 to 1992 represented a period of remarkable literary growth and achievement for Dove; in the space of twelve short years, she produced six important volumes. In 1995, she published Mother Love, a poetry collection which was then followed by On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999) and American Smooth (2004).
All this literary output was rewarded with many literary honors besides the Pulitzer Prize. Dove won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and she received the General Electric Foundation Award and the Ohio Governor’s Award. In addition, she was presented with honorary doctorates from Miami University and Knox College. She has taught creative writing at Arizona State University and the University of Virginia and served briefly as a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. In 1993, Dove became the first black author to serve as poet laureate of the United States, an honor that also made her the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. She was poet laureate from 1993 to 1995, and in 2002 was named a member of the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.