Biography

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Woiwode, Larry (1941-)

Gale Reference Team
Contemporary Authors Online (Biography)
2006, Thomson Gale

 

 

 

 

 

Born October 30, 1941, in Carrington, ND; son of Everett Carl and Audrey Leone (Johnston) Woiwode; married Carole Ann Peterson, May 21, 1965; children: Newlyn Smith, Joseph William, Ruth Halvorson, Laurel Andreson.

Education: Attended University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1959-64.
Religion:
Christian.
Memberships:
International PEN (executive board member of American chapter), 1970-81; Chrysostym Society, 1989-98.
Addresses:
Home: North Dakota. Office: c/o Don Fehr, Basic Books, 10 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.

Freelance writer, 1964--; State University of New York at Binghamton, visiting professor, 1983-85, professor and director of creative writing program, 1985-88. Writer-in-residence, University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1973-74; professor, Wheaton College, summers, 1981 and 1984; workshop director, member of fiction panels, or reader of own works at colleges and universities, including University of Illinois, University of Cincinnati, University of Notre Dame, Vassar College, Williams College, Dartmouth College, Northwestern University, University of Iowa, City College of the City University of New York, and C.S. Lewis Seminars. Judge for National Book Awards, 1972, Bush Foundation fellowships, 1977 and 1978, for Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award, PEN American Center, 1980, for Nelson Algrew Short Fiction Award, 1992, AWP Short Fiction Book Award, 1999, and writer in residence at Jamestown College, 2006-

William Faulkner Foundation Award and notable book award from American Library Association, both 1970, for What I'm Going to Do, I Think; Guggenheim fellow, 1971-72; nominated for National Book Award and National Book Critic's Circle Award, both 1976, for Beyond the Bedroom Wall; award in fiction from Friends of American Writers, 1976, for Beyond the Bedroom Wall; Doctor of Letters, 1977, from North Dakota State University; Doctor of Literature, Geneva College, 1997; American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, Award in Fiction, 1980, Medal of Merit, 1995; Aga Khan Literary Prize, Paris Review, 1990; LSU/ Southern Review Award for Book of Short Fiction, 1990, for The Neumiller Stories; recipient of John Dos Passos Prize, 1991; named poet laureate of North Dakota, 1995.

WRITINGS:
FICTION

OTHER

Contributor to books, including New American Review 7, edited by Theodore Solotaroff, New American Library, 1969; (with Richard Lyons, Thomas McGrath, John R. Milton, and Antony Oldknow) Poetry North: Five North Dakota Poets, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, 1970; The Sense of the Seventies, Oxford University Press, 1978; and Prose Models, edited by Gerald Levin, Harcourt, 1981. Contributor of short story "The Street" to Every Place with a Name: Photographs from the Dakota Photo Documentary Project, by Jerry Anderson, State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1993, and of "Acts: The Church Set Free" to Incarnation, edited by Alfred Corn, 1991, and "A Martyr Who Lives," to Twentieth-Century Martyrs, edited by Susan Bergman, 1996.

Also contributor to anthologies, including Wonders, compiled by the editors of Rolling Stone, 1980, and Best American Short Stories, Houghton Mifflin, 1971, 1981, and 1983; The Best Spiritual Writing, 1999, and The Best Christian Writing, 2000. Contributing editor, Image and Archipelago. Contributor of numerous poems, short stories, and reviews to periodicals, including New Yorker, Atlantic, New York Times, Harper's, Partisan Review, Esquire, New American Review, Mademoiselle, McCall's, Antaeus, and Paris Review.
Some of Woiwode's works have been translated into several foreign languages, including Czechoslovakian and Japanese.

"Sidelights"

"Writing in a deliberately mannered, traditional, realistic style, [Larry Woiwode] evokes to a degree unusual in modern fiction an emotional response from his readers," Michael Connaughton observed in Dictionary of Literary Biography. "His fiction is tinged with personal reminiscence and seemingly autobiographical details, but he has also proved adept at projecting himself into the consciousness of a wide variety of characters of both sexes." Woiwode became widely known after the publication of his first two novels, What I'm Going to Do, I Think and Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album, which both garnered popular and critical acclaim. He is also known for his short stories and poetry, receiving a merit medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for distinction in the art of the short story and being named poet laureate of North Dakota, both in 1995.

