- Biographical and Critical Essay
- Going Down Fast
- Dance the Eagle to Sleep
- Small Changes
- Woman on the Edge of Time
- The High Cost of Living
- Braided Lives
- Fly Away Home
- Gone to Soldiers
- Summer People
- He, She, & It
- The Longings of Women
- City of Darkness, City of Light
- Three Women
- Writings by the Author
- Further Readings about the Author
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- Breaking Camp (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968).
- Hard Loving (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969).
- Going Down Fast (New York: Trident, 1969).
- Dance the Eagle to Sleep (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970; London: W. H. Allen, 1971).
- 4-Telling, by Piercy, Emmet Jarrett, Dick Lourie, and Robert Hershon (Trumansburg, N.Y.: New/Books, 1971).
- Small Changes (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973; Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1987).
- To Be of Use (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973).
- Living in the Open (New York: Knopf, 1976).
- Woman on the Edge of Time (New York: Knopf, 1976; London: Women's Press, 1979).
- The High Cost of Living (New York: Harper & Row, 1978; London: Women's Press, 1979).
- The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing (New York: Knopf, 1978).
- Vida (New York: Summit, 1979 [i.e., 1980]; London: Women's Press, 1980).
- The Last White Class: A Play About Neighborhood Terror, by Piercy and Ira Wood (Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1980).
- The Moon Is Always Female (New York: Knopf, 1980).
- Circles on the Water: Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1982).
- Braided Lives (New York: Summit, 1982; London: Allen Lane, 1982).
- Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982).
- Stone, Paper, Knife (New York: Knopf, 1983; London: Pandora, 1983).
- Fly Away Home (New York: Summit, 1984; London: Chatto & Windus, 1984).
- My Mother's Body (New York: Knopf, 1985; London: Pandora, 1985).
- Gone to Soldiers (New York: Summit, 1987; London: Joseph, 1987).
- Available Light (New York: Knopf, 1988; London: Pandora, 1988).
- Summer People (New York: Summit, 1989; London: Joseph, 1989).
- The Earth Shines Secretly: A Book of Days, by Piercy and Nell Blaine (Cambridge, Mass.: Zoland, 1990).
- He, She, & It (New York: Knopf, 1991); republished as Body of Glass (London: Joseph, 1992).
- Mars and Her Children (New York: Knopf, 1992).
- The Longings of Women (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994; London: Joseph, 1994).
- Eight Chambers of the Heart (London: Penguin, 1995).
- City of Darkness, City of Light (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1996; London: Joseph, 1997).
- What Are Big Girls Made Of ? (New York: Knopf, 1997).
- The Art of Blessing the Day (London: Five Leaves, 1998; New York: Knopf, 1999).
- Storm Tide, by Piercy and Wood (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1998).
- Written in Bone: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy (London: Five Leaves, 1998); republished as Early Grrrl: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy (Wellfleet, Mass.: Leapfrog Press, 1999).
- Three Women (New York: Morrow, 1999; London: Piatkus, 2000).
- Marge Piercy: Poems, New York, Radio Free People, 1969.
- "Laying Down the Tower," in Black Box 1, New York, Radio Free People, 1972.
- Reclaiming Ourselves, by Piercy, the Painted Women's Ritual Theater, and Jeriann Hilderley, New York, Radio Free People, 1974.
- The Ordeal of the Woman Writer [panel discussion with Toni Morrison and Erica Jong], New York, Norton, 1974.
- Reading and Thoughts, Deland, Florida, Everett/Edwards, 1976.
- At the Core, Washington, D.C., Watershed Tapes, 1976.
- "The Grand Coolie Damn," in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan (New York: Random House, 1970), pp. 421-438.
- "Women's Liberation: Nobody's Baby Now," in Defiance: A Radical Review, edited by Dotson Rader (New York: Paperback Library, 1970), pp. 134-162.
- "Mirror Images," in Women's Culture: The Women's Renaissance of the Seventies, edited by Gayle Kimball (Metuchen, N.J. & London: Scarecrow Press, 1980), pp. 187-194.
