Masters, Hilary 1928- (P.J. Coyne, Hilary Thomas Masters)

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Masters, Hilary 1928- (P.J. Coyne, Hilary Thomas Masters)


Born February 3, 1928, in Kansas City, MO; son of Edgar Lee (a writer) and Ellen Masters; married Polly Jo McCulloch, March 5, 1955 (divorced, 1986); married Kathleen E. George, June 7, 1994; children: (first marriage) Joellen, Catherine, John D.C. Education: Attended Davidson College, 1944-46; Brown University, A.B., 1952.


Office—Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. E-mail—[email protected].


Worked as a copy boy and reporter for the Washington Daily News, in the late 1940s; Bennett & Pleasant (press agency), New York, NY, member of staff, 1952; self-employed theatrical press agent for Off-Broadway and summer theaters, 1953-56; Hyde Park Record (newspaper), Hyde Park, NY, founding editor and publisher, 1956-59; has also taught at Clark University, 1978, Ohio University, 1979, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1980-81, and University of Denver, 1982; Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, professor of English and creative writing and director of creative writing program, 1983—. Visiting faculty, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1974; visiting writer-in-residence, Drake University, 1975-77; Fulbright lecturer at University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, 1983. Democratic candidate for New York's 100th Assembly District, 1965-66; member of advisory committee to speaker of New York Assembly, 1967-68. Freelance photographer for Image Bank and exhibits. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1946-47; naval correspondent.


Associated Writing Programs, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, PEN, Players, Beachcombers.


Yaddo Foundation writers' colony fellowship, 1980, 1982, and 2000; Fulbright fellowship, 1983; Balch Prize for Fiction, 1998; Monroe Spears Award for Essay, 1997; American Academy of Arts and Letters award for literature, 2003; short stories cited for honorable mention by Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, and Pushcart Prize anthologies.



The Common Pasture, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.

An American Marriage, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.

Palace of Strangers, World Publishing (New York, NY), 1971.

(Under pseudonym P.J. Coyne) Manuscript for Murder, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1987.

Home Is the Exile, Permanent Press (Sag Harbor, NY), 1996.

Elegy for Sam Emerson, Southern Methodist University Press (Dallas, TX), 2006.


Clemmons, David Godine (Boston, MA) 1985.

Cooper, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1987.

Strickland, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1989.


Last Stands: Notes from Memory (autobiography), David Godine (Boston, MA), 1982.

Hammertown Tales (short stories), Wright (Winston-Salem, NC), 1986.

Success: New and Selected Short Stories, foreword by George Garrett, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1992.

In Montaigne's Tower, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 2000.

Shadows on a Wall: Juan O'Gorman and the Mural in Pátzcuaro, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2005.

Contributor to anthologies, including Brand X Anthology of Fiction, edited by William Zaranka, Apple Wood (Cambridge, MA), 1983; Ohio Review Anthology, edited by Wayne Dodd, Ohio Review (Athens, OH), 1983; Best Essays of 1998, edited by Philip Lopate, Anchor-Doubleday (New York, NY), 1998; and Best American Essays of 1999, edited by Edward Hoagland, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999. Contributor of stories and essays to periodicals, including Greensboro Review, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, Michigan Quarterly, Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, Sports Illustrated, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Texas Review.


Novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Hilary Masters is the recipient of the 2003 Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The award recognizes Masters's contribution to American letters through his fiction, memoir, and essays, all of which deal with aspects of coming to terms with the past and reconciling family differences. Masters writes in a realistic mode, introducing characters who examine their current longings through connections to past events. To quote Sigrid Kelsey in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the author's work "evokes nostalgic feelings and a depth to his characters as he shares a morsel of Americana with his readers."

Masters is the son of poet Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote the acclaimed Spoon River Anthology, and the grandson of Indian Wars veteran Tom Coyne. Masters recalls these men, as well as other members of his family, in his well-known book Last Stands: Notes from Memory. Masters recalls his happy but unconventional upbringing in which he divided his time between his beloved grandparents in Kansas City and his busy, working parents in Manhattan. But the work "is much more than a documentation of [the author's ancestral history]," noted Chicago Tribune Books critic Ross Talarico. "It is a beautifully written rendering of no less than a century of American life—more specifically, of the myths and realities of family life in America as we pass from Fort Custer, after the massacre, to the burial of Masters's colorful, adventurous grandfather … in Arlington in 1954."

Edgar Lee Masters was sixty years old, and long past his artistic prime, when his son was born. "The aging writer needed peace and quiet to salvage his dwindling reputation," recounted Paul Gray in a Time review of Last Stands. "His wife, nearly 30 years his junior, insisted on working toward a graduate degree at Columbia University." Although the memoir mainly focuses on the relationship between the author and his father and grandfather, New York Times Book Review critic Donald Hall observed that "by the end, in a gradual, convincing shift, the book finds its hero—and it is not the old Indian fighter … or the famous writer living out neglect. It is the author's mother. She determinees to live her own life against her husband's discouragement, determines to rule and remain herself despite a famous husband and a powerful father. She manages to make a career, to remain helpful, to raise her son and take care of old parents and a husband almost her parents' age. She manages: Ellen Coyne Masters is an admirable creature of true dignity."

