Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The War Between the Tates is told from the omniscient point of view, allowing Alison Lurie to alternate between camps in reporting from the front. Along with their private war, the Tates wage a joint campaign against the generation of the late 1960’s. As Erica and Brian face off over the marital disruption introduced by Wendy Gahaghan, they are both adjusting to a world that threatens their established values. Moreover, both have private battles with themselves that cloud their perceptions of their situations. The all-knowing narrator keeps up with all this strife in a series of well-observed and sometimes quite comic scenes that move rapidly toward the Tates’ armistice day.

Brian’s career at Corinth University has been safe, conventional, and dull. At forty-six, he yearns for more—not only more from the academy but also something more from Erica in terms of conjugal excitement, something raging and Faustian. He is always conscious of being only five feet five, and he has an unhappy sense of a stunted life.

Erica has grown up safe, too. Conservative in her social, sexual, and cultural values, she now finds her traditionalism sorely tested. She has always worshipped the children, whose boorish adolescence has her on the brink of apostasy. A shopping center is about to blot her pastoral landscape, a gut-blow from the industrial-commercial bogeyman that troubles the dreams of all liberals such as the Tates. Brian has not become the mighty scholar she had hoped he would be, leaving her as the woman behind less of a man than she had fantasized.

Wendy Gahaghan, then, can be seen as the Tates’ salvation in that she...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Alison Lurie is a teacher, a scholar, and a writer of fiction about upper-middle-class professors and creative people in the arts, and she usually depicts the struggles and crises of women in this mixed milieu. Many of these struggles—most of them—are, by the nature of things, with men, and these contests between the sexes are seen predominantly from the woman’s point of view and imply a special sympathy for her ordeal but without caricaturing all men as demons.

Lurie’s own career should be a testimony to the possibilities of achievement open to women. While still an undergraduate at Radcliffe, she published poems in Poetry and stories in Commentary and Woman’s Press, but after eight years of rejections, she quit writing. During this dry period, she married Jonathan Peale Bishop, son of the poet John Peale Bishop, and moved with him to western Massachusetts, where he taught English at Amherst College. Before their separation in 1975, they had three sons.

Lurie was jolted out of the barrenness in her creative life by two significant events. First was the death in 1956 of a close friend, the poet, playwright, and actress V. R. (Bunny) Lang; the writing V. R. Lang: A Memoir (privately printed, 1959) changed Lurie’s life irrevocably. In studying the career of a talented woman who overcame many obstacles, Lurie escaped the frustrating round of domestic duties that preoccupied her and further educated herself about the lifestyle she would soon depict in her novels of manners.

The second important change in Lurie’s life was moving with her family in 1957 to Los Angeles, where her husband was to teach at the University of California. She soon freed her mind of Amherst by writing her first published novel, Love and Friendship (1962), followed by a novel treating the culture shock of a New England girl transplanted to California, The Nowhere City (1965). Two other novels came next, Imaginary Friends (1967) and Real People (1969), before the critical and popular success of The War Between the Tates established Lurie as a major figure in American fiction. Official honors came with the Pulitzer Prize for Foreign Affairs (1984).


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ackroyd, Peter. “Miss American Pie.” Spectator 232 (June 29, 1974): 807. Praise for The War Between the Tates from a British critic. Ackroyd plays down the significance of the novel’s background in the troubled Vietnam years and emphasizes its comic elements in the vein of James Thurber.

Aldridge, John W. “How Good Is Alison Lurie?” Commentary 59 (January, 1975): 79-81. Aldridge faults Lurie for what he sees as a trivial approach to academic life. This article is one of the more authoritative negative judgments on Lurie’s work.

Costa, Richard H. Alison Lurie. New York: Twayne, 1992. Costa provides a critical and interpretive study of Lurie with a close reading of her major works, which includes a chapter devoted to The War Between the Tates, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.

Cowen, Rachel B. “The Bore Between the Tates.” Ms. 4 (January, 1975): 41-42. This is a strong feminist reading. Cowen argues that Erica Tate should have aligned herself with the women revolutionaries and used the whole episode of Brian’s affair as an occasion to grow as a woman.

Helfand, Michael S. “The Dialectic of Self and Community in Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates.” Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 3 (November, 1977): 65-70. Helfand’s major interest in The War Between the Tates is the political commentary that he identifies. Brian Tate’s interest in the foreign policy doctrines of George Kennan helps Helfand to understand some of the problems of modern liberalism.

Newman, Judie. “Alison Lurie: A Bibliography, 1945-1989.” Bulletin of Bibliography 49 (June, 1992): 109-114. A useful bibliography of Lurie’s writings.

Pearlman, Mickey. “A Bibliography of Writings About Alison Lurie.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. A listing of secondary writings on Lurie’s works and career.

Pearlman, Mickey. “A Bibliography of Writings by Alison Lurie.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. A listing of writings by Lurie.

Rogers, Katharine M. “Alison Lurie: The Uses of Adultery.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. An excellent broad treatment of adultery and its significance in women’s lives. All of Lurie’s novels through Foreign Affairs are analyzed.