- "Starting Support Groups for Writers," in Words in Our Pockets: The Feminist Writers Guild Handbook, edited by Celeste West (San Francisco: Bootlegger, 1981), pp. 1-11.
- Early Ripening: American Women's Poetry Now, edited, with an introduction, by Piercy (New York: Pandora, 1987; London & Boston: Pandora, 1987).
- Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May, Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era, foreword by Piercy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988).
- "Active in Time and History," in Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, edited by William Zinsser (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), pp. 89-123.
- "Simone de Beauvoir," in Daughters of de Beauvoir, edited by Penny Forster and Imogen Sutton (London: Women's Press, 1989), pp. 112-123.
- "The Dark Thread in the Weave," in Testimony: Contemporary Writers Make the Holocaust Personal, edited by David Rosenberg (New York: Random House, 1989), pp. 171-191.
- "Fame, Fortune and Other Tawdry Illusions," in Written in Water, Written in Stone, edited by Martin Lammon (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 171-180.
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS-- UNCOLLECTED
- "Going over Jordan," Transatlantic Review, 22 (Fall 1966): 148-157.
- "The Foreign Policy Association: 50 Years of Successful Imperialism," CAW, no. 1 (February 1968): 6-10.
- "Love Me Tonight, God," Paris Review, 43 (Summer 1968): 185-200.
- "Do You Love Me?" Second Wave, 1, no. 4 (1972): 26-27, 40.
- "Somebody Who Understands You," Moving Out, 2, no. 2 (1972): 56-59.
- "Books for the Daughters," Margins, no. 7 (August/September 1973): 1-2.
- "Little Sister, Cat and Mouse," Second Wave, 3, no. 1 (1973): 9-12, 41.
- "From Where I Work: A Column," American Poetry Review, 5, no. 1 and no. 5 (1976); 6, no. 3 (1977).
- "I Will Not Describe What I Did," Mother Jones, 7 (February/March 1982): 44-56.
Marge Piercy's reputation as an important fiction writer began with the appearance of her first published novel, Going Down Fast, in 1969. Especially with Gone to Soldiers (1987) and City of Darkness, City of Light (1996), her genius for transforming history is realized. In all her novels Piercy examines women's roles, especially those traditionally relegated to men.
In an interview published in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy (1991), Piercy defines her fictional concerns by stating that she is "conscious of being very strongly in a women's tradition: an oral Jewish women's tradition transmitted to me by my mother and grandmother, first of all; second, a woman's tradition in writing; third, a contemporary community of women writers from whom I learn and with whom I share the discoveries each of us makes." Although women's issues always underlie Piercy's examination of history and culture and race and ethnicity, her fiction moves beyond particular causes to the question "who can bear hope back into the world," as she asks in Stone, Paper, Knife (1983).
Born on 31 March 1936, Marge Piercy grew up in inner-city Detroit within a patriarchal working-class family. Her father, Robert Douglas Piercy, who was born into a Presbyterian family but observed no religion, came from Welsh-English stock, grew up in a soft-coal mining town in Pennsylvania. He worked for Westinghouse all his adult life but was laid off for a year and a half during the Depression. Piercy's mother, Bert Bernice Bunnin Piercy, grew up in poverty and never finished the tenth grade. She taught her daughter to observe closely, value curiosity, and love books, fostering in her the characteristics that Piercy claims made her a poet and writer of fiction.
Piercy was particularly fond of her maternal grandmother, Hannah Bunnin Adler, who remarried some years after her first husband was murdered. Hannah Adler was born in Lithuania, the daughter of a rabbi; it was she who gave her granddaughter the Jewish name Marah and who, along with Marge's mother, brought her up in the Jewish faith, a heritage Percy affirms throughout her work. Piercy has one sibling--Grant Courtade, her mother's son by a previous marriage, who is fourteen years her senior. In a series of poems about him in What Are Big Girls Made Of? (1997) she says that although she and her brother "grew out of the same mother, they never spoke real words since she turned twelve." Despite this distance between them, however, Courtade had an important role in shaping his sister's psyche. From him she acquired what she has called "a license / for the right of the body to joy." This license allows Piercy to depict the faces of poverty, violence, and the ugliness of oppression, but still to hold out hope that religions and races can live together harmoniously. As clearly as any writer of her time, Marge Piercy conveys what it is to be a Jewish woman writer with strong links to her family and beliefs.
