About the Author: Michael Gorra '79
Place of Birth:
New London, CT
Waterford High School, Waterford CT, 1975; Amherst '79; Stanford for my Ph.D, 1986.
Why did I come to Amherst:
All the usual reasons, I guess. I wanted a demanding place, and a small one.
Two stand out. One will be obvious--Jack Cameron's "Topics in the Novel," in which I first read not only The Portrait of a Lady but also James' criticism along with Balzac, Flaubert...... The other was a class I took as a freshman, The Nature of Deviancy; my section was taught by Vicky Spelman who's now in the Philosophy Department at Smith--a class on the social construction of both individual identity and our ideas of "normality." I was a very conventional suburban boy of the 70s--a football player, even--and Vicky's class was an entirely salutary shock to my sense of the world.
Armour Craig was near the end of his teaching career when I took his big lecture class on Modern British Fiction. l remember his description of smuggling a copy of Ulysses into the U.S. during his own undergraduate days in the 1930s, when it was still banned . He was urbane and rather formal--charcoal pinstripes--and a bit scary; and also generous and kind. A year after that first course I very nervously asked him to do a special studies with me on Dickens. It only took him a minute to say yes.
I seem to switch my area with each book---I'm always writing about novels, but each time a different period or country. Now I'm beginning something on Faulkner and the Civil War, asking what each can tell us about the other.
Awards and Prizes:
Portrait of a Novel was a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Awards in biography. I've gotten a couple of fellowships over the years, from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities; and also the NBCC's annual award for a book reviewer.
There are so many! But I want to put in a plug for an obscure classic, not a novel but a great travel book about a European visitor to Mexico in the years after World War II, Sybille Bedford's A Visit to Don Ottavio.
Leaving James and Faulkner aside…I'd go for Alice Munro.