Last Stands "is a fitting title, alluding to Custer, to [Coyne's] last visits to another era, [to Edgar Lee Masters's] last attempt at being a writer in the heroic, romantic tradition—to Hilary Masters's last chance to assimilate it all, to record it, to give it the truth and honor of the written word," declared Talarico. Jonathan Yardley concluded in the Washington Post Book World that Masters "has not written a narrative but woven a tapestry, in which he moves back and forth in time without any warning to the reader yet without ever creating confusion. He pays loving tribute to his forebears but declines to sentimentalize them. And he never loses sight of the essential truth that we can never know the past, that it can only and always be a mystery, that the most we can hope to do is reinvent it for whatever meaning it offers to the present. This Hilary Masters has done in his small, luminous, consequential book."

Masters followed up his memoir with the "Harlem Valley Trio," a well-received trilogy made up of Clemmons, Cooper, and Strickland. Like Last Stands, Clemmons won praise for its unusual structure as well as its compelling tale. "A major pleasure of Hilary Masters' latest novel," wrote James McConkey in the Washington Post Book World, "comes from the reader's page-to-page involvement in the altering moods of the fiction [Masters] has created; he is a deft craftsman, capable of moving from a sardonic insight to compassion, from satire to rowdy comedy, from sexual passion to a wish for, perhaps even a glimpse of, an order or unity beyond our splintered and violent world." In the New York Times Book Review, William Ferguson described Clemmons as a "well-told chronicle."

While George Core saw Clemmons as "a wonderful comic novel that celebrated life," the critic informed readers of the Washington Post Book World that "Cooper is forged in a darker spirit." According to Core, the novel is no less appealing than its predecessor despite its difference in tone. In reference to the many characters obsessed either literally or metaphorically with flying, Core concluded: "By novel's end everyone has had his flight…. The metaphors of flying and falling are beautifully sustained throughout the action of a memorable book worth rereading, as I have done with relish."

Gordon M. Henry, a critic for the New York Times Book Review, characterized Strickland, the third novel in the "Harlem Valley" series, as attempting to go beyond those Vietnam tales that try to depict the stages of a soldier's journey, from the difficulty of leaving home for war to the bittersweet feelings upon returning after a tour of duty. Masters "takes this process a step further by examining the life lived by a veteran war correspondent years after he has ostensibly reintegrated himself into American Society," Henry asserted. For the critic, however, the attempt was unsuccessful; while conceding that Strickland is not lacking in conviction, Henry concluded that its hero is ultimately unconvincing.

Masters has written several novels outside of the "Harlem Valley Trio." His 1996 novel, Home Is the Exile, concerns two men of action from different eras. Roy Armstrong is a fighter pilot from World War I, bitterly living out an exile in Mexico circa 1940; Walt Hardy is under indictment for his participation in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal and has returned to a self-inflicted exile in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The narrative alternates between these two individuals but carries a single theme: the fate of heroes and the challenges to integrity that beset Americans in the twentieth century. In Booklist Thomas Gaughan called the work "a wonderful novel, filled with beautiful writing and rich insights." A Publishers Weekly reviewer likewise observed that Masters "deepens a rousing story with a mist of truth and an aura of heart-felt melancholy."

Described as a "superbly rendered meditation on childhood" by Library Journal contributor Patrick Sullivan, Masters's novel Elegy for Sam Emerson is a reflective story about a restauranteur named Sam Emerson. He is the son of an actress and a Look magazine photographer; his father disappeared in Europe while covering World War II, and his mother has recently died. The narrative jumps back and forth between Sam's childhood and the present; the hero experiences some difficulties in life, such as a divorce, yet "Sam turns out to be a healthy, happy, hopeful, well-meaning man," remarked Maude McDaniel in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "This is so unexpected in such a book, you have to love him for it." A Publishers Weekly writer felt that this subtle novel offers "occasional inspiration," though the "heavily sentimental" tale will leave readers "more frustrated than inspired." McDaniel acknowledge that the themes in the novel—"race, human agony and what we do to survive"—are more implied than direct, but the critic concluded: "This is one of those rare books you will close with a satisfied sigh—and you're not even quite sure why."

Masters is also the author of two acclaimed collections of short stories. Of the first, Hammertown Tales, Carol Ames wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "This book of fine stories traces its lineage" to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and beyond to the Spoon River Anthology. Hammertown Tales offers a series of stories, all by different narrators but all set in a fictitious small New York town. Kelsey observed: "Because the short stories are tied together by their setting, Masters is able to provide a sweeping view of Hammertown from various angles. Masters avoids omniscient narration; he tells each story from a different, singular viewpoint, thus providing a broad perspective of Hammertown. With each story, the various levels of reality within Hammertown are added."