After attending public schools in Detroit, Piercy enrolled at the University of Michigan, winning Hopwood Awards for poetry and fiction in 1956 and for poetry in 1957. She earned her B.A. in 1957, having been elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi. After earning an M.A. from Northwestern University in 1958, Piercy married Michel Schiff, a Jewish particle physicist, and went with him to live in France. Piercy ascribes the breakup of this marriage to Schiff's inability to pay serious attention to her writing conventional views on the roles of women. Divorced at twenty-three Piercy supported herself with various part-time jobs: secretary, switchboard operator, department-store clerk, artists' model, and instructor at the Gary extension of Indiana University (1960-1962). During this time she wrote several unpublished novels and also became active in the Civil Rights movement.
In 1962 Piercy married Robert Shapiro, a computer scientist. The open marriage that they established meant that other men and women often shared the house with them. Over the next few years the couple lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, San Francisco, and Boston. In spring 1965 Piercy and her husband moved to New York City, where she did research on the CIA, helped found North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), and continued to be active in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As she continued writing and attempting to get her work published, Piercy and her husband became increasingly active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Her time was consumed by these political and literary activities during 1969, the year in which her first published novel appeared.
Growing out of her political involvement during the 1960s, Going Down Fast demonstrates how power corrupts even when it seems to represent progress. Such progressive developments as urban renewal and the building of a university extension may result in mere demolition, which Piercy likens to legalized rape. In this novel, Anna Levinowitz, a Jewish teacher at the university extension in Gary, Indiana, watches helplessly as her former home is destroyed:
The crane stood beside her building with neck bowed and suppliant, head resting on the ground. Her old rooms lay open. The outer wall and circlet of windows were gone to dust. The pale blue walls of her bedroom, the white wall of her kitchen were nude to the passerby. She felt a dart of shame.
In Going Down Fast and the novels that followed, Piercy's radical beliefs about the oppression of women found literary expression. In "A Fish Needs a Bicycle," an essay published in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (1982), she says that she finds it "absolutely essential as a poet and novelist to . . . draw from Marxism . . . a sense of class." Along with anarchism and feminism, these "three equally old radical collections of theory and practice . . . have shaped my political activities, my political thinking and all my writing." In Going Down Fast Anna confronts the questions: "what have I done with my life? where am I going?" Because sexual relationships confer possession and function, it is not surprising that while she is cooking in the kitchen, her lover pinches her from behind. Not only is Anna serving veal in sour cream, she is serving a man as a sexual object. Piercy finds that men often see their relations to women as taming and dominating. Anna's friend, Leon, tells her a story that illustrates this point:
A man got himself a pretty bright-colored bird because he liked the way it sang. He took it home and put it in a cage, but it wouldn't sing when it couldn't fly. Every day the bird got smaller and smaller; it wouldn't eat and drink and finally got so small it flew out like a mosquito through the wire mesh. That goes to show you, the man said, I should've invested in a better cage.
In the years following the publishing of Going Down Fast the political movement Piercy was part of gradually fragmented, and she became involved in the women's movement--writing articles, organizing consciousness-raising groups, and attending feminist functions. In 1971 Piercy and her husband, Robert Shapiro, moved to Cape Cod, where she still lives. Once there, Piercy's creativity and sense of peace blossomed. She discovered that she loved gardening, became active with local women's groups, and made frequent trips to Boston. Piercy's marriage began to fail. She and Shapiro were divorced in 1980.