What I'm Going to Do, I Think,
which won Woiwode early literary recognition, is "a penetrating character study of two newly married young people, struggling to adjust to each other and the adult responsibility brought on by an unwanted pregnancy," according to Connaughton. The book "focuses on their wedding, a near-comic interlude with a naive minister, and their lengthy honeymoon at her grandparents' cabin on Lake Michigan, a soured idyll which portends disaster for the relationship." The novel won Woiwode an award from the William Faulkner Foundation.

In the massive, highly acclaimed Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Connaughton noted, Woiwode "traces the fortunes of the Neumiller family, loosely based on Woiwode's own, from the first immigrant to North Dakota in 1881 to its scattering throughout the nation ninety years and three generations later." Along with the story of "how old Otto thrived as a farmer around the turn of the century and then lost his fortune through his very integrity," Christopher Lehmann-Haupt indicated in the New York Times, Beyond the Bedroom Wall includes the tales of "how Otto's children and grandchildren turned to carpentry and school teaching and moved to the economically congenial environs of rural Illinois. How Martin, Charles' oldest son, married and lost to ill health his two wives, Alpha and Laura. And how Martin's and Alpha's three sons, Jerome, Charles and Tim (the sleepless narrator), pursued their respective careers of doctor, actor and poet. Not to speak of other courtships, weddings, births, sicknesses, deaths and funerals."

Like much of the author's work, Beyond the Bedroom Wall is a product of his background. Until he moved to Illinois at age eight, Woiwode grew up in Sykeston, North Dakota, a mostly German settlement with a population of a few hundred people. Connaughton said that, in general, the "harsh climate, stark beauty, and pervasive loneliness of this remote corner of rural America and its dignified, somewhat fatalistic Northern European populace provide the inspiration and much of the material for his fiction and poetry."

Although Woiwode's 1981 book Poppa John is set in Manhattan and features an aging actor as its main character, it, too, conveys a preoccupation with mortality that is reflective of the author's heritage. Even Woiwode's only "substantial nonfiction," Connaughton observed, "an article entitled 'Guns' in Esquire (December, 1975), records an undercurrent of violence in life 'near the edge of the West' which is especially marked by a 'fetish for guns, not to say pride in it' and an acute fascination with death, both of which become prominent themes in his writing."

In particular, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, as Chilton Williamson, Jr. explained in the National Review, "is a world hewn from the North Dakota sod, decorated with frame houses and peopled with carpenters, high-school superintendents, and Catholics." The book's style, Williamson observed, "alternates between the stark, clean functionalism of a cabinetmaker turned literatus, and the refulgent lyricism of a poet whose talent is a Ministry of All the Senses and who thus provides new proof of the fact that a genius for unimpeded multi-sensual association is the font of all fine writing."

Paul Gray of Time described the novel as "a collage of preserved sensations," which encompasses "the 'bleached, bleak infinity' of mid-America, where afternoon light fades 'as though tilting over in the air toward the sun, which then draws it forward and out'; a crystalline day of fishing on a Minnesota lake; brave old houses that shudder at North Dakota blizzards but withstand them." The North Dakota and Illinois that Woiwode recreates "are like the terrain of dreams, a wide continuous plain that seems forever cold or on the edge of winter," Robert Leiter wrote in the New Republic.

The author's attention to geographical detail is also reflected in his characterizations. As time passes within the novel, inhabitants who grow up and leave for new opportunities change and grow distant, indicated John Gardner in the New York Times Book Review, pointing out that "the children of the last generation become increasingly mysterious--though we know them intimately, by sudden flashes. They move farther and farther apart, the world of family experience zooming out from the old family home in North Dakota as stars and planets have been zooming out since the time of the big bang."

The past, too, is often just beyond reach in Beyond the Bedroom Wall, with long-dead characters and events subject to the perceptions of those who remember them. Here, Leiter observed, Woiwode is "interested in the process of memory, in uncovering its depths and mysteries; and he gives his narrative a smooth, dreamlike flow by repeating a set of images and events and having his various characters respond to them, each in his particular way."

