Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 891
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California, on October 21, 1929. Her mother, Theodora Kroeber, had a graduate degree in psychology, and Le Guin’s father, Alfred Kroeber, was a well-known anthropologist. Le Guin and her three older brothers, Karl, Theodore, and Clifford, grew up in a household that placed strong emphasis on reading.
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Le Guin’s father taught at the University of California at Berkeley, where the family spent the academic year. With the arrival of summer, they would move to Kishamish, their forty-acre estate in the Napa Valley. Le Guin spent much time exploring this area with her brothers, which is perhaps why so many of her novels include journeys by foot. Summer guests at Kishamish included intellectual celebrities such as Robert Oppenheimer as well as anthropology scholars. Le Guin’s exposure to anthropology dates from before she could read, as her father often told his children stories about the local Native Americans.
Le Guin’s reading was not confined to anthropology, however, for she read all genres available to her, ranging from the romantic works of Lord Dunsany to the Taoist writings of the legendary seventh century Chinese figure Laozi, whom she read while still in her teens. In 1951, she completed a B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, in French and Italian, with an emphasis on Renaissance literature, at Harvard University’s Radcliffe College. She completed her M.A. at Columbia University in 1952, and then began a doctoral program at Columbia. In Paris, in December, 1953, she ended doctoral study and married Charles Le Guin, a history professor whom she had met on shipboard, while traveling to France for a year of Fulbright-supported study.
The end of Le Guin’s doctoral aspirations proved to be the beginning of her career as a writer. Her mother had begun a writing career in middle-age; her Ishi in Two Worlds (1961) appeared a year after the death of Le Guin’s father. Le Guin began writing much younger, producing her first fantasy story at age nine. Her first science-fiction story was rejected by a magazine when she was eleven, and she waited ten years before submitting another. With her marriage, she began writing poetry, later collected in Wild Angels (1975), and novels, all of which were rejected by publishers because they did not fit neatly into a commercial genre.
Le Guin began to achieve serious recognition for her fiction with what is now called the Hainish trilogy: Rocannon’s World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), and City of Illusions (1967). These science-fiction novels were followed with a series of award-winning novels and story collections in both fantasy and science fiction. A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. When The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) accomplished this feat as well, Le Guin became the first writer to win both awards twice for novels. Since the 1970’s, Le Guin has won many awards, including several more Hugos and Nebulas, Pen/USA, Locus Readers Awards, and a Pushcart Prize. Her works have been on “short lists” for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She also has received several honorary degrees, including degrees from Bucknell University, Lawrence University, the University of Oregon, and Kenyon College.
A Wizard of Earthsea was the first novel of the Earthsea trilogy, followed by The Tombs of Atuan (1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972). This trilogy eventually expanded into a fantasy series that includes Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990), Tales from Earthsea (2001), and The Other Wind (2001). The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed continued the series of science-fiction novels and stories set in the Hainish universe; this series comprises short stories that appear in most of the collections, notably A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994) and The Birthday of the World, and Other Stories (2002) and several other novels, including The Word for World Is Forest (1972), Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995), and The Telling (2000).
Occasionally, Le Guin has combined her writing career with teaching. She has taught French as well as writing and has served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Washington. In 1976, Le Guin was a visiting fellow in creative writing at the University of Reading, in England. She has also taught in writing workshops in Melbourne, Australia, and in Oregon, Washington, and Indiana.
Though probably better known for her contributions to the genres of adult science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin also has written children’s literature, including the Catwings series beginning in 1988. In 2004, she began a new series of young adult fantasies with the award-winning Gifts, followed by Voices (2006). Her later work has been excerpted in magazines such as Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker.
As she became well known, Le Guin expanded her work significantly outside the popular genres in which she began her career. Her collections of essays indicate the range of her thought: The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979), Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, and Places (1988), Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (1998), and The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (2004). In these lively and engaging essays, reviews, and speeches, she discusses feminism, science fiction, literary theory, politics, and many other topics of enduring interest.