During these years, Piercy's fiction grew progressively stronger, and her intense interest in history and politics is again evident in Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970). Classified as dystopian science fiction, the novel recalls the author's experiences as a member of SDS and anticipates her later interest in futuristic worlds. In this novel she depicts marginalized groups such as the Dakota Indians dancing a world into being, a "world in which things had been happy and good, and right. As in much of Piercy's fiction, the story is told from multiple points of view: in this case those of Corey, a half-Indian leader; Billy, a high-school whiz kid; Sean/Shawn, a musical rock star; and Jill/Joanna, a runaway teenager. Dance the Eagle to Sleep also deals with the effects of violence on and by political groups.
In Small Changes (1973) Piercy takes these ideas further, registering the meager alterations in the lives of women in spite of the so-called radical movements of the 1960s. Piercy says that this novel was designed to raise the consciousness of women about various entrapments--especially those of marriage. The question of what it means to be a "real" woman is addressed through the liberation of the protagonist, Beth Phail. The novel demonstrates how being a woman is traditionally grounded in male-centered biases that deny the validity of people often labeled as poor, white, black, lesbian, disabled, and transsexual. Piercy shows that such categorization often results in inaccurate and judgmental definitions. Through telling their stories, women are able to emancipate themselves from enclosure in patriarchal definitions.
In an autobiographical essay in volume one of Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Piercy says that her next novel, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), arose from "a tension between the harshness of much of my earlier life and the gratitude I felt toward the land where I was living. . . . It was also the first of my works to pay some sort of homage backward to my mother, for there is a lot of her in the character of Consuelo Ramos." As she explains in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, Piercy's women are bound by sex roles that divide "humanity into winners and losers, makers and made, doers and done. . . ." Who, she asks, "wants to be passive, moist, cold, receptive, unmoving, inert; sort of a superbasement of humanity?" Although the fictional Mattapoisett falls short of being Eden, it does hold out the possibility of a better world.
Envisioning gardens of Eden where there are none is one way Piercy affirms hope in a compromised world. She unearths beauty in squalor and believes that lessons can be learned from horror. Describing the Detroit of her childhood in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, she says it "sprawls . . . willfully ugly mile after flat smoggy mile," yet her tiny backyard was filled with produce and flowers: "tomatoes, beans, herbs, lettuce, onions, Swiss chard. . . . Pansies, iris, mock orange, wisteria, hollyhocks along the alley fence, black-eyed Susans, goldenglow whose stems were red with spider mites, bronze chrysanthemums, a lilac bush by the compost pile." Only her mother, she felt, was more beautiful than the flowers blooming in that yard; beauty and fear, oppression and hope grow in the same garden patch. If the past is made present, it can be a corrective and of use.
In her essay for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Piercy says that in The High Cost of Living (1978) she used her observations "of students and of young people generally, of the changing pressures of class, of the confusion between morality and politics so common in our culture." The novel deals with academia and exposes the consequences of choices, especially those made by women--both heterosexual and homosexual, mothers and virgins." These women make "work choices, living choices, sexual choices" that refigure their lives and represent the high cost of living in the present time. In an interview with Richard Jackson in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, Piercy says that she is always concerned with
what it means as a woman to be able to choose. These are difficult issues today in general, and especially for women on a political and social level. Feminism provides a point of view through which to understand problems, but I wouldn't say everything should be reduced to that. Racism is very real; the class struggle is very real. Feminism involves a strong sense of history, a strong sense of ourselves in nature, in natural cycles, and a sense of responsibility to each other whenever we need aid.
This imperative is succinctly stated in "The Sabbath of Mutual Respect," a poem Piercy collected in The Moon Is Always Female (1980): "praise any woman / who chooses, and make safe her choice." The High Cost of Living looks at the cost of succeeding in male disciplines.
Vida (1979), Piercy's fifth novel, juxtaposes two sisters, one of whom, the author says in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, "is a woman whose politics is based on a sense of her own oppression, her own situation, and who becomes a feminist, and the other sister is a woman whose politics is based primarily on the oppression of other people, and who is involved in the more traditional causes." Through her characterization of Vida, Piercy explores what it is to be a nonfeminist--though Vida is not indifferent to feminist actions and politics. Piercy explains in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt that for Vida the experience of being a political fugitive
is the experience of being an invisible woman, instead of a token woman. She was much less open to feminism when she was a token woman, a charismatic woman sharing the stage with men. As a fugitive, invisible and necessarily anonymous, she has none of that--her experiences are much closer to the experiences of ordinary women, and she becomes much more open to the ideas of feminism, though she could never be called a feminist.