"The [novel's] organizing reality and central motif is death," Connaughton related, "especially that of four characters: Otto, the original Neumiller, whose passing in 1935 opens the central narrative; Alpha, around whose death in 1951 all events radiate; Martin's father, Charles, in 1962; and Laura, Martin's second wife, in the late 1960s." Connaughton maintained that "each death provokes others into character-revealing action which brings the family together to interact, and, most important, becomes an important event in the major characters' emotional and psychological history. The collective interpretation of those histories and the distinctive habits of perception which create them become, finally, the novel's central concern."

Gardner considered the book old-fashioned, with "its large cast of characters, all carefully developed, its devotedly reported courtships and funerals, its landscapes, houses and weather, its lyrical flights (unabashed prose-poetry that only now and then slips), [and] its moments of super realism (Peggy Lee happens through, with the high school she went to and real-life family name)." And Woiwode's "account of the parents' courtship is the finest long passage in the book," Stephen Koch declared in Saturday Review, "alive and sexual and strong, yet delicately remote, in a kind of fictional sepia."

However, reviewers found characteristics of modern fiction in the book as well. Beyond the Bedroom Wall "merits special attention as a revival of the family chronicle, a revered though out-of-fashion form," according to Connaughton, but also "for its montage format with diverse characters and settings, a shifting point of view and temporal structure, a variety of narrative forms, and a complex episodic plot." For the novel is also, as Gardner reported, "emphatically, a contemporary novel. Time leaps backward and forward in an original and spectacular yet fully controlled way; people's memories collide and fail to match; points of view shift suddenly."

Some critics found fault with the book's shapeless, disjunctive narrative and its length. Beyond the Bedroom Wall was composed in segments, with Woiwode adapting some sections from short stories he had already submitted to various periodicals while the work was still in progress. In fact, Peter S. Prescott of Newsweek described the book as more of "an assemblage of related short stories and sketches of widely varying length and effectiveness" than a true novel. Not only is Beyond the Bedroom Wall, in the final analysis, "not a traditional novel," wrote Prescott; it is "probably not a novel at all, for Woiwode also makes do without the unities of plot and narration." Carl Tucker in the Village Voice added that, in addition to diary entries, the narrative includes "job applications, newspaper clippings--everything but a controlling voice, a single sufferer, a unifying issue."

On the other hand, Anne Tyler praised the novel in the New Republic as having "much in common with a fondly preserved scrapbook. Snippets of memories, lists, diaries, and letters combined to give us a deeply moving history of a family." There is "a sense," she argued, "of density and abundance, along with respect for the tiny increments by which real-life stories evolve." The book, with its subtitle A Family Album, is to be thought of as "a collection of still pictures," Tucker indicated. The author, the critic continued, "devotes several pages actually to describing photographs. Each 'picture' has a different narrator, sometimes identifiable, sometimes not; sometimes third person, sometimes first." And "the snapshot analogy" carries throughout the book, according to Christopher Derrick in the Times Literary Supplement. "There is that kind of discontinuity as between isolated moments held in detachment, with the camera constantly changing its angle and proprietorship, the subjects often mysterious, the background firmly asserting itself and refusing to be just a background."

Some reviewers thought the work overly sentimental. But in Gardner's opinion, "nothing more beautiful and moving has been written in years." Woiwode, observed Prescott, "writes very well about all the big subjects: about ambition and the search for identity, about helplessness and religious conversion, first love, old age, illness, accident and disasters." And "from beginning to end of this novel," Gardner said, "Woiwode's dramatization of the problem of getting a hold on reality--the problem of fully realizing what lies out there at the edge of dreams and memories, 'beyond the bedroom wall'--is simply brilliant."

Woiwode in fact began Beyond the Bedroom Wall before he wrote What I'm Going to Do, I Think, the latter being completed and published while the author was working on the family chronicle. In the New York Times, Thomas Lask described What I'm Going to Do, I Think as "a small, beautiful work, bearing on every page the mark of an artist's hand" and a "first novel of genuine distinction."

