Robert Coover

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Robert (Lowell) Coover was born in Charles City, Iowa, on February 4, 1932, to Maxine (Sweet) Coover and Grant Marion Coover, but as a child of nine moved to Bedford, Indiana, and then later to Herrin, Illinois. At Herrin he was president of his high school class, edited school newspapers as “Scoop” Coover, and wrote a column called “Koover’s Korner.” In high school he avidly followed baseball and played tabletop baseball as well; the sport figures prominently in his second novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968). Coover attended Southern Illinois University from 1949 to 1951, where he worked as a reporter for the college newspaper, the Egyptian. In 1951 he transferred to Indiana University, from which he graduated in 1953 with a bachelor of arts degree in Slavic studies.

Until graduation he wrote for the Herrin Daily Journal, of which his father was managing editor. Coover’s first novel, Origin of the Brunists (1966), would feature the character of a small-town newspaper man. Shortly after graduation, Coover enlisted in the Navy and served as a lieutenant from 1953 to 1957. Most of his Korean War service was in Europe.

In the summer of 1957, Coover spent a month at Rainy Lake, Minnesota, where he began writing the innovative stories of his second book, Pricksongs and Descants (1969), including “The Magic Poker,” which mentions Rainy Lake. He discovered Samuel Beckett that summer, whose work influenced him profoundly. He later published an essay on Beckett, “The Last Quixote.”

In 1958, Coover began graduate studies at the University of Chicago, which he attended until 1961. He received an M.A. in general studies in the humanities in 1965. He traveled in Spain between 1958 and 1959. In June of 1959, he married María del Pilar, whom he had met while on a Mediterranean tour during his Korean War service. The couple honeymooned in southern Europe, traveling by motorcycle. Coover’s first publication arose from these travels: “One Summer in Spain: Five Poems” appeared in Fiddlehead in 1960.

Back at the University of Chicago, Coover was deeply influenced by Richard McKeon, a professor of philosophy and classics to whom he dedicated his first work, the novel Origin of the Brunists. McKeon’s courses suggested that the world was undergoing a tremendous transition which required new ways of thinking. This worldview informs much of Coover’s writing.

Coover began to publish short stories in the early 1960’s, such as “The Second Son,” which would later figure in The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. He lived in Spain from 1962 to 1965, in his wife’s hometown of Tarragona, where he worked on his first two novels and some short stories. He also read deeply in ancient literature, including the Bible, Alf layla wa-layla (compiled fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), developing a lifelong interest in myth as narrative structures by which humans organize the universe and, ultimately, by which they live.

Though rejecting Christianity—and even seeing dogma as dangerous—Coover embraced biblical narrative and Christian myth as structural concepts, ways of ordering experience and belief. As a writer, he plays with myth at all levels, whether the folk tale of Little Red Riding Hood reinterpreted in “The Door: A Prologue of Sorts,” in Pricksongs and Descants, or religious belief in the short stories “J’s Marriage or “The Brother” from the same collection, or the novels that depend on interpretations of Christian belief, Origin of the Brunists and The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.


(This entire section contains 925 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

1965, Coover began teaching at Bard College in New York, which brought him some financial security.Origin of the Brunists came out the following year. Though he had most of the “fictions” for Pricksongs and Descants written prior to Origin of the Brunists, Coover believed it was necessary to establish himself as a skilled writer in the traditional vein of the realist, chronological novel before venturing out with the metafictionsor fictions about writing fictionof his first collection of short stories.

He taught at the University of Iowa in 1967 and the following year was a writer in residence at Wisconsin State University. In 1969, he won a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, was Writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis, and received the Brandeis Creative Arts Award. In 1971, he won his first Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1974 his second. In 1972, he taught at Princeton University and published a collection of four one-act plays, A Theological Position. He taught at Virginia Military Institute in 1976 and published The Public Burning in 1977.

He visited Barcelona in 1978 and then lived in England until returning to the United States in 1979, when the Coover family settled in Providence, Rhode Island, where Coover became a professor at Brown University. He published his second collection of short stories, A Night at the Movies: Or, You Must Remember This in 1987, winning the Rea Award for the short story that same year. He has published more than twenty books, including his 2004 novel, Stepmother, and a third collection of short stories, A Child Again (2005), both firmly fixed in the tradition of the fairy tale.

He remains on the faculty as adjunct professor of English in the graduate program in literary arts, teaching standard writing workshops as well as workshops on electronic, or hypertext, writing and mixed media. He has reached far beyond the classroom and beyond the text, organizing festivals and conferences on literature, including “Unspeakable Practices” (1988), which brought together postmodernist writers; “Unspeakable Practices II” (1993), which highlighted the early days of hypertext fiction; and “Unspeakable Practices III” (1996), which brought together print and hypertext writers from many nations.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Beginning with his earliest publications, Coover has challenged the American literary and cultural status quo. He also challenges the reader. Coover mixes realism with the fantastic, interrogates history, and rewrites the sacred texts of world culture, whether Bible stories, children’s stories, myths, fairy tales, or folk tales. He dismantles the accepted and the expected to create the unexpected, to move his readers from the past to the future.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Robert Lowell Coover was born in Charles City, Iowa. His family soon moved to Indiana and then to Herrin, Illinois. His father managed the local newspaper, the Herrin Daily Journal, which prompted Coover’s interest in journalism. His college education began at Southern Illinois University (1949-1951), but he transferred to Indiana University, where he received a B.A., with a major in Slavic studies, in 1953. After graduation, Coover was drafted and joined the United States Naval Reserve.

While in Spain, he met Maria del Pilar Sans-Mallafré, who became his wife on June 13, 1959. During these years, his interest in fiction began. His first published story, “Blackdamp,” was the seed of his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists. He received an M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1965. During the following years, Coover and his family alternated stays in Europe with periods in the United States. The several awards he received during the 1970’s made him financially secure and allowed him to continue writing.

Coover has held appointments at Bard College, the University of Iowa, Columbia University, Princeton University, the Virginia Military Institute, and he has been a distinguished professor at Brown University since 1979. He has also been writer-in-residence at Wisconsin State University. In spite of a large amount of time spent abroad (in Europe and in South America) and his outspoken need to take distance from his own country, Coover’s production is very “American,” since he often bases his fiction on American events, persons, and national myths. Coover often manipulates historical events for artistic purposes, but he has a solid knowledge of the facts.

In the late 1980’s, Coover began teaching writing on computers. With the rise of the World Wide Web in the 1990’s, he made significant progress in the use of hyperfiction. Hyperfiction, also referred to as hypertext fiction, tree fiction, nonlinear fiction, or electronic fiction, is fiction written with the capabilities of hypertext. Hyperfiction is truly nonlinear since it cannot be represented on a printed page. The reader takes an active role in hyperfiction, choosing which links to click on and which paths to follow. Thus, the narrative may be very different from one reading to the next, depending on the choices made by the reader. Readers can follow different characters, or points of view, or skip back and forth between different time zones. By clicking on an interesting name, place, event, or idea, the reader can be taken to a new page connected to that name, place, event, or idea.

Coover reads, writes, and reviews hyperfiction. He teaches hyperfiction workshops at Brown University. The Hypertext Hotel is a collaborative hyperfiction that grew out of Coover’s workshops. During the 1990’s, students, authors, and scholars have added to the fictional hotel text. Coover developed a course at Brown that introduces students to the possibilities of hyperfiction. He also been known to encourage the use of hyperfiction and the software that makes it possible. Coover is the author of the now classic “The End of the Book,” an article in which he explains hyperfiction and his general optimism that it will someday replace books.