Reviewing the novel in the National Review (30 May 1980), Norma B. Hawes praised Vida for examining the antiwar movement of the 1960s from a "viewpoint that deals with people and their relationships rather than ideas and ideals" and without the anger that often characterizes feminist literature. Again, Piercy's ability to portray the lives of individual women caught up in significant historical moments is the major strength of her work.
On 2 June 1982 Piercy married Ira Wood, whom she had known for six years. Early in their relationship they wrote a play, The Last White Class (1979), and poems. Later they wrote a novel, Storm Tide (1998). Piercy credits Wood with giving her an emotional and artistic security that nourishes her activism and her writing.
Although it is the most autobiographical of her novels, Piercy says that Braided Lives (1982) is not just "autobiography--it is far more novel than memoir. . . . I would call it a heightened fantasy on certain autobiographical themes." Like her character Jill, Piercy left home to escape the stultifying relationship with her mother, which she describes so poignantly in her poem "My mother's body." Here a daughter recognizes that her mother is her twin, sister, and lost love, and she says: "I carry you in me like an embryo / as once you carried me." The mother's body, alive in her daughter's, dares to be reborn and is a part of her child's personhood. The theme of motherhood and its concomitant metaphors of childbirth may testify to the traditionally creative and maternal. As Sara Ruddick pointed out in a 1994 essay,
A child is mothered by whoever protects, nurtures, and trains her. Although it is a material, social, and cultural fact that most mothers are now women, there is no difficulty in imagining men taking up mothering as easily as women--or conversely, women as easily declining to mother.
Piercy often argues that to be a woman is not so much a sex as an attitude. In Braided Lives Jill makes this point when she says: "I don't know a girl who does not say, I don't want to live like my mother." But in reference to the way lives are entwined, she asks: "Is it our mothers, ourselves, or our men who mold us?" Piercy shows that untangling the strands that make up the braid of our lives can be a daunting task.
Although Ellen Sweet, reviewer for Ms (March 1984), claims that Fly Away Home (1984) has the hackneyed theme of self-realization through divorce, the novel again affirms the need and the right of women to make personal choices. Daria Walker, the central figure in the novel, whose 140-year-old house is "her treasure, her artwork, her outer skin," attempts to separate the self from imperatives of ownership and possession. She realizes that a woman is not her house, and she does not have to "think thin" and diet because of the dictates of fashion or men. She can be a cook if she wishes, and the smell of barbequed pork emanating from the kitchen may, in her imagination, be "her husband spitted over a slow fire." In keeping with this metaphor of cooking, which signifies woman's traditional role and her rage at being part of such a stew, Piercy playfully says that in some recipes "before cooking is commenced, the disparate ingredients must sit together for a time: it is called the marrying of the herbs, the spices. At a certain point the flavor is different than the sum of its parts. That is happening . . . we are making a new whole." Daria finds that as she establishes her identity as a woman in her own right, she can move toward more creative and satisfying relationships. At the end of the novel she is a better woman for being on her own. At the party that follows their divorce, Daria and Ross Walker are pronounced "woman and man, strangers to each other bodily, emotionally and in all of their values until the time of their death."
Piercy's next novel, Gone to Soldiers , takes a bold step forward. The book is a war story that examines women's position in what has traditionally been masculine terrain. Piercy uses war to present a religious, gay, feminist-psychological slant on ethnicity. She disrupts the rootedness of family and place, the stability of jobs in the traditional, established, patriarchal work force, and shows that equality in relationships may be only a dream. Twins who call one another by their Hebrew names, Rivka and Naomi, rather than Renée and Nadine, their legal French names, are separated because of World War II. Their alienation from one another, their family, and their home and homeland is the theme that unifies the novel as ten characters reenact the historical lessons of a ravaged past that is still alive in the present--a postmodern conjunction that Susan Rubin Suleiman defines as
that moment of extreme (perhaps tragic, perhaps playful) self-consciousness when the present--our present--takes to reflecting on its relation to the past and to the future primarily as a problem of repetition. How does one create a future that will acknowledge and incorporate the past--a past that includes, in our very own century, some of the darkest moments in human history--without repeating it? How does one look at the past with understanding, yet critically, . . . which has to do with discrimination and choice in the present?