This book, too, is characterized as "an oddly old-fashioned first novel" by Morris Dickstein in the New Republic, "so '50ish in its restraint and realism, so austere in its interest in people rather than ideas, that it points to a genuine gap in our current fiction." As Anne Tyler, another reviewer for the New Republic, remarked, What I'm Going to Do, I Think "established [Woiwode] as a master at portraying life as most of us know it--subtle, complicated, sometimes mystifying, seldom dramatic or conclusive." Not once, Tyler stated, "in chronicling the near-claustrophobic existence of a newly married couple in a wilderness cabin, did he reach for a startling event; yet he held his readers to the end by sheer craftsmanship."

The larger plot of What I'm Going to Do, I Think, Dickstein wrote, "can be summarized in words so trite they are revealing: boy meets girl, boy marries (pregnant) girl, girl loses baby, marriage turns hollow. But the book is even simpler than this precis indicates, for none of these things occurs within its proper time-span. The first two are told early in flashback, the third in a one-paragraph "coda" near the end, and the last is made explicit only in an epilogue set five years later."

"The author has found the nearly perfect expression for the human condition he wants to arrest and examine within the boundaries of narrative," declared Webster Schott in the New York Times Book Review. "Form and content are so joined that one cannot imagine this novel stated any other way." Woiwode, he said, "wants to know about the behavior of individuals, not the insanity of society. He wonders about the discovery of self and the aspiration for order under circumstances projecting chaos."

"Nothing very much happens" in the novel, according to William C. Woods in the Washington Post, "but nothing very much needs to. Chris and Ellen--already pregnant, probably by him--honeymoon in a lodge by a lake, alone save for the pressures of the past they carry with them: the sour wrath of her grandparents, the bitter memory of the year they spent apart, the girl's remoteness, the man's unreasoning jealousy." As a reviewer for Time pointed out, the northwestern shore of Lake Michigan is hardly "the Garden of Eden it appears to the two children. . . . After lyrically celebrating the pleasures of lovemaking, Woiwode begins softly terrorizing paradise. Ghostly presences appear progressively more foreboding: the stuffed animals on the wall, the mice in the piano, night tappings at the window, dead birds, the smell of carrion." The honeymoon "takes on a nightmarish quality," Diana Loercher reported in the Christian Science Monitor, "and at one point Chris buys a gun, to defend himself, which comes to fascinate them both as they grow estranged from each other and enamoured of death."

Woiwode's talent for evoking the naturalistic in What I'm Going to Do, I Think has received praise, the author having been compared to Ernest Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence. Woiwode "has acquired Lawrence's knack of using natural detail for an oblique notation of personal feeling," claimed Dickstein. And as Schott related, "the Michigan passages gleam with physical beauty and vitality, and with a steely hostility between a caretaker couple that forecasts the younger couple's estrangement. Scenes by the lake, in the cabin, in the woods rise in contrapuntal rhythm to the distress pounding within Chris."

Many cite Woiwode's descriptive finesse as an especially noteworthy feature. "The author lingers over descriptions of physical scenes until the cumulative effect is devastating," W. Keith Kraus related in Best Sellers. "Just when the reader thinks a description is exhausted a further parade of facts and explanations are brought out to hypnotize the senses." A Times Literary Supplement critic was of a similar opinion, writing that "the firm, simple prose is especially well adapted to descriptions of the natural world and physical action; but the author is equally adept in inventing a crisp, credible dialogue, not only for the lovers but for the few supporting characters, lightly and precisely sketched."

Some critics considered the protagonist, a brooding graduate student in mathematics, to be unsympathetic and the book itself therefore flawed. Loercher cited "the incongruity between the author's voice and language as imposed on Chris and Chris's total lack of insight into himself and his behavior. . . . It is impossible to create an arch-brooder out of a character who basically can't think." And Denis Donoghue in the New York Review of Books agreed that "Mr. Woiwode's Chris is muddle, force, and folly, so it is vain to try to make him something else or something more. The result is that he fails in what he is and there is no other character capable of enforcing the claims of intelligence and justice." However, in Connaughton's opinion, Chris "faithfully portrays through his painful self-awareness and self-righteousness the restless generation of the 1960s."

