Customs of the Country

Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx; drawing by David Levine

Born in 1935, in Norwich, Connecticut, the eldest of five daughters of George Napoleon Proulx, vice-president of a textile company, and Lois Nelly Proulx, a painter and naturalist whose family had lived in Connecticut since 1635, Annie Proulx grew up in towns throughout New England. She graduated with a degree in history from the University of Vermont in 1969 and earned a master’s degree, passing oral examinations for a Ph.D. in history in 1975. But then Proulx’s career took a turn. Discouraged by “the lack of teaching jobs in my field”—or so she wrote in a brief autobiographical note in Contemporary Authors—she accomplished the academic equivalent of busting herself down to private, embarking on a punishing program of self-rustication:

In 1975…I abandoned my doctoral thesis and jumped head-first into freelance journalism. A classic example of shifting from the frying pan to the fire. I lived, at this time, with a friend in a rural shack in Canaan, Vermont, up on the Canadian border in brutally poor circumstances. Compensations were silence and decent fishing, both now vanished.

In the manner of Method purists like Robert De Niro, who became a boxer while making Raging Bull—training, winning actual matches, gaining fifty pounds—Proulx seems to have deliberately sought out privation, listing a series of her adventures for David Streitfeld in an interview in The Washington Post in 1993:

Leaping a barbed wire fence and not making it; being grabbed on a lonely back lane by a strange older guy but biting and escaping; running away through the rain on the eve of a wedding and finding self three-quarters across wet ties over railroad bridge over river when the train appeared at the far end of the bridge; getting caught in a thunderstorm on third flying lesson; throwing a knife at (and thank God missing) someone I thought I hated;…speeding and rolling a car late one night on the way north and coming to in a hospital considerably messed up;… falling off ladder; ladder falling on me; etc., etc.

The impersonal compression of this list—and the careless tone she takes, presenting herself as a kind of cartoon punching bag for life’s blows—are a fixture of her fictional work as well, in which she treats her characters, at times, with a certain condescension, even contempt.

During the 1980s, she raised three sons from her third marriage alone (she also has a daughter), eking out a living publishing how-to articles and books that sound now as if they had been pulled from the pages of her novels: Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider; The Complete Dairy Foods Cookbook; How to Make Everything from Cheese to Custard in Your Own Kitchen; and Plan and Make Your Own Fences, Gates, Walkways, Walls & Drives. She moved to Vershire, Vermont, and founded a newspaper, the Vershire Behind the Times, writing short stories, many published…

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