At one point in Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, the narrator, a successful writer living in Manhattan, recalls the time she was introduced at her wedding reception by her elegant mother-in-law, Catherine. Speaking to one of the guests, Catherine said, “This is Lucy. Lucy comes from nothing.” It was true, if a bit indelicate. Lucy can remember foraging for food in garbage cans with a cousin outside her small hometown of Amgash, Illinois, and those memories still have the power to wound in Strout’s new novel, Oh William!, in which a considerably older Lucy thinks of children on the school playground pinching their noses and saying, “Your family stinks.” Material squalor was matched by cultural deprivation (no books, magazines, or TV) and emotional starvation. “I have no memory,” Lucy recalls, “of my mother ever touching any of her children except in violence.” Her father, a World War II veteran with uncontrollable sexual urges, used to walk around the house masturbating and, during sex with his wife, emit “horrifying, appalling high-pitched sounds.” As for her siblings, “we were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the rest of the world.”
Compared with her brother, who lives alone in the isolated house they grew up in and still reads children’s books, Lucy appears to have escaped her damaged childhood through the vocation of writing. Books had comforted her when she was growing up, “and I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” An affluent writer in middle age, with two grown daughters, she can now travel in first class, “where they give you the little kit of toothpaste and a toothbrush and a mask to put over your eyes.” She wears perfume, inspired by Catherine, who always “smelled good.” Still, there are moments, she says, when “I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth.”
Oh William! is Strout’s third book of fiction to feature Lucy Barton. In the second, Anything Is Possible (2017), in which Lucy returns to her hometown after a gap of seventeen years, her siblings rub her face in the sordid details of her past—the constant hunger, ostracism by peers, the sex-mad father. Lucy—visiting on a book tour—responds in a “loud and wobbly” voice, “It was not that bad,” and runs away to her posh hotel in Chicago. She is older and seems more resilient in Oh William!, but the past still gnaws at her, and it grows more importunate as William, her first husband, seeks her help in finding a stepsister he never knew.
Much of the new novel describes their journey together to Maine, also the setting of Strout’s two interconnected novels about an irascible retired schoolteacher, Olive Kitteridge (2008) and Olive, Again (2019). In this “oldest, whitest state in the union,” among the “almost-falling-down houses, and lots of stars on the sides of these houses for veterans, gold stars for the ones who were dead,” and the “signs that said Pray for America,” Lucy starts to panic. She discovers that the stylish, golf-playing Catherine has concealed her own origins, as well as the fact that she abandoned a daughter from a previous marriage. As the spurned daughter bluntly describes it, Catherine, abused by her father and with an alcoholic mother and a brother who died young in prison, “came from less than nothing. She came from trash.”
“The word was like a slap across my face,” Lucy says. “That word is always like a slap across my face.” For she has spent all her adult life fearing that judgment on herself while privately acknowledging its truth; her psychiatrist tells her that she wears perfume “because you think you stink.”
Clarice Lispector, a writer who was elevated by marriage and writerly success to the bourgeoisie in her adopted country, Brazil, but remained emotionally trapped in her deprived childhood (her parents were refugees from Ukraine), dedicated her last book, The Hour of the Star (1977), to “the memory of my former poverty”; she writes in it that “my truest life is unrecognizable, extremely interior and there is not a single word that defines it.”* Lucy, too, despairs of communicating her central experience of the world to her readers. “I have never fully understood the whole class business in America, though,” she says in Oh William!, “because I came from the very bottom of it, and when that happens it never really leaves you. I mean I have never really gotten over it, my beginnings, the poverty, I guess is what I mean.”
