Joyce Carol Oates, Detroit and the 60’s essay

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most popular American writers of the 20th century. Her literary works gained the public acclaim as well as the recognition of critics. At the same time, the writer basically attempted to convey the surrounding reality as she perceived in her everyday life. As a result, her woks were traditionally characterized by the high level of realism to the extent that some critics indicate to her trend to a sort of naturalism (Allen 177) where the realism of depiction is almost exaggerated in its extremes.

Naturally, Joyce Carol Oates did not become a successful writer in a day. Even though the first success in her literary career was quite early when she was just a beginning writer, nevertheless, she needed a lot of time and, what was probably more important, life experience to get matured, acquire essential skills and develop a particular style of writing. In such a situation, her formation years were extremely important. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the 1960s, which Joyce Carol Oates mainly spent in Detroit, may be viewed as the period of the formation of her artistic talent and her own style. At any rate, it is Detroit that really became the starting point of her great success. In fact, this was the city where the writer had learned a lot about the real life of America and acquired new personal experience as well as improved her professional knowledge within less than a decade she spent in Detroit.

The historical background of the 1960s

In order to better understand the role of the 1960s and its impact on Joyce Carol Oates as well as her the impact of Detroit on the creative work and views of the writer, it is necessary to briefly dwell upon the historical background of the epoch and find out the basic trends which could not fail to affect the writer. It proves beyond a doubt that the epoch and the social processes that took place around the writer influenced her perception of the surrounding world and, to a significant extent, stimulated her writing as a means by which she could express her own ideas and convey her message to the entire American society revealing extremely important problems of the contemporary America she had witnessed while living in Detroit.

First of all, it should be said that Detroit in the 1960s was a typical American city where the social and economic problems, especially those of deprived layers of American society, were particularly obvious since this was a large city and, consequently, its problems were similar to those all other Americans cities and towns had but they progressed in considerably larger scale than in smaller cities and towns. It should be said that Detroit of the mid-20th century, especially in 60’s, was extremely contradictive as well as the epoch at large.

On the one hand, Civil Rights movements, which progressed in 1950s, still produced a significant impact on the life of American society. The 1960s were also characterize by the strife of millions deprived Americans to struggle for their rights and equal opportunities. Citizens were conscious of their right to have a better life and larger opportunities. They rejected any sort of discrimination and were ready to lead an active struggle against oppression of their rights and liberties.

On the other hand, the deprived layers of American society still had little power in political and economic circles where the ruling elite remained practically unchanged. As a result, the contradictions between rich and poor, black and white, oppressing and oppressed were particularly strong in large cities such as Detroit. Moreover, the social, economic and political changes were too slow to satisfy the needs of the deprived part of American society and population of Detroit since the ruling elite attempted to preserve the status quo as long as possible avoiding radical changes people in need demanded so eagerly.

As a result, the 1960s were a very turbulent epoch in Detroit Joyce Carol Oates witnessed and all these socio-economic and political contradictions inevitably affected her formation as a mature and skillful writer who was a herald of the epoch she learned about in this city.

Detroit as Joyce Carol Oates’ “alma mater”

Basically, Detroit became the place where Joyce Carol Oates could fully realize her talent. In fact, this city became an extremely important stage in her professional growth. No wonder, the writer later wrote: “Detroit, my ”˜great’ subject, made me the person I am, consequently the writer I am ”“ for better or worse” (Bender 46). Detroit was the city where the beginning writer known for a limited circle of specialists became an outstanding artist that gained the public recognition and by the end of the decade won the National Book Award for fiction (Bender 210).

At the same time, it is necessary to underline that the writer gradually, step by step, polished her talent and develop her writing skills throughout the decade. Moreover, after graduating from Syracuse University and on receiving her Master of Art degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, she taught at the Detroit University from 1961 to 1967 (Allen 218). In such a way, she accomplished her education and started her professional career in Detroit.

Consequently, the early 1960s were marked by a significant shift in her professional life when she finished learning and started her teaching career. By the way, many critics underline that her work as a teacher also produced a profound impact on her literary career (Johnson 142). Teaching was not a one-way road to Joyce Carol Oates but it was rather a great experience where she conveyed her knowledge to students and received an important feedback and some new ideas from her students.

