Born 6 July 1913, Los Angeles, California; died February 1996
Daughter of Frederick H. and Eleanor Phelps Clark; married Robert Penn Warren, 1952
Although born in California, Eleanor Clark grew up in Roxbury, Connecticut, and describes herself as an "unregenerate Yankee." She attended a one-room country school in Roxbury, convent schools in Europe, and then Rosemary Hall. After her graduation from Vassar in 1934, she wrote essays and reviews for a number of periodicals including the Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, New Republic, and the Nation. Her writing demonstrated the control and conciseness which the essay demands. From 1936 to 1939, Clark was a member of the editorial staff of W. W. Norton; in 1937, she edited with Horace Gregory a collection of works by young writers called New Letters in America. It included her first published short story.
After the publication of her first novel, The Bitter Box (1946), Clark received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The Bitter Box, a heavily symbolic novel, deals with the acceptance of life as it is and the possibility of redemption through love and suffering. Clark carefully manipulates point of view, balancing surrealism and stream of consciousness with a commentary by an objective narrator who is more interested in ideas than events.
In 1952 Clark finished the first of her unusual "travel" books produced during long periods abroad, Rome and A Villa. Although it is concerned with setting, the book's effect is meditative rather than descriptive. It reveals a keen awareness of atmosphere and the passing of time. Clark's observations are not limited to place but encompass the political, literary, and personal as well. Katherine Anne Porter has said that Rome and A Villa is "autobiographical in the best sense" because it reflects the impact of the outer world upon the inner.
For her next book, The Oysters of Locmariaquer (1964), Clark was awarded the National Book Award for nonfiction. Oysters, too, is a book about a place, and it too belongs to a unique genre. It combines the techniques of the essay and the novel to portray life in a little town on the northwest coast of France which nurtures and produces most of the world's oysters. As she describes, Clark writes of history, ecology, and philosophy with a profusion of detail enriched by allusions to modern and classical literature.
Eyes, Etc.: A Memoir (1977), like so much that Clark has written, belongs in a class of its own. It is a moving but never sentimental account of a brief period in her life, shortly after she learned she was rapidly going blind. Eyes tells of the author's angry and always realistic response to "the event," her "affliction." But the book is also an opinionated and wry commentary on contemporary life, especially on our melodramatic and simplistic methods of coping with frustration and disaster. Against this background are woven the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Clark constantly contrasts Homer's tough-minded portrayal of suffering and heroism with feeble modern attempts to cope with life. The book contains the familiar themes of past and present, renewal, suffering, and survival. Her style is even more cryptic than usual, due, perhaps, to the circumstances under which she was writing.
Dark Wedding by Ramón José Sender (trans. by Clark, 1943). Song of Roland (adaptation by Clark, 1960). Baldur's Gate (1970). Dr. Heart: A Novella and Other Stories (1974). Tamrart: 13 Days in the Sahara (1984).
Miller, V. T., The Literary Achievement and Reputation of Eleanor Clark (dissertation, 1991). Writers atWork: A Tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, Eleanor Clark, Mary Crapo Hyde and Muriel Rukeyser: An Exhibit, June 1-July 30 (1984).
CW (13 June 1952). Ms. (Nov. 1977). Nation (27 April 1946). NYRB (30 July 1964). SR (29 Oct. 1977).
—JUDITH P. JONES