A Moving Essay by Joyce Carol Oates on Home

A Moving Essay by Joyce Carol Oates on Home March 2, 2010

From Smithsonian magazine, and via The New Yorker, comes this elegant meditation on the concept of home from writer and Princeton University professor Joyce Carol Oates

We are, Oates says, inextricably bound to place:

Writers, particularly novelists, are linked to place. It’s impossible to think of Charles Dickens and not to think of Dickens’ London; impossible to think of James Joyce and not to think of Joyce’s Dublin; and so with Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor—each is inextricably linked to a region, as to a language-dialect of particular sharpness, vividness, idiosyncrasy. We are all regionalists in our origins, however “universal” our themes and characters, and without our cherished hometowns and childhood landscapes to nourish us, we would be like plants set in shallow soil. Our souls must take root—almost literally.

She discusses how her concept of home has remained steady over the years:

Over the years of what seems to me both a long and a swiftly passing lifetime, “home” has been, for me, several places: Lockport, New York, where I was born and went to school, and nearby Millersport, New York, my home until the age of 18; Detroit, Michigan, where I lived with my young husband Raymond Smith, 1962-68—when he taught English at Wayne State University and I taught English at the University of Detroit; and Princeton, New Jersey, where we lived for 30 years at 9 Honey Brook Drive, while Ray edited the Ontario Review and Ontario Review Press books and I taught at Princeton University, until Ray’s death in February 2008. Now I live a half-mile from that house in a new phase of my life, with my new husband, Charles Gross, a neuroscientist at Princeton University who is also a writer and photographer. The contem­porary French provincial house in which we live on three acres fronting a small lake is “home” in the most immediate sense—this is the address to which our mail is delivered, and each of us hopes that this will be the last house of our lives; but if “home” is the repository of our deepest, most abiding and most poignant dreams, the landscape that haunts us recurringly, then “home” for me would be upstate New York—the rural crossroads of Millersport, on the Tonawanda Creek, and the city of Lockport on the Erie Canal.

Read the whole piece.  Really.  Writing of this quality is like a cup of perfectly smooth coffee, rich and rewarding.

For those not familiar with the author, she is a must-read, one who is a part of the cultural vocabulary.  Many of us who have moved from place to place in our modern travels will find good material to ponder here.  No matter how we may morph  in the course of our travels, we are still from a certain place and tethered, often happily, to a certain group of people whom the Lord has given to us as our own.

(Image: Landon Nordeman for Smithsonian)

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  • Bob Kirk

    Thanks Owen, although I live in a west coast metro now, home for me is still a small town in rural Alberta, which lives now only in my memory as much from my childhood has been torn down, remodeled, redeveloped. But I have to admit to a growing sense of another home in the future, linked somehow to the home town I grew up in, where I first learned the concept of the eternal home.