Words and Worlds: From Autobiography to Zippers

Words and Worlds: From Autobiography to Zippers

by Alison Lurie


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This engaging new collection of essays from the New York Times–bestselling novelist gathers together her reflections on the writing life; fond recollections of inspiring friends; and perceptive, playful commentary on preoccupations ranging from children’s literature to fashion and feminism.
Citing her husband’s comment to her that “Nobody asked you to write a novel,” Lurie goes on to eloquently explain why there was never another choice for her. She looks back on attending Radcliffe in the 1940s—an era of wartime rations and a wall of sexism where it was understood that Harvard was only for the men.
From offering a gleeful glimpse into Jonathan Miller’s production of Hamlet to memorializing mentors and intimate friends such as poet James Merrill, illustrator Edward Gorey, and New York Review of Books coeditor Barbara Epstein, Lurie celebrates the creative artists who encouraged and inspired her.
A lifelong devotee of children’s literature, she suggests saying no to Narnia, revisits the phenomenon of Harry Potter, and tells the truth about the ultimate good bad boy, Pinocchio.
Returning to a favorite subject, fashion, Lurie explores the symbolic meaning of aprons, enthuses on how the zipper made dressing and undressing faster—and sexier—and tells how, feeling abandoned by Vogue at age sixty, she finally found herself freed from fashion’s restrictions on women.
Always spirited no matter the subject, Lurie ultimately conveys a joie de vivre that comes from a lifetime of never abandoning her “childish impulse to play with words, to reimagine the world.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781883285784
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/14/2019
Pages: 225
Sales rank: 522,735
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alison Lurie, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, Foreign Affairs, has published ten books of fiction, four works of non-fiction, and three collections of tales for children. She is a professor emerita of English at Cornell University, and lives in upstate New York with her husband, the writer Edward Hower.


Ithaca, New York; London, England; Key West, Florida

Date of Birth:

September 3, 1926

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


A.B., Radcliffe College, 1947

Read an Excerpt



Nobody Asked You to Write a Novel

All young children are imaginative and creative; and while they remain young, these qualities are usually fostered. Their grubby but delightful paintings and verses and stories are extravagantly admired, shown to visitors, tacked to the kitchen walls. But as children grow older, encouragement of imaginative creation is often quietly replaced by encouragement of what have begun to seem more important traits: good manners, good marks, good looks; athletic and social success; and a willingness to earn money mowing lawns and baby-sitting — traits that are believed to predict adult success.

Children who seem unlikely to do very well along these lines sometimes find that their work stays on the kitchen wall longer than usual; and so it was with me. I was encouraged to be creative past the usual age because I didn't have much else going for me. I was a skinny, plain, odd-looking little girl, deaf in one badly damaged ear from a birth injury, and with a resulting atrophy of the facial muscles that pulled my mouth sideways whenever I opened it to speak, and turned my smile into a sort of sneer. I was clever, or as one of my teachers put it, "too clever for her own good," but not especially charming or affectionate or helpful. I couldn't seem to learn to ride a bike or sing in tune, and I was always the last person chosen for any team.

By the time I was eight or nine, I was aware of these disadvantages. I realized that I would never grow up to be an actress, a dancer, a model, an airplane stewardess, or even a receptionist. Luckily, none of these careers appealed to me. But it was also my belief that nobody would wish to marry me and I would never have any of the children whose names and sexes I had chosen at an earlier and more ignorant age. I would be an ugly old maid, the card in the pack that everyone wanted to get rid of.

I knew all about Old Maids from the Victorian and Edwardian children's books that were my favorite reading. Old Maids wore spectacles and old-fashioned clothes and lived in cottages with gardens, where they entertained children and other Old Maids to tea. They were always odd in some way: absent-minded or timid or rude or fussy. Sometimes they taught school, but most of their time was devoted to making wonderful walnut cake and blackberry jam and dandelion wine, to telling tales and painting pictures, to embroidery and knitting and crocheting, and to growing prize vegetables and roses. Occasionally they shared their cottage with another Old Maid, but mostly they lived alone, often with a cat. Sometimes the cat was their familiar, and they were really witches. You could tell which ones were witches, according to one of my children's books, because there was always something physically wrong with them: for instance, they had six fingers on one hand, or their feet were on backwards.

