Much of author Joyce Carol Oates’ intense understanding of human nature comes from her upbringing in upstate New York.
Oates was raised in a small town called Lockport and is the daughter of a factory worker. She was the first person in her family to graduate high school- a notable feat, considering she attended a one-room elementary school in her small hometown.
“Everything was always a struggle,” she said of her humble beginnings in Lockport. She described her family as “working poor,” and it was exactly this upbringing that allowed Oates to develop, as she called, “a natural sympathy” for people.
In fact, Oates, who has been writing intensely since she attended Syracuse University in the 1950s, believes that the “aim of art is to evoke sympathy.” This is because, as she noted, “writers bear witness to those who aren’t able to speak for themselves.”
It was these personal experiences, along with readings from her poetry and short stories, that Oates shared with an audience of more than 40 St. John’s students, faculty members, and alumni at the 4th Semi-Annual St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Speaker Series.
Over the course of her long career, Oates has written everything from novels to poetry to literary criticisms. She has received countless accolades – the first in 1959, while she was still in college.
Her short story, “In the Old World,” won her Mademoiselle magazine’s fiction contest. She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times – in 1993 for Black Water, in 1995 for What I Lived For, and in 2001 for Blonde. Her novel, We Were the Mulvaneys, was even selected for Oprah’s highly popular Book Club in 2001.
Dr. Stephen Sicari, chair of the English Department at St. John’s, introduced Oates, saying that she uses “powerfully precise language [and] artfully designed plots” in her writing.
Oates began her lecture by reading a few of her poems. One of the pieces she read was entitled “The Dollar Sign.” Oates said that this poem has a “percussive, masculine, aggressive voice.”
She asked the audience to imagine a neon, flashing dollar sign while she read it, and joked that this was her Donald Trump poem.
Another poem Oates read was called “Kite Poem,” which is dedicated to the American poet Billy Collins.
This poem is centered on people who feel they are failures. She said that sometimes, we “aspire to some sort of plateau that we imagine will be more wonderful than the one we are on now.” The author stressed the importance of having a voice in a piece of literature. Quoting her 2003 literary essay, The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art, she said “Through the local or regional, through our individual voices, we work to create art that will speak to others who know nothing of us. In our very obliqueness to one another, an unexpected intimacy is born.”
It is exactly this connection with someone she did not personally know that inspired Oates to write a novel about Marilyn Monroe, called Blonde, which was released in 2000.
The basis of her novel comes from a series of lithographs by the artist Andy Warhol, entitled “Blue Marilyn.”
Oates seemed transfixed with Warhol’s artwork as she spoke of it, calling his lithographs of Monroe “very ugly and very aggressively unglamorous.”
She went on to say that she finds Warhol’s images disturbing stating, “his art is mocking and jeering.”
Oates recalled a time when she saw a picture of Monroe, born Norma Jean Baker, as a young girl, describing her as being conventionally pretty, but not glamorous.
She lamented that in a few years, “She’d be manufactured.” “I wrote the novel out of sympathy for the person Norma Jean Baker,” she explained.
Dr. Robert Forman, an English professor and head of the Honors Program at St. John’s, said that Oates’ literature “brings up a kind of hidden violence that almost happens and you never know how it will emerge.”