In the New York Times Book Review Constance Decker Thompson praised Masters' Success: New and Selected Short Stories, describing the book as "erudite, engaging and lovingly detailed." The stories in Success are "cagey, lucid, and rock-solid tales to engage, challenge, instruct, and delight," according to Harvard Review contributor Susan Dodd. Comparing Masters' selection with the short fiction of writers Alice Munro and Peter Taylor, she concluded: "The stories of Success yield the depth and complexity of novels. Hilary Masters writes, always, of place and memory, of time and change. His homeground is the rocky yet fertile soil of human connection and the soul's persistent striving toward it, a striving that on this earth's terms must pass, for now, for salvation." Kelsey concluded of Masters' short fiction in general: "While his autobiography and some of his essays have received broader recognition, his short fiction is exceptional, not to be circumvented in favor of his other work."

Some of Masters' essays are collected in In Montaigne's Tower. The title refers to the famous French essayist Montaigne, an author Masters highly admires. In his review of the book for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Samuel Hazo wrote: "Like Montaigne, Masters in essay after essay pursues the dispassionate art of inquiry. He weighs alternatives in a quest to discover what he really knows. He does this not as a scion of his father but as his own man, which any objective reader of his work can see was the case from the beginning…. These are the essays of a brave man. All of them together constitute a brave, keepable and collectable book."

Noting that he has rarely written or discussed the fate that made him a famous poet's son, Masters once told CA: "Since my first novel, The Common Pasture, I have endeavored to keep the chance ‘acquaintance’ with my father, the poet of Spoon River Anthology, off of book flaps and out of publishers' blurbs. This insistence has been the bane of book publicists and marketers, but I did not wish to be looked at as a curio, if not a freak; certainly, my intention was not to claim special privilege or attention. But Cecil Scott, bless him, was then the editor-in-chief at Macmillan, and he insisted this biographical fact appear on this decent, little novel. I had little to say about it. And so the damage, if you will, was done.

"Nor have I written specifically about my father as I could have—another book for the list. He does appear as one of the four characters in my family biography, Last Stands: Notes from Memory; he could hardly be omitted. However, he is by no means the most important character in the book, and as Donald Hall points out in his review, this post was gradually assumed in the course of the narrative by the mother.

"If this relationship has helped me, I will never know, though I worry sometimes that it might have given my work an undeserved interest. It is clear some writers or reviewers have used it to dismiss my work. The most flagrant but amusing attack in this line was the review of my last collection of stories in an important trade weekly in which the writer ‘explored’ the supposed oedipal relationship, emphasizing for evidence of my particular hang-up, that I called the collection Success. Not a line of description or evaluation was given to any of the stories. A. Dumas, fils, had little trouble with this identity apparently; the salons of Paris welcomed him and his work. As for me, and aside from the respect and tenderness I hold for my father's memory, I think of the ‘title’ as a mark to be borne with dignity and grace, as any child would want to honor any parent."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 244: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Fourth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001, pp. 239-245.

Masters, Hilary, Last Stands: Notes from Memory, D. Godine (Boston, MA), 1982.


Booklist, April 15, 1987, review of Cooper, p. 1249; November 15, 1989, review of Strickland, p. 640; March 15, 1992, review of Success: New and Selected Short Stories, p. 1337; July, 1996, Thomas Gaughan, review of Home Is the Exile, p. 1803.

Harvard Review, June, 1992, Susan Dodd, review of Success.

Library Journal, June 1, 2006, Patrick Sullivan, review of Elegy for Sam Emerson, p. 108.

New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1982, Donald Hall, review of Last Stands; February 24, 1985, William Ferguson, review of Clemmons, p. 22; April 20, 1986, Carol Ames, review of Hammertown Tales, p. 22; February 11, 1990, Gordon M. Henry, review of Strickland, p. 18; May 10, 1992, Constance Decker Thompson, review of Success: New and Selected Stories, p. 16.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 12, 2000, Samuel Hazo, "‘In Montaigne's Tower’ by Hilary Masters: Frank Essays Reveal Hilary Masters' Inner Struggle as the Son of a Famous Father"; August 27, 2006, Maude McDaniel, review of Elegy for Sam Emerson.

Publishers Weekly, January 13, 1992, review of Success, p. 46; June 17, 1996, review of Home Is the Exile, p. 48; May 22, 2006, review of Elegy for Sam Emerson, p. 30.

Time, November 29, 1982, Paul Gray, review of Last Stands.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 31, 1982, Ross Talarico, review of Last Stands.

Washington Post Book World, November 14, 1982, Jonathan Yardley, review of Last Stands; March 17, 1985, James McConkey, review of Clemmons, p. 8; June 28, 1987, George Core, review of Cooper, p. 14.


Hilary Masters Home Page, (June 5, 2007).

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Masters, Hilary 1928- (P.J. Coyne, Hilary Thomas Masters)

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