Shirley Ann Grau

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992

Shirley Ann Grau (grow) is an important southern writer whose novels and short fiction, which are praised for their craftsmanship and economy, reflect the southern preoccupation with the effect of history on individual lives. She is the daughter of Adolphe Eugene Grau, a well-to-do dentist, and Katherine Onions Grau. Her father’s family, of Prussian background, settled in New Orleans after the Civil War, while on her mother’s side, Grau has a more conventional English, Celtic, and Native American background. Grau was educated at a small private school, Margaret Booth Academy, in Montgomery, Alabama. There she developed a lifelong interest in Latin and Greek. As a senior, she transferred to the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans and then went on to Sophie Newcomb College, the women’s college of Tulane University, where she earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and received a B.A. with honors in English in 1950. In 1955 she married a professor at Tulane University, James Kern Feibleman; they would have four children.

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When Grau’s first collection of short stories, The Black Prince, and Other Stories, was published, it was well received. Set in southern Louisiana, the stories deal with both whites and blacks, whose will to survive and to triumph was too frequently thwarted by death (the product of violence in the environment or simply blind fate). Grau’s first novel, The Hard Blue Sky, was highly praised for its realistic description of the lives of primitive, inbred fishermen on an island at the mouth of the Mississippi. It was her complex and dramatic fourth book, The Keepers of the House, however, which won for her critical acclaim, as well as the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Set in the Delta rather than in the bayous, this novel traces the relationships between whites and blacks through three generations of a plantation family.

Although the reception of Grau’s later novels has been mixed, her short stories have been so much praised that some critics suggest she is most effective in this genre. In The Condor Passes, Grau examines the lives of a number of characters in separate episodes, attempting to achieve unity primarily through symbolism. It is significant that many reviewers accused this novel of a lack of unity. On the other hand, when she writes her undeniably fascinating sketches in short-story form, as in the collection Nine Women, she seems to be highly successful.

The assumption that Grau is merely another New Orleans writer in the local-color or southern gothic tradition has been challenged by literary scholarship. Although the sense of place, the awareness of the natural environment, and the presence of the past are stressed in all of her works, as they are generally in southern literature, and although there is frequently violence and sometimes the supernatural, these themes and elements are always subordinate to her concern with the human predicament in the modern world. The blacks in the story “The Black Prince” reveal the universal fascination of human beings with the unknown and their susceptibility to primitive terror when they are confronted with the supernatural. Similarly, although The Hard Blue Sky is praised for its evocations of nature during the hot, tense hours of a coming hurricane, the characters in the novel have the same adolescent uncertainties, agonies of love, and capacities for heroism as people in any other setting.

At first glance The Keepers of the House might be considered another southern novel about the ill-fated liaisons between white plantation owners and their black slaves or servants. The protagonist of the novel, Abigail Tolliver, is married to a politician whose future depends on his segregationist stance. As in almost every southern novel, the past surfaces to haunt or taint the present. In The Keepers of the House, it is the discovery that Abigail’s grandfather had actually married his black housekeeper that destroys Abigail’s marriage and leaves her alone to face a shocked and hostile community. Grau shows, however, that it is Abigail’s reaction to her situation that is of importance in determining not only her own future and that of her community but also the future of the South and of the modern world. Like Annie Landry of The Hard Blue Sky, Joan Mitchell of The House on Coliseum Street, and Anna and Margaret Oliver of The Condor Passes, Abigail cannot rise above the past to fulfill the future’s promise. She is motivated by family honor to carry out a plan of revenge both on her racist community and on her grandfather’s black offspring. Similarly, Grau focuses on a point of crisis for each woman in her short-story collection Nine Women and on the response of each protagonist to the breakup of a marriage or the death of a husband.

Two later novels suggest more hope for humanity’s future. In Evidence of Love, Lucy Roundtree Evans Henley (from British East Africa) eludes the grasp of family and the weight of the past to fashion a house open to possibility. In Roadwalkers, the African American protagonists Baby (Mary) Woods and her daughter Nanda use their strength and independence to become successful in white southern culture. Baby, a roadwalker during the Depression, runs away from a Catholic orphanage and her future as a house servant for a white man, to open her own dress shops, raise Nanda single-handedly, and support her daughter through a Catholic private school and Phi Beta Kappa graduation from college. Mother and daughter maintain their spiritual ties with nature and their autonomy from the South’s diseased racial past (unlike Stanley of The Condor Passes).

Grau’s later works have continued to fulfill her early promise. She is generally recognized as a writer whose work is superbly crafted and profoundly significant. Although her materials are those of a William Faulkner, her way of handling them is far more like Ernest Hemingway. Like him, in the fewest possible words she always suggests a world of human experience.

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