Soul of the White Heat: Essays By Joyce Carol Oates, Ecco, 370 pages, $27.99. It was many decades ago that people first started seriously floating the idea of Joyce Carol Oates as a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was before the Nobel Prize for Literature became, for many, a dubious way to recognize the world’s greatest writers. One of the functionaries of the Swedish jury flatly declared American writers to be too insular and inward to be considered in the world’s “literary conversation” as heard in Scandinavia. Under those circumstances, Canadian Alice Munro became a nose thumbed at living American writers.
Interestingly, as time has gone on, Oates remains an even more credible candidate for the Nobel Prize that ought to be and that used to be (before kneejerk anti-Americanism intervened and excluded John Updike, Philip Roth and Oates.)
Anyone of even vague literacy who can read Oates’ superb latest book of essays and not recognize a writer who located herself centrally in any Western “literary conversation” is, I submit, not paying suitable attention. The glorious paradox of all that is that as she gets older (she is 78), her work increasingly calls forth her Western New York roots. On page 42 of this book, she praises early Hemingway stories by recalling “in a tenth-grade English class at Williamsville High School in Williamsville, N.Y., under the tutelage of a wonderful teacher named Mr. Stein – (Harold Stein) – we were assigned an American short story anthology of classics” from Washington Irving to Faulkner and Hemingway, whose story “Soldier’s Home” seemed “especially beautiful and enigmatic” to her. Harold Stein was indeed his name and I am lucky enough to have had him in a summer school English course and be able to report that he was as wonderful as Oates says. Four pages later, she recalls “the fields, woods, and creeks of my childhood … where I grew up on a small farm on Transit Road in a rural community called Millersport, twenty miles north of Buffalo.” The rest of the book considers everyone and everything from H.P. Lovecraft to Georgia O’Keefe, Doris Lessing, J.M. Coetzee and Edna O’Brien to Zadie Smith, Mike Tyson, David O. Russell, Muhammad Ali and San Quentin. – Jeff Simon