All right, that would be my future. I knew it was so because of the kind of positive reinforcement I was getting from adults. Just as with the Old Maids, all that I produced was praised: my school compositions, my drawings, my walnut brownies, my doll clothes and rag rugs, and especially my stories. "Charming!" "Really beautiful." "Perfectly lovely, dear." Nobody ever told me that I was perfectly lovely, though, as they did other little girls. Very well, then: perfection of the work.

Not that it seemed to me like work. Making up stories, for instance, was what I did for fun. With a pencil and paper I could revise the world. I could move mountains; I could fly over Westchester at night in a winged clothes-basket; I could call up a brown-and-white-spotted milk-giving dragon to eat the neighbor who had told me and my sister not to walk through her field and bother her cows. And a little later, when I tried nonfiction, I found that without actually lying I could describe events and persons in such a way that my readers would think of them as I chose. "Dear Parents — We have a new English teacher. He has a lovely wild curly brown beard and he gets really excited about poetry and ideas." Or, if he had written an unfavorable comment on my latest paper: "He is a small man with yellow teeth and a lot of opinions." Or any of two, three, twenty other versions of him, all of them the truth — if I said so, the whole truth. That was what you could do with just a piece of paper and a pencil; writing was a kind of witch's spell.

In my late teens, however, two things happened to disturb my contract with the world. First, adults stopped saying how wonderful my work was, and I had to admit that they were right. I had by then read enough classic European and American literature to realize that by comparison my stories and poems were not really worth so much attention. Clumsy apprentice spells, they seemed, when set beside those of the great magicians — even when, as happened occasionally over the next few years, they managed to appear in print.

The other thing that occurred about the same time was that a few young men began to show an interest in me in spite of my looks. Maybe I wouldn't have to be an Old Maid after all, or at least not just yet.

I didn't stop writing; I had got into the habit of it, as someone else might get into the habit of singing in the shower. But once I was out of college, with a full-time job, writing gradually began to seem more like smoking or biting one's nails or listening to soap operas: a bad habit, a waste of time. It was something my friends and lovers thought I really oughtn't to do too much of, especially since I got so upset when rejection letters came, as seemed to happen more and more often.

Twice in my life I deliberately tried to break the habit of writing. The first time I was twenty-six; I hadn't had anything accepted for five years, and my first novel had been turned down by six publishers. Whenever I thought of this, which was several times a day, I felt as if I had an incurable toothache; and every day the toothache got worse.

On the other hand, I had not only found someone who wanted to marry me, I now had a two-month-old baby. My graduate-student husband, seeing how depressed and distracted I was, suggested that I should cut my losses. "After all, Alison, nobody asked you to write a novel," was the way he put it that late-spring day after breakfast, as he shoved a stack of corrected freshman themes into his briefcase, closed it, and set out for Harvard Square.

These words continued to echo inside my head while I did the dishes, and while I changed the baby, and tucked him into his carriage, and pushed him down towards the Charles River so that he could, as the phrase went then, "get some fresh air." It was a hazy warm May day. The lilacs were out along the fence, bundles of dark purple peppercorns opening into pale mauve stars. "Nobody asked you to write a novel," I repeated to myself. "You don't have to make up stories. You're part of the real world: you have a real baby and a real husband and a real house. Look how pretty the world is, and all you have to do is live in it."

I parked the carriage beside a bench and sat down on the grassy, sloping riverbank. The sun shimmered on the flowing water, and a white fishnet of cloud slid up behind the trees on the other shore. The words "fishnet" and "slid" crossed my mind, but I didn't try to stop them or scribble them down on the back of an envelope as I would have before, when I was a writer. There was no point in saving ingredients for new spells; I wouldn't need them anymore. Two people strolled by along the path: an oddly assorted couple, one very tall, taking long strides; the other much shorter and hop-skipping to keep up. I didn't speculate about them; I deliberately inhibited myself from imagining who they were or what their relationship was. "You needn't bother; you are free of all that now," I told myself. "You are normal, you are happy." I sat there by the water waiting to experience my new condition, to feel my freedom and normality and happiness, to be filled with it, to flow naturally as the river flowed and enter fully into Being.