The “I guess” is characteristic of Lucy’s creator, who recoils in Oh William!, as she has in her other books, from robust assertion. Yet Strout, who grew up in small-town Maine and did not start publishing books until she was in her forties, seems never less than convinced in all of her eight works of fiction that class divisions inflict lifelong scars, especially when the psychic damage is not openly acknowledged. She shows how her characters’ pasts continually shape, and deform, their behavior in the present. In Anything Is Possible, we meet Lucy Barton’s cousin Dottie, who in sixth grade was put on display in front of her class in her stained dress and “told that no one was ever too poor to buy sanitary pads.” Dottie still expects to be watched with suspicion in shops and thrown out, even though she stopped being poor long ago. Running a bed-and-breakfast in middle age, she is driven to coarsely disproportionate vengeance by the slightly dismissive manner of two guests, a doctor and his snootily self-absorbed wife:
In the kitchen—and while it was a terribly conventional form of revenge—she spit in the jam and mixed it up and spit again, as much as she could gather in her mouth, and took some pleasure in seeing the jam bowl empty by the time the Smalls left.
Minor social slights seem to wound Strout’s protagonists as grievously as the big blows of fate. Olive Kitteridge, the heroine of Strout’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, is enraged enough on the day of her son’s wedding by an overheard remark from her pretentious new daughter-in-law—about Olive’s fashion sense and parenting skills—to disfigure her sweater and steal her bra and shoe. In The Burgess Boys (2013), two young men from Shirley Falls, Maine, who become successful lawyers in Manhattan, flounder disastrously when they are forced to mediate between their two antagonistic realities—the principal metropolis of globalization and a dwindling small town with a much-resented immigrant Somali population. In Olive, Again, where the Burgess boys appear in chastened late middle age, Strout records an excruciating social collision between their wives. Helen, an heiress with a brownstone in Park Slope, complains to Margaret, a Unitarian minister in Shirley Falls, about her recent cruise in Alaska:
“I’ll tell you what I cared about: the Indonesians who worked on the cruise ship. Everyone working on that boat was from Indonesia, and we got talking to one fellow one night and he worked ten months a year on that boat and went home to Bali for two months. And I bet you anything,” she pointed a finger at Margaret, “that those guys are stacked up on top of each other in the bottom of that ship with no windows, and once I realized that—well, I couldn’t really enjoy myself anymore. I mean, we were taking this trip on the backs of these people.”
Margaret said nothing, although she had opened her mouth as though she were about to.
“What are you thinking?” Helen asked her.
“I was thinking, How liberal of you.”
After a moment, Helen, who had some trouble taking this in, said, “Why, Margaret, you hate me.”
Those at the bottom of the social hierarchy are no less prone to turn on each other, often gratuitously. In Anything Is Possible, Lucy Barton’s niece, a promising student, describes her aunt, whom she has never met, as “a bitch.” She tells Patty Nicely, her guidance counselor at school who is trying to help her find a career path, that people say she’s a virgin; “That’s what people say, you know. Fatty Patty never did it with her husband, Igor, never did it with anyone.”
Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, “Only the writer who has risen economically in America (in contrast to one born with money and privilege) can understand the fascinating, ever-dramatic class war in its infinite variety.” Certainly, an early struggle for survival in slums, factories, farms, and small businesses gave writers of the 1920s and 1930s such as William Faulkner, James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, and Henry Roth their acute sense of an implacably unequal world. But the rare writer today with an apprenticeship in hardscrabble life, as distinct from an MFA program, has to struggle more than her privileged peers to secure her reputation. Most writers belong to, and write about, the professional middle class, which also contains the great majority of readers of literary fiction, though writers from very modest or very grand backgrounds occasionally upset a cozy writer-reader compact based on shared middle-class assumptions and worldviews.
Back in the 1960s, Oates, who grew up poor on a farm in western New York State, disturbed that compact with a series of novels about lower-class Americans, The Wonderland Quartet, which depicted the kind of lives her peers had left largely unexamined. In our own time, Strout has most consistently mined perennially neglected material about them—the title, uncapitalized, of the memorable third novel in Oates’s quartet.
