Shirley Ann Grau 1929-
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Grau's life and career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 9.
An accomplished novelist and short story writer, Grau has been described as a “fictional anthropologist” for her authentic portraits of the people and atmosphere of the American South. Although early in her career Grau was classified as a regional writer, she has since been recognized as an author of much wider scope. Critics typically compare her favorably to other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner. Grau has been publishing work since the 1950s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Keepers of the House (1964). The thematic strains of home, gender, race, and ethical concerns play strong roles in Grau's work, and she is well regarded for her skill in developing character and setting, which she uses to endow her material with universal and mythic overtones.
Grau was born in New Orleans in 1929 to Adolph and Katherine Grau. She was raised primarily in Louisiana and later moved to Montgomery, Alabama. As a high school senior Grau returned to New Orleans to attend the Ursuline Academy. She eventually pursued literary studies at Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University, where she obtained her B. A. Grau began graduate studies at Tulane, with the ambition to become an English professor. However, after learning that the head of Tulane's English department refused to hire female teaching assistants, Grau abandoned her teaching aspirations and began to focus on her writing career. She published her first collection of short stories, The Black Prince and Other Stories, in 1955. Soon after, Grau married James Kern Feibleman, a professor of philosophy and writer. The Black Prince was a critical success, and Grau followed the collection with three novels, The Hard Blue Sky (1958), The House on Coliseum Street (1961), and The Keepers of the House, the last of which earned Grau the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1965. During this period Grau spent a considerable amount of time traveling, living in New York City for a short while, but primarily moving between Metarie, a New Orleans suburb, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Grau took a hiatus after The Keepers of the House but resumed her career in 1971 with the publication of the novel The Condor Passes. Over the next two decades, Grau continued to publish works, including the short fiction collections The Wind Shifting West (1973) and Nine Women (1986), and the novels Evidence of Love (1977) and Roadwalkers (1994).
Much of Grau's fiction is concerned with themes of gender, familial power structures, and the race dynamics that characterize southern society. It is also noted for its use of symbolism and multiple points of view. All of these elements are present in The Keepers of the House, which examines three generations of the Howland family in rural Alabama. As she traces the history of this family through the eyes of Will Howland, his black mistress, Margaret, and Abigail, Will and Margaret's daughter, Grau explores the different attitudes that southern culture has developed towards miscegenation and the pursuit of prosperity. Grau also uses varied points of view in The Hard Blue Sky, which is narrated by several different members of a poor fishing community on the small island Isle aux Chiens in Mississippi; The Condor Passes, which explores the racial dynamic in the relationship between Stanley, a black servant, and his employer, wealthy patriarch Thomas Henry Oliver; and Evidence of Love, which investigates how several women attempt to assert their personal identity and strive to find a place for themselves in a patriarchal society. Also known for her use of symbolism, Grau often uses the images of a “house” or “home” as a major recurring symbol in her prose. Critic Anthony Bukoski has noted that Grau frequently uses the house as the “center and substance of [her] fictional world.” In The Keepers of the House, the image of the Howland's home is brought up repeatedly, and houses are used as a point of focus in The Condor Passes and Roadwalkers, two novels which, like The Keepers of the House, center on generational sagas and explore issues of race. Roadwalkers, follows Baby, a six-year-old black girl, as she and her orphaned siblings wander the countryside in search of food, clothing, and shelter in the Depression-era South of 1934. Grau vividly describes Baby's difficult years growing up in an orphanage, but eventually shifts the focus of the book to Baby's daughter, Nanda, who was raised into a life of privilege.
Although Grau's novels are seen as significant achievements in the genre, her short stories are equally well regarded, and in some circles, are considered to be superior to the novels. There is a definite relationship between Grau's short fiction and her novels. The short story “Stanley” from The Wind Shifting West elaborates on narrative material first published in The Condor Passes, and the story “The Patriarch,” from the same collection, was the basis for Evidence of Love. Like her novels, Grau's short stories often explore issues of race and gender. The stories in The Black Prince describe the world of rural Mississippi and the struggle of its black and white inhabitants to survive and coexist. The Wind Shifting West expands upon the descriptions of Mississippi life presented in The Black Prince, with stories that feature characters from a variety of social classes and settings. Grau's collection Nine Women follows the life of nine different women who live in widely disparate worlds.
Critical reaction to Grau's fiction has been varied, with some critics appreciating her subtlety in handling social history in a mythic fashion, and others seeing her prose as a superficial, predictable reworking of southern stereotypes. Grau's debut work, The Black Prince and Other Stories, has received almost uniform praise; Paul Schlueter has described its reception as “little short of adulation.” Grau has often been compared to southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, but critic Linda Wagner-Martin has also compared Grau to Paul Bowles and Albert Camus, particularly due to the descriptions of “a nature oblivious to its creatures” inThe Hard Blue Sky. Grau's thematic material is primarily concerned with issues relevant to the American South, and several commentators have praised Grau for her examination of southern culture. L. Elizabeth Bryant lauded Grau's “keen insights into … racist minds and heart,” while D. T. Max has applauded Grau's “uncondescending view of the South's poorer black and white residents.” Critics have been widely split regarding Grau's narrative structure and use of multiple viewpoints. Merle Rubin has observed that “narrative sequence does not flow easily in her work,” using Roadwalkers as his primary example. Other reviewers have taken issue with Grau's constant shifting of narrative voice, but some critics have argued that this technique is a major contributor to the success of The Keepers of the House. Wagner-Martin has agreed that narrative method is “one of the most problematic areas of critical response” to Grau's work, but has asserted that Grau's importance lies in her “relentless, if subtle” concern with “non-white culture” and “the way that culture impinges on the patriarchal matrix that seems to dominate Southern life.”