But instead another sensation, very much stronger, came over me. It was a sensation of intense boredom. Now that I wasn't a writer, the world looked flat and vacant, emptied of possibility and meaning; the spring day had become a kind of glossy, banal calendar photograph: View of the Charles River. "This is stupid," I said aloud. I stood up and pushed the baby home and changed him and nursed him and put him down for a nap and went back to the typewriter.

The second time I stopped writing was more serious. It was two years later; I now had two unpublished novels and a batch of stories in a rejected condition. I also had two children in diapers and no household help. I had to write in the evening, when I was always tired and often miserable — miserable twice over because of guilt, for this was in the Fifties, when having a respectable husband and children was supposed to make a woman perfectly contented unless she was very immature, selfish, and/or neurotic.

This time it wasn't just my husband who suggested that I cut my losses, but also many of my friends and relatives did as well. Poor Alison, the consensus was, nearly thirty, hasn't had anything published in seven years. Obviously she's not a very good writer; she's never going to make it. Why does she wear herself out and agonize so? Why isn't she satisfied with her life? Today these well-wishers — most of whom did sincerely wish me well — would probably recommend that I take up some other, more practical, career interest. Since it was the era of Togetherness, they suggested that I ought to give more time and attention to my family.

Whenever I sat down at my desk, now I instantly fell into a depression. What had gone wrong with my writing? What made editors say that it "didn't quite come off," "wasn't really for us," "didn't sustain our interest," and all the rest of the mealymouthed, damning phrases? Evidently, what we had been taught was true: a woman had to choose between a family and a career; she couldn't have both, like a man. By marrying, I had lost my powers. I had published two children, but my two novels had been born dead.

So I gave up being a writer. I really did it this time: not experimentally for an hour, but deliberately and for over a year. Instead of writing I threw myself into Togetherness the way I might have thrown a bone to a nasty dog I had to make friends with. I organized family picnics and parties and trips; I made animal cookies and tunafish casseroles; I took my children to the supermarket and to the playground; I played monotonously simple board games with them and read monotonously simple books aloud; I entertained my husband's superiors and flirted with his colleagues and gossiped with their wives.

I told myself that my life was rich and full. Everybody else seemed to think so. Only I knew that, right at the center, it was false and empty. I wasn't what I was pretending to be. I didn't like staying home and taking care of little children; I was restless, impatient, ambitious. Somehow, because I was clever, or because they were stupid, I had fooled people into forgetting my appearance. I passed in public as a normal woman, wife, and mother; but really I was still peculiar, skewed, maybe even wicked or crazy.

For thirteen months this was my private state of mind. Then a friend in Boston, V. R. Lang, died suddenly. Bunny Lang was one of the founders of the Poets' Theatre, a gifted poet, playwright, and actress whose eccentric vitality had made existence more interesting and more difficult for everyone she knew. It was my first such loss, unexpected and senseless: as if some giant child's hand hovering over a board game the size of Massachusetts had grabbed Bunny at random and thrown her away. The game went on as if she had never existed. Somehow, people managed without her; they began to forget her.

Disturbed, even frightened by this, I decided to put down everything I could remember about Bunny as fast as I could, to save it, before I too began to forget. I didn't expect that anyone else would care about what I remembered, much less that it would ever be published.

While I worked, not worrying for once about whether my sentences would please some editor, I experienced a series of flashes of light. First, I noticed that I felt better than I had in months or years. Next I realized that I wasn't writing only about Bunny, but also about the Poets' Theatre, about academia and the arts, about love and power. What I wrote wasn't the whole truth — I couldn't know that — but it was part of the truth, my truth. I could still cast spells, reshape events.