In contrast to Woiwode's earlier work, his novel Poppa John, remarked Charles Champlin in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "is technically probably a novella--208 small and airy pages spanning three days in the life of an elderly actor through whose dazed and anxious perceptions a Christmas epiphany takes place." For twelve years, Ned O'Rourke has played the role of "a Falstaffian, Bible-quoting soap-opera character named Poppa John," explained Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, "whom Ned created out of his own experience so vividly that the part had to be killed off before it overwhelmed the show." As Kate Cruise O'Brien recounted in the Listener, "the network decides that 'emphasis was sliding from a family base to a looser lifestyle among the young' and Poppa contracts a fatal malady which is played out to a stricken audience of millions."

So now Ned, who is so closely identified with the character of Poppa John that he can't obtain a new role, is out of work after having become accustomed to a large salary. The book tells of his shopping trip and drunken binge through Manhattan at Christmastime. "The most powerful passages in 'Poppa John' concentrate upon Ned's obsession with mortality," said Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times Book Review. "He is not only an aging man who seems to have outlived himself--he has actually 'died' over a period of weeks on network television." The novel concludes with his actual religious conversion and nervous collapse, culminating, as Bruce Allen described it in the Nation, with "recovery and reconciliation (with his adoring wife), described in a brief coda that occurs in the hospital on Christmas day." As Oates commented, Poppa John, "for most of its length a troubled, brooding, intransigent meditation upon mortality, manages to generate a 'happy ending'--an ending appropriate for Christmas."

In the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley contended, "What Woiwode is trying to do here is bold and, in a cynical age, unfashionable: to convey the emotional struggles and doubts attendant to a discovery of religious faith. It is a novel the climactic sentence of which is: 'I believe in God.' It is almost childlike--deliberately so, I believe--in its statement of the belief; Woiwode wants to make the reader feel the innocence and awe with which a man at last meets his maker. But he simply does not pull it off; the crucial moment that he intends to be an epiphany fails to rise above the level of soap opera." Yardley called this "an unfortunate irony"; Oates sees the book in a similar light, indicating that "there is much to applaud in 'Poppa John,"' but claiming the ending as irony "would mock Ned's earlier obsessions, which are certainly to be taken seriously."

To Champlin, though, the ending "feels daring for a cynical and existential day." Poppa John, he observed, "is admirable and agreeable in its effort to bypass the conventional and the easily commercial, and in its skill at doing so." Woiwode's work can be considered "religious and intellectual in the broadest sense," Connaughton explained of What I'm Going to Do, I Think and Beyond the Bedroom Wall, "with recurrent emphasis on the meaning and impact of death and the intricate negotiations between one's psyche and personal moral code and the demands of family and society."

Woiwode would return to the Neumillers in his novel Born Brothers. "In Born Brothers, Mr. Woiwode is again prepared to submerge the reader in a tumble of this family's history, starting in the middle of the 20th century. But now the perspective narrows, and we see the world only through the perceptions of Charles Neumiller," noted Bette Pesetsky in the New York Times Book Review. The novel recounts Charles's memories of growing up "of his enmeshed relationship with his brother Jerome, of their mother's death, of his unhappy adolescence--much of the terrain is familiar," commented Sven Birkerts in the New Republic. Charles's attempts to come to terms with the events of his life lead him toward suicide.