It is not a secret that students always tend to easily perceive progressive ideas and often they are highly sensitive to any sort of injustice that apparently influenced the writer as well since she could better understand her students and, therefore, she could better understand the major trends in the life of the younger generation, which she herself actually constituted a part. At the same time, working as a teacher, she managed to accurately perceive the social problems that really disturbed the city because she could communicate with people having different socio-cultural background.

In such a way, even though Joyce Carol Oates worked as a teacher in 1960s, it was the period of formation of her views and beliefs because she had just graduated and received her MA and her first professional experience was very important. In this respect, it is necessary to underline that her environment and major socio-economic and political trends she witnessed in Detroit in 1960s were extremely important to her. Consequently, Detroit actually became her “alma mater” providing her with essential knowledge and giving her food for thought and where she accomplished her education through implementing her knowledge in practice and acquiring important social experience.

The impact of Detroit’s reality on views of Joyce Carol Oates

Obviously, working and living in Detroit Joyce Carol Oates could not remain ignorant of the burning problems of the city. In fact, Detroit became a model of the entire country for the writer and, later she used her experience and her knowledge of the social problems of this city in her literary works. She was very sensitive in relation to the problems of ordinary people living in Detroit and probably this is why she reflected the reality of Detroit of 1960s in her books written in this period. In 1962 one of her short stories was published in Margaret Foley’s anthology “Best American Short Stories” that convinced her to keep writing and become a professional in this domain. The following years were extremely prolific but it is worthy of mention that the majority of her works created in this period were influenced by the numerous social problems the writer witnessed in abundance in Detroit. No wonder that the next year, in 1963, she had already published her first volume of short stories “By the North Gate” (Allen 273). In 1964, she published her first novel, “With Shuddering Fall” where she raised the problem of evil and violence under the impact of the numerous cases of violence that occurred in the real life in Detroit. This novel conveys the story of the love of a teenage girl and a driver that ends tragically with the accidental death of the latter. In such a way, the writer combined certain romanticism with the severe reality she conveyed in naturalistic details.

Furthermore, it is necessary to underline that numerous social problems of Detroit of the 1960s such as the growing gap between rich and poor, the blind strife for material prosperity and wealth, social and racial inequality became the basis for the famous trilogy created by Joyce Carol Oates in the 1960s, which explored three distinct segments of American society the writer observed in the city she lived in. This trilogy includes “A Garden of Earthly Delights” (1967), “Expensive People” (1967), and “Them” (1969). It is worthy of mention that the latter was written when the writer had already moved from Detroit but still its influence could be easily traced throughout the novel. In this trilogy the writer skillfully depicted the life of immigrant workers and farmers, the world of suburbanites, and the life of the ordinary urban Detroit family.

Obviously, these works were created under the impact of the dominating trends and social problems of Detroit of 1960s and basically they depict moral degradation and gradual decay of American society which she witnessed while living in this large city that was full of contrasts.

Changes in personal life of the writer in Detroit

However, the numerous social problems Joyce Carol Oates witnessed in Detroit and her professional development influenced her formation as a writer only partially. The impact of changes in her personal life on her creative work could hardly be underestimated. In this respect, it should be said that, in 1962, Joyce Carol Oates married Raymond Joseph Smith, an English educator (Johnson 203). This was a very important event since such a change in the personal life of the writer affected her literary work. It should be said that the marriage stimulated her creativity and contributed considerably to her prolific work within the decade and, especially, during the years the spouses spent in Detroit. This was new but very positive experience that made her life really balanced and in a combination with numerous problems she witnessed in everyday life, this created perfect conditions for creative work since the writer perfectly combined the stable and happy personal life with professional work as a writer (Allen 291). It is worthy of mention that her husband was quite supportive that naturally helped Joyce Carol Oates to improve her writing skills and create her most popular works.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the 1960s mostly spent in Detroit produced a profound impact on the creative work of Joyce Carol Oates. In fact, this decade became the period of the formation of Joyce Carol Oates as a professional writer. The observation of the life and numerous social problems of Detroit provided her with ample material for her short stories and novels and encouraged the writer to convey these problems to the mass audience, while the support of her husband and happy family life gave her comfort essential for her prolific work at the period. In fact, the decade, which was basically spent in Detroit, shaped her moral and social views and defined her future as a professional writer.

Leave a Reply