McElroy, Joseph 1930–
McElroy, Joseph 1930–
(Joseph Prince McElroy)
PERSONAL: Born August 21, 1930, in New York, NY; son of Joseph Prince and Louise (Lawrence) McElroy; married Joan Leftwich (a designer), August 16, 1961; children: Hanna. Education: Williams College, B.A., 1951; Columbia University, M.A., 1952, Ph.D., 1961.
ADDRESSES: Home—121 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.
CAREER: University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, English department faculty member, 1956–62; Queen's College of the City University of New York, Flushing, NY, professor of English, 1964–. Visiting professor, Johns Hopkins University. Has also taught at the University of Paris, Johns Hopkins University, and Columbia University. Military service: U.S. Coast Guard, 1952–54.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters; grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
A Smuggler's Bible, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1966, reprinted with introduction by Richard Howard, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2003.
Hind's Kidnap, Harper (New York, NY), 1969.
Ancient History, Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.
Lookout Cartridge, Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.
Plus, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Women and Men, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
The Letter Left to Me, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
Actress in the House, Overlook Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to periodicals, including New Leader, Saturday Review, Art International, New American Review, and the New York Times Book Review. Contributing editor, Tri-Quarterly.
SIDELIGHTS: Novelist and educator Joseph McElroy's works could be considered experimental. Told in dense prose with wandering storylines, abrupt transitions, embedded non-sequiturs, and improvisational narratives, his work has garnered comparisons to such authors as James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon. For example, the main characters in Women and Men, feminist Grace Kimball and journalist James Mayn, are protagonists who live in the same building but who never meet, yet together their lives propel the story. In a People review, critic Campbell Geeslin observed: "Some passages of dense, elaborately cluttered prose have a kind of hypnotic power. Many others seem abrupt and unintelligible. Some sections seem curiously irrelevant to McElroy's overall storyline and intentions for the book. In praise of McElroy's difficult but deeply intellectual style, New Republic contributor Tom LeClair called him "the most important American novelist working now." Women and Men, LeClair continued, "is a masterwork, this decade's Gravity's Rainbow."
LeClair called McElroy's next novel, The Letter Left to Me, "a welcome new piece of evidence of McElroy's achievement" as a novelist. "It traces the origins of McElroy's intellectual reach, his passionately earnest sensibility, and his desire to reformulate American fiction, to make it authentically contemporary, to fill it with a world of information in which few novelists reside." Based on a semi-autobiographical foundation, the novel concerns a fifteen-year-old boy whose father died in 1946. Shortly after the funeral, his mother gives him a letter that his father had written three years earlier and kept stored in a safe-deposit box. The boy works through his grief and mixed emotions through the content of the intensely personal letter, the most precious and tangible inheritance he has from his father. He is infuriated when his mother and grandmother have the letter copied and distributed to family and friends without his permission. The boy begins to wonder then who actually owns the letter, himself or his father, and if the letter is merely an object or if it exists as a profound message from one generation to the next. In the shadow of the letter and its revealed contents, he begins to search for an identity of his own, distinct from his father. The reactions of those who read the letter help him toward interpreting the missive as well as his life. The letter again plays an important role when the boy goes off to college. Once again, his mother has conspired to have the letter printed and distributed, this time to the boy's entire freshman class. Reactions from his classmates, however, give him more objective, sometimes blunt interpretations of his father, his family, and his sense of self. The boy makes an impossible vow to answer the letter, perhaps in his own development and in his determination to be the "better man" his father's message encouraged him to be. "McElroy has written a bildungsroman to set beside Catcher in the Rye," LeClair remarked.
McElroy's Actress in the House, constructed in a somewhat more traditional style, explores the relationship between a middle-aged widowed attorney, Bill Daley, and a young Canadian actress in her mid-twenties, Becca Lang. The two initially meet when Becca engages Daley to represent her in an eviction proceeding. Intrigued by the actress, he attends one of her performances. During the play, Daley is astonished to see Becca slapped hard by another performer. When he meets up with her later that night, the incident serves to spark their involvement with each other. Both of them come from a difficult past, and as their relationship progresses each is encouraged to fully remember their troubles, confront them, and deal with them. LeClair, in a Book review of the work, called it "a work of Jamesian subtlety by an author whose wealth of ideas makes him the equal of better-known big-brained novelists." Maureen Neville, writing in the Library Journal, noted that McElroy's writing style resulted in a difficult read, but stated the novel is a "mature modern work by an unusual contemporary writer."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 5, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Hantke, Steffen, Conspiracy and Paranoia in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy, P. Lang, 1994.
Book, May-June, 2003, Tom LeClair, review of Actress in the House, p. 79.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2003, review of Actress in the House, p. 16.
Library Journal, January, 2003, Maureen Neville, review of Actress in the House, p. 157; April 1, 2003, Michael Rogers, review of A Smuggler's Bible, p. 136.
New Republic, October 17, 1988, Tom LeClair, review of The Letter Left to Me, p. 46.
New York Times, April 20, 2003, Sven Birkerts, "Let's Experiment," review of Actress in the House, p. 8.
People, May 25, 1987, Campbell Geeslin, review of Women and Men, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, January 27, 2003, review of Actress in the House, p. 232.
Seattle Times, June 13, 2003, Richard Wallace, "Actress in the House Author Writes to His Own Beat."
Electronic Book Review, http://www.electronicbookreview.com/ (July 22, 2003), Andrew Walser, review of Actress in the House.
Joseph McElroy Home Page, http://www.josephmcelroy.com (December 10, 2005).