In a series of recent works, whose frequency hints at a tumultuous amount of unshared experience, Strout has written with dazzling acuity about a whole cluster of overlooked lives: small-town schoolteachers, pharmacists, janitors, hardware store owners, cashiers, Somali immigrants in Maine, and an aging sex worker. Unusually, too, old people, and the peculiar desolation of aging, infirmity, and death in American society, are acknowledged everywhere in Strout’s books. Her most singular achievement lies in her complex portrayal of poverty and social insecurity—its roots and its consequences—at a time when many works of contemporary fiction offer insight not much more refined than the kind of moral grandstanding that Margaret dismisses with “How liberal.”
Lucy’s cousin Dottie seems right to say that people don’t talk about class in America not only “because it wasn’t polite” but also “because they didn’t really understand what it was.” This bizarre ignorance has flourished at least partly because the cruel and all-pervasive reality of class stratification, once the staple of writers as different as Theodore Dreiser and John O’Hara, came to be obscured in recent decades by an extensive and largely delusional expectation of near-universal social mobility. (One reason why readers may find the novels of Elena Ferrante so engrossing is that the chasms of class and education she explores haven’t received sustained attention in American literature for some time.) According to the only recently challenged American ideology of hyper-individualism and pseudo-egalitarian meritocracy, anyone, regardless of where they were born, can make it if they work hard enough, and are entirely to blame if they fail to seize the widely available opportunities of self-advancement.
Recent disasters have revealed that this ideology of the American dream did its job too well: it obscured the real conditions—wage stagnation, steady downward mobility—of their lives from the dreamers, enabling them to be controlled by the real beneficiaries of an iniquitous system. And even as the unlived American dreams gathered menacing mass and density, public attention was monopolized by the concerns of the elites—the well-educated and the well-off in the urban centers of an increasingly financialized economy. The thwarted members of the lower and middle classes were rendered mostly invisible, even to themselves, until a demagogue claiming to “love the poorly educated” and loathe the liberal elites began sowing chaos in American society and politics.
Donald Trump’s apotheosis traumatized the metropolitan intelligentsia into acknowledging the deprivations and resentments of the “left-behinds,” and the scholarly and journalistic archive devoted to them has burgeoned over the past five years. However, these subjects of a repentant reckoning were long thought of, if at all, with fear and condescension, even by their putative political representatives in the Democratic Party. This is what Barack Obama said in 2008 about voters in the kind of deindustrialized towns Strout writes about: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” “Kind of arrogant” is how a character in Olive, Again describes the first Black yuppie president.
In a society so ideologically hostile to failure and weakness, and sold on go-getting, even those who have made it tend to camouflage their pasts. One result of this self-suppression is a calamitous loss of morale, even identity. Assessing the effects of her experience of poverty on her sense of worth, Oates once confided to her journal, “I place myself psychologically even below the decent respectable working-class background of my childhood.” Lucy’s cousin Abel, who used to hunt for food with her in dumpsters, becomes a corporate chieftain in Chicago, his suits tailored by a man from London, but wealth and suave consumption habits bring no salvation; his wife, appalled to hear of his early indignities, urges him never to share them with their children. In his old age,
even while he voted as a conservative, even while he took his annual bonus from the board, even while he ate in the best restaurants Chicago offered, and even while most of him thought what he had thought for years, I will not apologize for being rich, he did apologize, but to whom precisely he did not know. Waves of shame would suddenly pour over him, the way his wife had endured hot flashes for years, her face instantly bright red, rivulets of perspiration forming on the sides of her face.
Lucy’s life, too, remains a spiritually cramped affair despite its material plenitude. Unable to cope with the luxurious ease of a seaside resort in the Cayman Islands, she retreats to her room to cry. Writer-narrators from discouraging backgrounds are prone in their comfortable middle age to ponder obsessively the dreams of their fathers or the enigma of their arrival in a once unaccommodating and now welcoming world. Lucy, however, is struggling to understand why she feels “invisible” despite her writerly fame. She becomes aware that “there is a cultural blank spot that never ever leaves, only it is not a spot, it is a huge blank canvas and it makes life very frightening.”
