Joan Didion, wrote a book in 2005 about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. I thought it was her best work, and that is saying a lot since her books of essays, The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem changed me on a molecular level and continue to influence my writing to this day.
Joyce Carol Oates has always been, in my mind, the counterpart to Didion. They are the two women writers who set the bar by which all others are measured. Oates is extremely prolific, churning out novels, plays, and essays at a breakneck pace, all while teaching English at Princeton. Didion tends to take longer with her novels and essay collections, publishing frequently in magazines and journals like The New York Review of Books before gathering her work together for a book.
In the current issue of The Atlantic, Oates writes a piece on the death of her husband, Raymond Smith, well-known editor of the literary magazine Ontario Review, a project the husband and wife team started and have edited together since 1974. Since Oates is far more reserved about her personal life—something she addresses in the piece—I read her words with great interest. I find her fiction to be reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, and her essays often have an edge of violence. What other woman writer takes such a blow-by-blow interest in the sport of boxing? However, she only occasionally delves into the personal whereas Didion has made a career out of parsing apart her life.
Oates’ work in “I Am Sorry To Inform You,” is riveting. When her husband dies, she returns to work within a few days, seeking the solace and objective distance of teaching literature. Focus on the work is her motto, to avoid falling into the chasm of grief. She hopes her students don’t know what has happened. “In the lives of teachers there are teaching-days, teaching hours like islands, or oases, amid turbulent seas,” she writes. The dead calm of the classroom is her sanctuary from those seas roiling inside her with the loss of her husband of 48 years.
Oates explains how she loses herself in teaching. “For two lively and absorbing hours I am able to forget the radically altered circumstances of this life…” In the classroom, she says, “I never discuss anything personal about myself, or even my writing…My intention as a teacher is to refine my own personality out of existence, or nearly—my own ‘self’ is never a factor in my teaching, still less my career.”
In her words, I hear Didion’s view of the role of the writer: to observe and report what happens, the way the writer sees the event, even if others do not necessarily see it the same way. In her essay, “On Keeping A Notebook,” Didion quotes Jessica Mitford’s governess whispering in her ear: “You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it.” It is the classic journalistic credo—the reporter observes and should stay out of the story. Third person objective. Of course, New Journalism blew this concept apart. Hunter S. Thompson, the pioneer of New Journalism, is as much a character in his work as the people about which he writes.
So Oates’ view is interesting to note: the personal does not enter her classroom. I teach from the personal all the time. We find connections between the literature we cover and our experiences, and that is one way we can access the themes of the text. I was taught to do this by several teachers I admired—that the literature may have been written a long time ago, but we must find connections to it in the here and now to make it relevant and immediate. Those connections—to our lives, to history, philosophy, science, and current events—are most important.
I like this article for what it offers beyond the portrait of grief—a rethinking of teaching methodology, the point-of-view of the writer, the way we think and operate in the classroom. I appreciate the window into her life and art, even though the situation is tremendously heartbreaking and tragic. Her response teaches strength and wisdom in the face of devastation.
She will be publishing a book on this period in her life in February 2011. The title is The Siege: A Widow’s Story. Like Joan Didion’s shattering book-length essay on the death of her husband—entitled The Year of Magical Thinking—I look forward to reading one of my favorite authors addressing how we live our lives in the face of pain, suffering and loss. Hopefully, she will expand on her teaching philosophy as well. For now, the article gives a powerful glimpse into her world of teaching and writing in the face of tragedy, in the way we all must carry on in the deepening darkness of palpable sadness.