Critics were mixed in their assessment of the companion novel to Beyond the Bedroom Wall. Birkerts described Beyond the Bedroom Wall and Born Brothers as "the saddest--the most heartbreaking--of all American novels." Though Birkerts called the work "a grand failure," he lauded Woiwode as a "gifted stylist." "Very few writers," he commented, "can command a prose as responsive to the claims of the senses, or a lyricism as unstrained." Pesetsky also admired Woiwode's technique, praising the "scenes in which family life is so deeply explored, understood and felt. . . . Mr. Woiwode has a poet's sensibility, and his scenes can resonate with perfect descriptions, not a detail astray." Though Pesetsky faulted the work for being too long, diluting its strengths, she argued that Woiwode "brings to his writing a unique sensibility and a deeply felt passion."
Woiwode returned to the story of Christofer Van Eenanam and his wife Ellen Strohe in Indian Affairs. The novel begins with the two at a Michigan lodge a year after What I'm Going to Do, I Think ends. Chris is working on his dissertation and exploring his Blackfoot heritage; he begins to hang out with some Chippewa Indians and has annoyed and antagonized some of them. Soon there are signs of harassment. "Chris knows that any of these Indians may be the night prowler whose footprints he finds outside the house, who killed a fox and staked it to a tree as a fetish, whose hand prints in mud have splotched the log walls and locked doors of the hunting lodge," commented Ron Hansen in the New York Times Book Review.

"If sequels beg comparison to their predecessors, then these further adventures of Chris and Ellen in Michigan feel too imaginary, grotesque and adventitious to fully measure up to What I'm Going to Do, I Think," argued Hansen. Despite this, Hansen still lauded Woiwode as a "wise and generous writer," declaring the novel "an intelligent, psychologically harrowing book." A critic for Publishers Weekly, however, found that this sequel "matches the intensity of his [Woiwode's] early work while showing the finesse of his more recent books."

Woiwode is also known as a gifted author of short fiction. His The Neumiller Stories is a collection of stories, many of which were first published in the New Yorker, and ten of which were later reworked and included in Beyond the Bedroom Wall. V. R. Peterson in People Weekly found the stories "at times slow-paced," but commented, "A constant pleasure is Woiwode's lyrically precise language." Writing of the story "Firstborn," one of the new stories in the collection, Elizabeth Tallent in the New York Times Book Review wrote: "Among other things, this story is a terrific feat of pacing, its sheer speed preventing the reader's detachment from scenes that are raw, lonely, unassuaged and increasingly terrible. . . . Awareness of death, having haunted a brilliant novel, now gleams through 13 stories furiously intent on truth." Tallent argued that it is by the "aptness of his emotional discrimination, that Mr. Woiwode packs these self-evidently unobscure stories with such satisfying difficulty."

Woiwode, a Christian and member of the Presbyterian Church of America, has also written Acts: A Writer's Reflections on the Church, Writing, and His Own Life. "Woiwode uses Acts--the New Testament book that describes the infant church as it grew in the months and years immediately following the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ--as a framework around which to build a vision of contemporary life: a reflection on today's church and on living in the world as humanity prepares to begin the third millennium after Jesus' birth," according to Gerald M. Costello in U.S. Catholic. "Vigorous and original" was W. Ward Gasque's opinion of Woiwode's book in Christianity Today. "My hope is that other professional writers will follow his example. The Bible is too important to be left in the hands of professional Bible scholars alone." Paul Elie in Commonweal concluded: "In the end, despite his seemingly uncompromising theology, Woiwode here is a writer reflecting on a favorite book. Vexing as he can be about the letter of the early church, he is finally true to the spirit of it. His act is, as it should be, an artful one."

In 2000, Woiwode published a memoir titled What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Acts. The first part of a trilogy, the memoir "is written in the way memory operates," explained Barbara O'Hara in Library Journal, which is to say, nonlinearly. The work is comprised of two sections: the first the story of a blizzard that nearly takes Woiwode's life, and the second concerning Woiwode's time in New York City where he meets an unknown Robert De Niro and the New Yorker's legendary editor William Maxwell. A Publishers Weekly critic described the work as "lovely but emotionally reserved." However, John Vernon in the New York Times Book Review claimed that Woiwode "has never written better." Vernon concluded, "Woiwode is an American original. He writes with a sense of both the quicksilver movement of language on the run and the reflective inner drag and furrowing of thought. The scarred beauty of his sentences and his eye and ear for metaphor are nowhere more evident than in his own description of how he struggles with words: 'I keep at it on and off until the day I hear the auditory echo exerting pressure on my eardrums from the inside as camshafts of phrases turn within the whole of a sentence revolving along its length to a point where no iron can so pierce the heart (to paraphrase Babel) as a period put in the right place.'"

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