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Masters, Hilary


Pseudonym: P.J. Coyne. Nationality: American. Born: Kansas City, Missouri, 3 February 1928. Education: Davidson College, 1944-46; Brown University, 1948-52, B.A. Military Service: United States Navy (naval correspondent), 1946-47. Family: Married 1) Robin Owett Watt in 1953 (divorced 1954); 2) Polly Jo McCulloch in 1955 (divorced 1985); 3) Kathleen E. George in 1994; one son, two daughters (from first marriage). Career: Theatrical press agent, New York, 1952-56; journalist and founder, The Hyde Park Record, Hyde Park, New York. Since 1983 professor of English, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Awards: Yaddo fellowship, 1980, 1982; Fulbright Lecturer, Finland, 1983. Member: Authors Guild. Agent: Christina Ward, Box 515, North Scituate, Massachusetts 02060, U.S.A. Address: Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213, U.S.A.



The Common Pasture. New York, Macmillan, 1967.

An American Marriage. New York, Macmillan, 1969.

Palace of Strangers. New York, World, 1971.

Clemmons. New York, Godine, 1985.

Cooper. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Manuscript for Murder (as P.J. Coyne). New York, Dodd, Mead, 1987.

Strickland: A Romance. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Home Is the Exile. Sag Harbor, New York, Permanent Press, 1996.

Short Stories

Hammertown Tales. N.p., Stuart Wright, 1987.

Success. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992.


Last Stands: Notes from Memory. New York, Godine, 1982.

In Montaigne's Tower: Essays. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 2000.


Hilary Masters comments:

My approach to my work is to sit down and try to do a little bit of it every morning. Earliest influence at age eight was Robinson Crusoe. Since then everyone I read has been an "influence." Most particularly H. James, Faulkner, Wright Morris, J. Conrad, etc.

* * *

Critics often see similarities between the writings of Hilary Masters and his father, poet Edgar Lee Masters. Thus, Hilary Masters's fictional characters, created with bold strokes, are ordinary people caught up in ordinary events that reshape their lives. Increasingly, Masters sharpens his use of locale often, placing a character in a detailed building or neighborhood. His most characteristic technique is filtering the past through memory to inform a character's present. Often a shift in time occurs without warning as a present event replays an earlier one in a character's consciousness. Deftly done, these shifts demonstrate Master's control of plot and character.

His early novels, The Common Pasture and An American Marriage, reveal the roots of these characteristics. The former elaborates on the tensions between folks in a small town over twenty-four hours as they prepare for a community-day celebration. Masters economically draws stock characters as he develops his theme of corrupting power. The latter novel places an American college professor and one of his students, now his wife, in Ireland. Masters wittily sends up the Irish, visiting professorships, newlyweds, and the CIA as he moves the story line back and forth between Ireland and America. Palace of Strangers, set in upstate New York, follows a congressional primary as it progresses through smoke-filled rooms and done-deal politics. Cynically told through the newcomer's campaign manager, the novel was faulted for this narrator's keener interest in his own sexual prowess. Masters himself ran for political office in New York; thus the novel's noted credibility.

The memoir, Last Stands: Notes from Memory, transcends pure autobiography as it lovingly portrays the author's maternal grandparents, Molly and Thomas Coyne, who raised him, and his poet father and mother, Ellen, who he joined during the summers. Placing in the foreground his own memories of these four people most important in his childhood, Masters uses their memories to create an historical portrait of America that includes the 1983 Columbia Exposition; immigrants moving across America; American myths of the American West, as feisty Grandpa Gee Gee relives on-site Custer's battle at the Little Big Horn; and Edgar Lee Masters's success and waning as a poet while living in the Chelsea Hotel and being visited by other 1930s poets. All these are set against the organization and determination of his mother as she earns a master's degree in teaching and supports her family, even in widowhood. Masters's skillful mixture of three generations highlights the importance of family in one's life. Stylistically, his stream-of-consciousness technique allows him to use his father's and grandfather's letters to him, poems, allusions to music, remembered conversations, and events, particularly his grand-father's suicide, his father's near-penniless demise, and their somber funerals.

His later novels, Clemmons, Cooper, and Strickland, form a "Harlem Valley Trilogy." Masters's wit and humor come through best in these novels, where family and understanding the past play crucial roles in self-understanding. The first two portray men who have fled Manhattan, seeking organized lives in the solitude of lazy country towns; their memories or imaginations contrast the quotidian. In Clemmons, the eponymous protagonist's reveries move between his past and current relationships with his mother, his Southern wife, and mistresses as he frets over the complications created by the upcoming marriage of an estranged daughter. Rich comedy results when his New York mistress, his daughters, and his almost divorced wife converge on the family farm as he attempts simultaneously to paint the house and flee the festivities. As in other works, small incidents have enormous consequences; for instance, a reconciling family squabble erupts when Clemmons corrects the spelling of the son-in-law's rock album, Find Stanley Livingston.

Cooper continues Masters's use of upstate New York as a peaceful background for family turmoil; in this instance, Jack Cooper sells old magazines in Hammertown while he churns out World War I adventure tales and, in an echo of Grandpa Gee Gee, corresponds with a veteran flying ace whose wartime memories result in Cooper/Masters writing an exciting, lively, detailed story of World War I dogfights, which is in sharp contrast to the boring life from which Ruth, his promiscuous wife, seeks escape. Additional, somber, and melancholy echoes of Last Stands appear in both novels in the form of failed poets, infidelities, and suicides. And neither protagonist escapes life's confounding complications.

This darker vein continues in Strickland: A Romance as Masters alternates Vietnam War experiences with events in the life of former war correspondent Carrol Strickland, now a sixty-year-old widower living in upstate New York with his fifteen-year-old daughter. Fanta-sizing his war experiences, Strickland tries to recapture lost emotions through their pathetic simulation.

Masters's short stories continue his vivid sketches of place and the use of a present incident to spark a memory that infuses understanding into the now. The melancholy stories of Hammertown Tales portray a small, dying town in upstate New York; the sixteen stories of Success show Masters's sensitivity to ordinary people who long for the unretrievable past.

Judith C. Kohl

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