Joyce Carol Oates

National Humanities Medal


To the delight of her legions of devoted readers, with the admiration of scores of critics and reviewers, and to the astonishment of all, Joyce Carol Oates has been writing and publishing short stories and novels for more than five decades. Throughout that entire time her content and writing style have changed frequently, nearly as rapidly as her breakneck rate of production.

In her essays, she has taken up subjects both literary and nonliterary, including, most famously, boxing, and has added to her corpus plays, poetry, and a published journal. To some, she seems obsessed with writing—a charge she’d be unlikely to deny—but to nearly all, she’s one of the U.S.’s leading women of letters. Critic Harold Bloom observed that she is “our true proletarian novelist.” Book reviewer Marian Engel said, “It has been left to Joyce Carol Oates, a writer who seems to know a great deal about the underside of America, to guide us—splendidly—down dark passages.”

Regarding her lifelong love affair with reading, Oates said, “Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass with its fluid blend of dreamlike narrative and surreal fantasy, and its courageous, curious girl heroine, has probably been the book that most influenced my imaginative life. And I read it when I was so young, eight years old, I had no ‘critical’ reservations whatsoever.”

Born in 1938 in a small town in western New York, her life was touched at times by the hardships and violence that characterize much of her fiction. While teaching and living in Detroit during the unsettled times leading up to the 1967 riots, she wrote several novels and many short stories with violent themes, in particular them, set in the slums of Detroit in the 1960s. At this time she also wrote a play that was performed in 1965. A headline over the newspaper review spoke volumes about the sentiment toward women writers at the time: “Detroit Housewife Writes Play.”

She won the National Book Award in 1970 for them, and has been nominated for the award five other times. She received the Rosenthal award from the American Academy–Institute of Arts and Letters, and received the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1990.

She also penned a trilogy of mystery novels, in addition to four psychological suspense novels, written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. Her late husband of forty-eight years, editor Raymond Smith, with whom Oates founded The Ontario Review, died suddenly in February 2008 of an infection while recovering from pneumonia. She later met Princeton neuroscientist Charles Gross at a dinner party, fell in love, and remarried in March 2009.

Oates graduated from Syracuse University, valedictorian of her class, in 1960, went on to earn a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, and taught later at the University of Detroit and the University of Windsor in Ontario before arriving at Princeton University to teach writing in 1978. She currently teaches creative writing at Princeton.

It is in her collections of essays where Oates shows her great range as an empathetic reader and sympathetic and erudite critic. In an essay on Edgar Allan Poe, in which she calls him a “navigator of Gothic landscapes,” she plumbs the depth of her own and America’s fascination with the master of the macabre. But her interests as a writer are wide, and she can go ten rounds on nearly any subject, applying her literary acumen in unexpected corners. Tall, yet of slight build, she surprised and won praise from men writers such as Norman Mailer on her essays about boxing. “Contrary to stereotyped notions,” she wrote, “boxing is primarily about being, and not giving, hurt. . . . To move through pain to triumph—or the semblance of triumph—is the writer’s, as it is the boxer’s, hope.”

Oates has a passion for the other core disciplines of the humanities. On the influence of specific philosophers on her current world view, she explained, “William James has always seemed to me the most likely of philosophers—most people are pragmatists, no matter how idealistic they may wish to be perceived. James said that truth is something that ‘happens’ to a proposition—this is a curious, quirky, controversial notion—but in the course of a lifetime, perhaps it turns out to be the most plausible of ideas.”

Writing, reading, teaching, and editing are responsibilities Oates continues to carry, with no signs of easing up. She is currently editing the forthcoming Oxford Book of American Short Stories as well as an anthology of suspense and mystery stories called New Jersey Noir. As a reader and writer who came of age entirely during the time of print culture, she remains remarkably fluid in these days of the digital revolution, writing in an e-mail that “it scarcely matters what anyone thinks about these enormous social/cultural/scientific/technological revolutions—they sweep over us like tidal waves. If we are fortunate, we are not drowned by them and might even find our lives enhanced, if, at times, terribly complicated.”

By Steve Moyer

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.