Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again
The celebrated writer returns to the town of her birth to revisit the places that haunt her memory and her extraordinary fiction
Writers, particularly novelists, are linked to place. It’s impossible to think of Charles Dickens and not to think of Dickens’ London; impossible to think of James Joyce and not to think of Joyce’s Dublin; and so with Thomas Hardy,D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor—each is inextricably linked to a region, as to a language-dialect of particular sharpness, vividness, idiosyncrasy. We are all regionalists in our origins, however “universal” our themes and characters, and without our cherished hometowns and childhood landscapes to nourish us, we would be like plants set in shallowsoil. Our souls must take root—almost literally.
For this reason, “home” isn’t a street address or a residence, or, in Robert Frost’s cryptic words, the place where, “when you go there, they have to let you in”—but where you find yourself in your most haunting dreams. These may be dreams of numinous beauty, or they may be nightmares—but they are the dreams most embedded in memory, thus encoded deepin the brain: the first memories to be retained and the last memories to be surrendered.
Over the years of what seems to me both a long and a swiftly passing lifetime, “home” has been, for me, several places: Lockport, New York, where I was born and went to school, and nearby Millersport, New York, my home until the age of 18; Detroit, Michigan, where I lived with my young husband Raymond Smith,1962-68—when he taught English at Wayne State University and I taught English at the University of Detroit; and Princeton, New Jersey, where we lived for 30 years at 9 Honey Brook Drive, while Ray edited the Ontario Review and Ontario Review Press books and I taught at Princeton University, until Ray’s death in February 2008. Now I live a half-mile from that house in a new phase of my life, withmy new husband, Charles Gross, a neuroscientist at Princeton University who is also a writer and photographer. The contemporary French provincial house in which we live on three acres fronting a small lake is “home” in the most immediate sense—this is the address to which our mail is delivered, and each of us hopes that this will be the last house of our lives; but if “home” is the repository ofour deepest, most abiding and most poignant dreams, the landscape that haunts us recurringly, then “home” for me would be upstate New York—the rural crossroads of Millersport, on the Tonawanda Creek, and the city of Lockport on the Erie Canal.
As in a vivid and hallucinatory dream, I am being taken by my grandmother Blanche Woodside—my hand in hers—to the Lockport Public Library on East Avenue,Lockport. I am an eager child of 7 or 8 and this is in the mid-1940s. The library is a beautiful building like no other I’ve seen close up, an anomaly in this city block beside the dull red brick of the YMCA to one side and a dentist’s office to the other; across the street is Lockport High School, another older, dull-brick building. The library—which, at my young age, I could not have known was aWPA-sponsored project that transformed the city of Lockport—has something of the look of a Greek temple; not only is its architecture distinctive, with elegantly ascending steps, a portico and four columns, a facade with six large, rounded, latticed windows and, on top, a kind of spire, but the building is set back from the street behind a wrought-iron fence with a gate, amid a very greenjewel-like lawn.
The library for grown-ups is upstairs, beyond a dauntingly wide and high-ceilinged doorway; the library for children is more accessible, downstairs and to the right. Inside this cheery, brightly lit space there is an inexpressible smell of floor polish, library paste, books—that particular library smell that conflates, in my memory, with the classroom smell of floor polish, chalk dust,...
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