Writing, and its material rewards, may promise to heal the injuries of a class war that unleashes nameless terrors in private lives. But the best-selling Lucy Barton claims to have “spent my whole life not wanting to be me,” to be “tired of being me.” Self-effacing and generously inquisitive, Lucy couldn’t be more different from such solipsistic literary alter egos as Philip Roth’s David Kepesh or Nathan Zuckerman, who spend much of their—and their readers’—time garrulously grousing about their personal problems or justifying their inordinate appetites before an imagined tribunal of puritanical hypocrites. The classic American theme of personal freedom from the conformist masses does not seem to concern Strout at all. Nor does the question that animated so many chroniclers of genteel disenchantment in the postwar era, like John Cheever, who wondered “why, in this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world…everyone should seem to be disappointed.” Strout writes about a world that is manifestly not prosperous, equitable, or accomplished, and whose inhabitants have been forced into close quarters with failure, drift, and decay.
With her keen instinct for the social violence that became in recent decades an everyday idiom in American life, Strout gives—to this non-American reader, at least—no sense of having grown up with the conventions of the college-educated middle class, or of the comfortably alienated dropout. At the same time, she is not a political novelist, or even a social realist. Much modern history enters her narrative through veterans of World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq, all uniquely damaged. US wars abroad, it is clear in Strout’s stories, have never failed to bring their violence home.
Many arguments from the contemporary culture war also rage throughout her books. One of the Burgess brothers berates his ex-wife, a well-intentioned New Yorker, for swallowing whole the activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s vituperative account of Somali society and Islam in general,
people like you reading about the most inflammatory aspects of their culture in some book club, and then getting to hate them for it, because deep down that’s what we ignorant, weenie Americans, ever since the towers went down, really want to do. Have permission to hate them.
Olive Kitteridge in helpless old age is forced to reckon with the sensitivities of both a Trump-voting nurse’s aide and her hijab-wearing Muslim colleague. We get an intimate understanding of why some of the most deprived and marginalized people are prone to the original identity politics of whiteness when Lucy Barton’s mother, informed about the extermination of Native Americans by white settlers, says, “I don’t give a damn what we did to the Indians.” As far-right demagogues have long known, the everyday humiliations of poor whites can always be alchemized into racial pride—the pride of belonging to modern history’s winners—and unleashed against minorities. Thus, Lucy Barton’s mother is driven to piteous boasting by her daughter’s suggestion that their family was “trash”:
My ancestors and your father’s ancestors, we were some of the first people in this country, Lucy Barton…. They came ashore at Provincetown, Massachusetts, and they were fishermen and they were settlers. We settled this country, and the good brave ones later moved to the Midwest, and that’s who we are, that’s who you are. And don’t you ever forget it.
A historian of social mores and white working-class cultures would find Strout’s fiction extremely rewarding. Strout herself does not seem to conceive of her fiction as social or cultural history. Though it is set in rancorously political times, the 1960s through the AIDS epidemic to the convulsive present, we learn more about what her characters think of themselves, and others, than about the social and political forces pressing down on them. She is more interested in the interplay between inner and outer worlds than in the broader dimensions of an era of ideological delusion. Her main subject is the drama of the uncertain self in relation to the world, not so much class consciousness as consciousness itself as a teeming, unaccountable mystery. “How did you ever know?” a character asks in Anything Is Possible. “You never knew anything, and anyone who thought they knew anything—well, they were in for a great big surprise.” Nearing death, Olive, a teacher like Strout’s own parents, feels compelled to commit her perceptions to writing, but among the first things she types is “I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.”
