Hermione Lee is President of Wolfson College, ­Oxford. Her most recent book is Penelope Fitzgerald: 
A Life. (February 2015)

Alice Munro’s Magic

Alice Munro, early 1980s
The slow-burning fuse that is an Alice Munro story frequently hides, then exposes, something violent, shameful, or sensational. Down-and-out characters struggling on the edges, psychopathic killers, vindictive children or vengeful old people, abused women, passionately self-abnegating lovers, irresponsible adulterers, horrible acts of cruelty, startlingly show up inside these domestic, realistic narratives.

He Gave ‘the Mundane Its Beautiful Due’

John Updike, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, 1987
For over half a century, John Updike transformed everyday America into lavishly eloquent and observant language. This—even more than his virtuoso writing about sex, his close readings of adultery and husbandly guilt, his tracking of American social politics, his philosophizing on time and the universe—is his great signature tune.

Willa Cather: A Hidden Voice

Willa Cather at the Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Colorado, 1915
In the past quarter of a century, fierce Cather wars have raged in the American literary and scholarly world, not entirely unlike the battles that are fought over Jane Austen’s legacy. The celebration of Cather as an American pastoralist, a kind of midwestern Robert Frost, which greeted her books when they were published, still continues. Since her death in 1947, many readers still take her to their hearts as the standardbearer of a sentimental nostalgia for vanished American values. It is an appropriation at odds with the harshness, violence, and cold truthfulness that run like dark steel through the calm, lyric simplicity of her writing.

Finding a Very Secret Self

Colm Tóibín, New York City, April 2007
Dominique Nabokov Colm Tóibín, New York City, April 2007 Every so often, in his captivating new collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, Colm Tóibín allows himself moments of general (and perhaps also personal) meditation and commentary. Here are two of the strangest. The first is …

The Terrors of the Woman President

Joyce Carol Oates, Princeton, New Jersey, 1981
There is a landscape of murk and junk, dark water and black mud, trash and detritus and debris, desolate woods, rickety bridges over ugly rivers, rust and barbed wire, that lurks under a lot of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing. It’s a landscape where human beings can barely survive and that they have to struggle out of, but it’s always there, waiting to suck you down and back. It’s a good location for a creepy Gothic writer like Oates, who loves dank basements, the slimy grasp of the unconscious, horrors in the night.

Storms Over the Novel

What good is the novel, the long story told in prose? Hegel called the contingent, the everyday, the mutable, “the prose of the world,” as opposed to “the spiritual, the transcendent, the poetic.” “Prosaic” can mean plain, ordinary, commonplace, even dull. Prose fiction, historians of the novel tell us, has …

Passionate Pilgrim

“Pussy Jones,” a well-brought-up member of that upper-class New York clan whose surname was supposed to have lent itself to the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” was married to a Bostonian gentleman of leisure, Edward Wharton, when she was twenty-three, in 1885. Mrs. Edith Wharton—as she then …

Comic, Sad and Indefinite

You might expect the presiding genius for a collection of essays about exceptional women to be someone like Joan of Arc, or Cleopatra, or Hillary Clinton. But for Rosemary Dinnage it’s Miss Havisham, that frightening cross between revengeful spinster, broken-hearted victim, and manipulative patroness, forever locked in time …

The Unknown Edith Wharton

  1. The Library of America’s collection is a splendid and satisfying publication, and a landmark in the history of Edith Wharton’s ever-shifting reputation; but it is not the whole story. In Maureen Howard’s two-volume edition there are sixty-seven stories, which span forty-six years (1891 to 1937). These include three of …

On Eudora Welty (1909–2001)

In an early story by Eudora Welty called “The Hitch-Hikers” (1941), a man says: “I come down from the hills…. We had us owls for chickens and fox for yard dogs but we sung true.” The phrase is quoted by Flannery O’Connor in an essay on the importance of using …

Tracking the Untrackable

  1. A recent issue of the London Review of Books had as its front page lead “The Corruption of Literary Biography.” The heading referred to two reviews. One was a scathing demolition of James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow by Richard Poirier, who described it as a “censorious” and “condescending” …

Unfinished Women

One of Ellen Glasgow’s early novels, The Deliverance (published in 1904, when she was thirty-one, and set in the 1880s), has a remarkable minor character called Mrs. Blake. She is the widow of a man who went mad and died after the Civil War, when his land and house, handed …