The Detroit riots influenced the writings of Joyce Carol Oates. Violence is a frequent theme in her novels and her masterful depiction of how her characters experience the negative conditions in life often leave most of her readers sad but satisfied. The succeeding sections shall describe the Detroit riots and discuss the works where these are most evident. The essay begins with a brief biography of Oates and concludes by reiterating the role that the social conditions in Detroit play in her works.
Biography of Joyce Carol Oates
According to the Academy of Achievement, Joyce Carole Oates has already written at least “56 novels, over 30 collections of short stories, eight volumes of poetry, plays, innumerable essays and book reviews” and to this day she still continues to put on paper the intricate lives of the characters in her head. Born to a simple family in rural New York on the 16th of June 1938, Joyce Carole Oates grew up enjoying the natural country environment and making the most of all the opportunities that come her way. She had her first typewriter at 14 courtesy of her grandmother and she began putting on paper the stories that come to her. Her excellence and intelligence earned her scholarships. She graduated with an English degree at Syracuse University and completed her Masters in just one year at the University of Wisconsin. She received the National Book Award for the novel them in 1969 and the PEN/Malamud Award for a lifetime of literary achievement. She is currently a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University.
It was in 1962 Oates and her husband arrived and settled in Detroit for a little over five years. It was in Detroit that Oates witnessed the dismal socio-economic conditions of the suburbs. She was only a street away from Twelve St., the scene of the Detroit riots in 1967. Her observations and experiences in this city became a backdrop of many of her novels. Oates explains that “most of [her] writing is preoccupied with ‘the imagination of pain,’ and this is simply because people need help with pain, never with pain” (Milazzo).
Violence in Detroit
Novels depicting Detroit and Detroit-like environment
Daly points out that Oates has reiterated often that she [Oates] “is concerned with only one thing” and that this was “the moral and social conditions of her time.” The novels of Oates entitled Upon the Sweeping Flood, With Shuddering Fall, and also them contain these statements in their epigraphs (25). Four books called together as the “Wonderland Quartet” present a vivid picture about what goes on in inner cities in the mid-20th century America. These are A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967 ), Expensive People (1968), Them (1969 ), and Wonderland (1971). Them explicitly names the area where the characters reside as Detroit, in the other novels, the setting are named differently. In these novels, Oates shows in the pages the suffering of certain individuals as they go about their seemingly hopeless existence. In A Garden of Earthly Delights characters represent real personalities /persons. The grandfather, a migrant worker, has a superiority complex. His wife, dies of childbirth after being pregnant multiple times (Lask, np). Expensive people is about a boy who becomes a parent murderer (Knowles, np) and this novel presents a growing problem in families that although ignored does not disappear. This also depicts changes in American families that may have been brought about by societal problems of neglect and ambitions. Expensive People is “set in Fernwood, an imaginary Detroit suburb” (Oates, Introduction). Them earned Oates the National Book Award for that year. As earlier mentioned, this particular work traced the characters story of surviving a life in Detroit amidst the poverty, violence, and most of all the riots.
Oates’ novels receive plenty of reviews and criticisms. One such review appeared at the New York Times. According to Geoffrey Wolff, “Expensive People is witty, precisely calculated, and bizarre [while] A Garden of Earthly Delights speaks with almost perfect felicity in a variety of voices, and is incidentally bizarre. He finds Them “legitimately powerful” but Wonderland for him is “merely a bad, a very bad, single performance.” Wonderland is about Dr. Jesse who was adopted by a Dr. Pedersen because Jesse lost his mother and siblings to his father’s cruel hands who also killed himself. All these four novels contain themes of murder, suffering, children killing their parents, addiction, rape, and many more ills of society which are graphically presented through Oates’ clever narratives.
Violence in the novels of Oates
The above-mentioned novels of Oates are not the only works she produced that dealt with poverty and violence. Although not explicitly making Detroit the setting, this author believes that the years of her stay in Detroit has influenced her views about society and shreds of such influence are present in her other works. It was also said that the years she had spent on Detroit impacted her style of writing making her a distinct Goth novelist. Oates herself related that often she has been asked the question why her writing was violent and one suggested answer was maybe because her residence was Detroit. Oates felt the question was insulting and ignorant, and she wondered if the same question would be asked to a male author. Joyce Carol Oates’ answer to this question was that she writes about life (Oates, np).
This paper briefly described the life of Joyce Carol Oates emphasizing that she is a prolific writer with more than 50 published novels and she still continues to write up to the present. Oates and her husband had settled in the city of Detroit in the 1960s and it was there that she personally witnessed the socio-economic and political conditions of the Detroit suburbs. The situation in Detroit became the backdrop of many of her novels particularly the Wonderland Quartet comprised of A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967 ), Expensive People (1968), Them (1969 ), and Wonderland (1971). The novel them earned Oates her first National Book Award. This novel also explicitly identifies the setting as the City of Detroit. In Expensive People the setting was still a Detroit suburb although this has been renamed as Fernwood. The Wonderland Quartet presented situations that were representative of the occurrences in the real world America in the mid-19th century when issues of racism, sexism, poverty, and inequality plagued American society.
This author believes that the Detroit Riots in 1967 influenced the writings of Joyce Carol Oates. The Detroit Riots had roots in years of tension between the Whites and Blacks. Analysts have identified social problems in inner cities such as Detroit to be the cause of the riots. The situation was always volatile that a single spark, such as the event in Twelve Street, can lead to riots, arrests, and deaths from both sides of the population. Joyce Carol Oates did not limit herself to write about domestic affairs, instead she uses her gift to present the harsh realities of life through her narratives. She had witnessed extreme conditions of real people and she allowed her readers to also experience life as it was in certain periods of American history. She has a way of depicting the harsh realities through a graphic presentation of the lives of real people in American society in her much sought-after novels.
Arden, Joe T. & Thomas, Richard W. Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide. East Lansing: MSU Press, 2013. Print.
Academy of Achievement. “Biography: Joyce Carol Oates.” Retrieved from http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/printmember/oat0bio-1.Web. 29 Sept 2013.
Daly, Brenda O. Lavish Self-divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Print
Lask, Thomas. “Books of the Times.” The New York Times, 5 September 1967. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.
Knowles, John. “Nada at the Core.” The New York Times, 3 November 1968. Web. 30 Sept 2013.
Wolff, Geoffrey. “ Miss Oates loves to Splash Blood on Us.” The New York Times, 25 October 1971. Web. 30 Sept 2013.
Milazzo, Lee (ed).Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Introduction.” Expensive People. Random House LLC, 2009. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Why is your writing so violent?” The New York Times, 29 March 1981. Web. 29 Sept 2013.