As I went on, I began to see that the point of Bunny's life was that she had done what she wanted to, not what was expected of her. She knew perfectly well that most people thought her difficult, immature, selfish, neurotic — yes, sometimes even wicked or crazy. But this was, for her, at most a recurring annoyance. As far as I could tell, it had never occurred to her to arrange her behavior so as to be approved of or suit the current idea of what a woman should be.

Also, and finally, I realized that I too was not immortal. Any day I could be snatched off the landscape; and if I were, I would disappear without having ever lived my own life. What I wanted to do was write. Very well then, that was what I would do, even if — as then seemed probable — I would never again be published.

In the end it did not turn out like that. I was lucky. Two years later, friends who had read my memoir of Bunny Lang paid to have three hundred copies of it privately printed. Two years after that the brother of another friend gave his copy to an editor at Macmillan, and this editor accepted my third novel, one written for my own pleasure, almost without hope of publication. Finally, after another thirteen years, the memoir itself appeared as the introduction to a collection of V. R. Lang's poems and plays.

Of course this is not the end of the story. Nor is it just my story. Not all writers are born with their feet on backwards, but most of them, in my experience, sometimes feel themselves to be witches or warlocks, somehow wicked, somehow peculiar, somehow damaged. At least until recently, this has been especially true of women, who in order to go on writing have had to struggle not only with the ordinary evil spirits of economic necessity, editorial indifference, and self-doubt, but also with the fear that they are not "normal" — however this word is currently defined. In the past it meant staying home and keeping house happily; today, more often, it means having an absorbing job. But in both cases the underlying demand is the same, just as it is for most men. It is a demand that is always fatal to a writer: work, conform, accept, succeed; forget your childish impulse to play with words, to reimagine the world.

Their Harvard

Not mine, certainly. For Radcliffe students in my time the salient fact about Harvard was that it so evidently was not ours. We were like poor relations living just outside the walls of some great estate: patronized by some of our grand relatives, tolerated by others, and snubbed or avoided by the rest.

Almost every detail of our lives proclaimed our second-class status. Like poor relations or peasants, who might carry some contagious disease, we were housed at a sanitary distance of over a mile from the main campus, in comfortable but less grand quarters than those of our male contemporaries. Just to get to the Harvard campus meant a long walk — and during the icy Cambridge winters a very chilling one, since slacks were forbidden outside the dormitory. These were also the days before fleece-lined boots and tights: instead we wore buckled or zippered rubber galoshes over our saddle shoes, and wool knee socks or heavy, baggy cotton stockings that left many inches of frozen thigh exposed under one's skirt.

Though we took the same courses from the same professors, officially we were not attending Harvard, and we would not receive a Harvard degree. For the first year or two we would be taught in segregated classes in a Radcliffe building. Later we might be allowed into Harvard lectures, but once there we were invisible to many of our instructors, who continued to address the class as "Gentlemen" and would not see our raised hands during the question period. Possibly as a result, few female hands — or voices — were ever raised in a Harvard course. Most of us supported the status quo by keeping our hands in our laps. When a female classmate attempted to attract the lecturer's attention, we raised our eyebrows or shook our heads; we considered such behavior rather pushy, possibly a sign of emotional imbalance.


Excerpted from "Words and Worlds"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Alison Lurie.
Excerpted by permission of Delphinium Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface 3

Personal History

Nobody Asked You to Write a Novel 7

Their Harvard 16

Words And Worlds

What Happened in Hamlet 31

The Language of Deconstruction 61

My Name or Yours 70

Witches Old and New 75


Archie's Gifts 97

Barbara Epstein 100

Edward Gorey 105

James Merrill 116

Children's Books

The Good Bad Boy: Pinocchio 121

The Royal Family of Elephants 135

Saying No to Narnia 154

Harry Potter Revisited 172

Bad Husbands 184

Rapunzel: The Girl in the Tower 189


Breaking the Laws of Fashion 205

Aprons 210

The Mystery of Knitting 215

Zippers 224

Life After Fashion 227

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