“I’m basically a reader, which is the best way to learn to write. I think the study of history and the marshaling of facts, the comparison of societies and movements and power structures, is far more important to my writing.”
─ Annie Proulx
By Andrew Huff
Though she only began publishing prose after age 50, Edna Annie Proulx (ΦBK, University of Vermont, 1969) has emerged as a dynamic American writer. Her first novel, Postcards (1992), won the PEN/Faulkner award, making her the first woman to earn the prize.
Then Proulx’s second novel, The Shipping News (1993), won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Meanwhile, her short story Brokeback Mountain (originally published in The New Yorker in 1997) won the National Magazine Award and inspired the 2005 Academy Award-wining film of the same name.
As a ΦBK alumna Proulx is dually remarkable: for the stories she pens and the life she herself lives, both of which exemplify Phi Beta Kappa’s values of excellence, inquiry, and integrity.
In A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (2009), American literary critic Elaine Showalter describes Proulx’s work as the counterpoint to the genre of “Chick Lit” that began with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996). The genre anchors readers in the fuss of dating, dieting, and sexuality of young single women.
Proulx, by contrast, mostly writes of a region and occupations traditionally led by men – rural Wyoming, hunting, cattle herding, and hog farming. In this domain, geography, climate, and livelihood outweigh personal melodrama. Her work, according to Karen Rood in Understanding Annie Proulx (2001), is considered part of the “new regionalism” style of writing that is reviving an appreciation for pastoral life in an increasingly urbanized nation.
Rood notes that in the 1970s and 1980s, Proulx wrote extensively for various publications such as Gourmet, Horticulture, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. She expanded her niche by writing multiple books on rustic topics such as Plan and Make Your Own Fences And Gates, Walkways, Walls, and Drives (1983) and The Fine Art of Salad Gardening (1985). In 1986, she won a Garden Writers of America award.
Proulx’s craft has involved a certain degree of experimentation. In an interview with The Paris Review, Proulx points out that she once bartered publication of a short story in Gray’s in exchange for a canoe. Meanwhile, The New York Times notes that from 1984 until 1986, Proulx founded and directed the The Vershire Behind the Times newspaper in Vershire, Vermont.
While Proulx’s written work deserves acclaim, her methodology also warrants praise for its admirable simplicity and audacity.
For instance, when asked by The Paris Review – in reference to researching for her novel That Old Ace in the Hole (2002) – “How does one get connected to Texas panhandle windmill repairmen?”, Proulx said: “Well, call them up and ask them. Go around to where they start out in the morning and see if you can go along.” Authentic writing dares the author to go deeper into the crux of the subject itself; success in writing hinges on a commitment to the research.
Proulx’s mother, a painter, taught her to see with great nuance. She raised her with the capacity to observe, as Proulx told The Paris Review, “everything — from the wale of the corduroy to the broken button to the loose thread to the disheveled mustache to the clouded eye.”
This appreciation for the potency of the ordinary tokens of daily life has become part and parcel of Proulx’s research. In an interview with The Missouri Review, she stated that when preparing to write a new story, she references city directories, geologic texts, plant guides, and local newspapers; speaks with local residents; and even consults scraps of paper she stumbles upon. Her methodology is a holistic blend of quiet study with loquacious inquiry.
Proulx openly acknowledges that research requires a certain degree of grit. As she told The New York Times when recounting her use of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English for crafting names in The Shipping News: “I literally slept with that book for two years, in the bed… I’d fall asleep while I was reading it. This is the point in work. You get it right, or you don’t do it. Everything depends on your getting it right.” Proulx’s dynamism and plainspoken appreciation of the labors of deep research evoke Phi Beta Kappa’s value of integrity – not just in oneself, but also in one’s work.
Upon reading Proulx’s work, one begins to re-read the objects of everyday life with greater vigor. Under Proulx’s guidance, a brusque American heroism begins to emanate from the contours of minutia. In fact, the category of minutia seems to dissipate altogether: the grandeur, one learns, lies in the petty details themselves.
Andrew Huff is a senior at Goucher College majoring in Political Science. Goucher College is home to the Beta of the Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.