Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again

The celebrated writer returns to the town of her birth to revisit the places that haunt her memory and her extraordinary fiction

"For residents of the area who have gone to live elsewhere, it's the canal—so deep-set in what appears to be solid rock ... that resurfaces in dreams," says Oates. (Landon Nordeman)
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Writers, particularly novelists, are linked to place. It’s impossible to think of Charles Dickens and not to think of Dickens’ London; impossible to think of James Joyce and not to think of Joyce’s Dublin; and so with Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor—each is inextricably linked to a region, as to a language-dialect of particular sharpness, vividness, idiosyncrasy. We are all regionalists in our origins, however “universal” our themes and characters, and without our cherished hometowns and childhood landscapes to nourish us, we would be like plants set in shallow soil. Our souls must take root—almost literally.

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For this reason, “home” isn’t a street address or a residence, or, in Robert Frost’s cryptic words, the place where, “when you go there, they have to let you in”—but where you find yourself in your most haunting dreams. These may be dreams of numinous beauty, or they may be nightmares—but they are the dreams most embedded in memory, thus encoded deep in the brain: the first memories to be retained and the last memories to be surrendered.

Over the years of what seems to me both a long and a swiftly passing lifetime, “home” has been, for me, several places: Lockport, New York, where I was born and went to school, and nearby Millersport, New York, my home until the age of 18; Detroit, Michigan, where I lived with my young husband Raymond Smith, 1962-68—when he taught English at Wayne State University and I taught English at the University of Detroit; and Princeton, New Jersey, where we lived for 30 years at 9 Honey Brook Drive, while Ray edited the Ontario Review and Ontario Review Press books and I taught at Princeton University, until Ray’s death in February 2008. Now I live a half-mile from that house in a new phase of my life, with my new husband, Charles Gross, a neuroscientist at Princeton University who is also a writer and photographer. The contem­porary French provincial house in which we live on three acres fronting a small lake is “home” in the most immediate sense—this is the address to which our mail is delivered, and each of us hopes that this will be the last house of our lives; but if “home” is the repository of our deepest, most abiding and most poignant dreams, the landscape that haunts us recurringly, then “home” for me would be upstate New York—the rural crossroads of Millersport, on the Tonawanda Creek, and the city of Lockport on the Erie Canal.

As in a vivid and hallucinatory dream, I am being taken by my grandmother Blanche Woodside—my hand in hers—to the Lockport Public Library on East Avenue, Lockport. I am an eager child of 7 or 8 and this is in the mid-1940s. The library is a beautiful building like no other I’ve seen close up, an anomaly in this city block beside the dull red brick of the YMCA to one side and a dentist’s office to the other; across the street is Lockport High School, another older, dull-brick building. The library—which, at my young age, I could not have known was a WPA-sponsored project that transformed the city of Lockport—has something of the look of a Greek temple; not only is its architecture distinctive, with elegantly ascending steps, a portico and four columns, a facade with six large, rounded, latticed windows and, on top, a kind of spire, but the building is set back from the street behind a wrought-iron fence with a gate, amid a very green jewel-like lawn.

The library for grown-ups is upstairs, beyond a dauntingly wide and high-ceilinged doorway; the library for children is more accessible, downstairs and to the right. Inside this cheery, brightly lit space there is an inexpressible smell of floor polish, library paste, books—that particular library smell that conflates, in my memory, with the classroom smell of floor polish, chalk dust, books so deeply imprinted in my memory. For even as a young child I was a lover of books and of the spaces in which, as indeed in a sacred temple, books might safely reside.

What is most striking in the children’s library are the shelves and shelves of books—bookcases lining the walls—books with brightly colored spines—astonishing to a little girl whose family lives in a farmhouse in the country where books are almost wholly unknown. That these books are available for children—for a child like me—all these books!—leaves me dazed, dazzled.

The special surprise of this memorable day is that my grandmother has arranged for me to be given a library card, so that I can “withdraw” books from this library—though I’m not a resident of Lockport, nor even of Niagara County. Since my grandmother is a resident, some magical provision has been made to include me.

The Lockport Public Library has been an illumination in my life. In that dimension of the soul in which time is collapsed and the past is contemporaneous with the present, it still is. Growing up in a not-very-prosperous rural community lacking a common cultural or aesthetic tradition, in the aftermath of the Great Depression in which people like my family and relatives worked, worked and worked—and had little time for reading more than newspapers—I was mesmerized by books and by what might be called “the life of the mind”: the life that was not manual labor, or housework, but seemed in its specialness to transcend these activities.

As a farm girl, even when I was quite young I had my “farm chores”—but I had time also to be alone, to explore the fields, woods and creek side. And to read.

There was no greater happiness for me than to read—children’s books at first, then “young adult”—and beyond. No greater happiness than to make my way along the seemingly infinite shelves of books in the Lockport Public Library, drawing my forefinger across the spines. My grandmother was an avid reader whom all the librarians knew well, and whom they obviously liked very much; two or even three times a week she checked books out of the library—novels, biographies. I remember once asking Grandma about a book she was reading, a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and how she answered me: this was the first conversation of my life that concerned a book, and “the life of the mind”—and now, such subjects have become my life.


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