Endowed with the right of self-determination, Strout’s characters manifest unexpected thoughts and feelings at different times in their lives; they change their minds and are privately assailed with regret even as they appear cruel. In Anything Is Possible, “Fatty Patty,” viciously insulted by Lucy’s niece, responds, “Get out of here right now, you piece of filth,” but then apologizes and continues her effort to help the bright girl. We learn that as a child the guidance counselor once walked in on her mother in flagrante delicto with her Spanish teacher. Strout then details a memory of Patty in bed with her husband, who as a boy was raped repeatedly by his stepfather:
In their marriage bed they held hands, and never went any further. Often, during the first years especially, he had terrible dreams, and he would kick the covers and squeal, it was a frightening sound. She noticed that he was aroused when this happened, and she was always sure to touch only his shoulders until he calmed down. Then she rubbed his forehead. “It’s okay, honey,” she always said. He would stare at the ceiling, his hands in fists. Thank you, he said. Turning his face toward her, Thank you, Patty, he said.
We sense in such scenes not only the toughness of Strout’s conceptions or the tender alertness with which she sees her characters, tracing every nuance of their behavior, but also the fathomless distances between them. Hilary Mantel has spoken of Strout as bringing “an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue.” The impression her fiction gives is indeed of a sensibility telepathically exposed to the mental existence of other people, especially its unconscious workings. Take, for instance, the scene in which Patty comes home to hear the “most astonishing sounds coming from her parents’ bedroom” and runs upstairs, where she finds her mother astride her Spanish teacher and wailing: “This is what Patty saw, her mother’s breasts and her mother’s eyes looking at her—yet unable to stop what was coming from her mouth.”
A simple well-placed verb, italicized, conveys both the horror of the discovery and the helplessness of all the exposed characters in the scene. In John Updike’s novels about Rabbit Angstrom, the most famous lowbrow in postwar American fiction, you are never less than aware of his very highbrow creator, a pupil of Nabokov and American heir to Joyce and Proust. Strout’s prose, unshowy, sparing of metaphor but vivid with both necessary and contingent detail, matches her democracy of subject and theme, and seems agile enough to describe any human situation. In Oh William! the narrator’s conversational prose—the colloquialisms, the searching for the correct expression, the “I guess” and “I mean”—seems exactly equivalent, tonally, to the arrhythmic lives she is describing, their disturbances, stops and starts, and dreamlike groping.
Strout is not so absorbed by the psychic clamor around her to neglect the task of finding the best-fitting structure for her intuitions. After two early conventional works of fiction, Amy and Isabelle (1998) and Abide with Me (2006), she has been perfecting the art of interlinked narratives in which characters appear in different settings, and over long spans of time. In successive books of a uniform leanness, she has managed to achieve, through the most economical means, the amplitude and populousness of the novel cycle, as well as the lancing revelations of the laconic tale. Everything in them seems to fall into place and connect naturally, while the literary artifice through which this naturalness is achieved remains hidden from the reader.
There is a sense, too, in Strout’s recent books of her art reaching an unexpected conclusion, hinting at a reality beyond the known world. “So much of life seems speculation,” Lucy marvels in My Name Is Lucy Barton. At the end of Oh William! she seems convinced that
we do not know anybody. Not even ourselves!
Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.
But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.
This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.
These clouds of unknowing around individual personalities add to a strain of puzzled mysticism in Strout’s work, in which characters leading lives blighted by toil and unshareable terrors suddenly experience flashes of intense perceptions, almost a kind of exultation. In the last pages of Anything Is Possible, Abel, Lucy’s fellow scavenger in childhood, knows, as he lies dying, “not fear but a strange exquisite joy, the bliss of things finally and irretrievably out of his control, unpeeled, unpeeling now.”
At such moments, a whole suppressed world of the spirit seems to be speaking in and through Strout’s characters, a spirit urging the slaves of conventional reality to awaken to their need of liberation. For all the depths of anger and despair they uncover, and the bitterness they attest to, Strout’s works insist on the superabundance of life, the unrealized bliss always immanent in it.
For an insightful recent study on the connection between class status, artistic creation, and psychological health, see Cynthia Cruz, The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class (Repeater, 2021). ↩