As Piercy states in Gone to Soldiers, her novel "is conceived in the imagination," but she "wanted nothing to happen in it that had not happened somewhere in the time and place I was working with." She says that she has "relied heavily on my own memory and on the memories of my family and of families" she had known well. It is through this re-creation of memory that she is able to make Jewishness--particularly that of female Jewishness--central to the history of mankind. Jacqueline speaks out, naming the atrocities she suffers and telling how it is to be victimized by those who are "crazy with power." She describes being lashed and beaten and tells about being "stripped, tattooed, shaved of . . . head and body hair." In relating what it is like to have no name, "no clothing, nothing individual," and "to live in terror as if it were the air we take into our lungs," she shows that it is only by articulating one's ethical beliefs that acting ethically may become possible. Gone to Soldiers and City of Darkness, City of Light may well be Piercy's finest achievements.
Piercy's tenth novel, Summer People (1989), unveils the nature of relationships within a ménage à trois: Dinah, an avant-garde composer, Willy, a sculptor and fashion designer, and Susan, Dinah's lover and best friend. The psychological boundaries of threesomes illustrate the complexity of such relationships whether they exist among women and men, women and women, or men and men. The novel is important partly as a study of sexuality that emphasizes hidden issues within nontraditional alliances--issues such as intimacy, fear of abandonment, jealousy, commitment, power, and control.
In He, She, & It (1991) language--specifically the power of naming--is central, as it often is in Piercy's work, and she does not fail to speak of failed relationships, violence, oppression, and man's inability to conserve and use well the habitable earth. As a character in this novel says,
when we give a name to something in our lives, we may empower that something, as when we call an itch love, or when we call our envy righteousness; or we may empower ourselves because now we can think about and talk about what is hurting us, we may come together with others who have felt this same pain, and thus we can begin to do something about it.
In He, She, & It Piercy claims that "we construct the world out of words," connecting "with powers beyond our own fractional consciousness to the rest of the living beings we all make up together." She notes that the Hebrew word davar means both "word" and "thing."
In 1993 He, She, & It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. Patricia Doherty calls it "Another of Piercy's creative utopian stories" and notes that it "alternates between the story's setting in a Jewish settlement in the middle of the twenty-first century offset by the retelling of the legend of the golem of seventeenth-century Prague." This shift in time and emphasis allows Piercy to address a postmodern concern--that of the interface between human and machine--especially during the Industrial Revolution, when people became exploitable labor. The multi-envisioned world of Norika easily breaks traditional boundaries--such as human and nonhuman, physical and nonphysical--and places reader and character alike in a new age where technology and the availability of body parts make who and what human beings are problematic. Piercy conflates biology, technology, ecology, capitalism, militarism, class, gender, new sexualities, and ethnicities. Humans who are tool users and makers create selves, stories, and new worlds. A golem and a cyborg are both material-semiotic generative cells of production. Both human and divine natures are the manifestation of space, place, and text--all of which interface and mediate information exchange. At the end of the novel Piercy reminds the reader of human responsibility and shows that it is imperative to question-as Shira does--the desire to "feel empowered to make a living being who belongs to me as a child never does and never should." The human race does not own the earth or any living thing, and the terrible power to possess, to create, and to destroy must be examined again and again. As Malkah says in fashioning the cyborg Yod:
Creation is always perilous, for it gives true life to what has been inchoate and voice to what has been dumb. It makes known what has been unknown, that perhaps we were more comfortable not knowing. The new is necessarily dangerous. You, too, must come to accept that of your nature, Yod, for you are truly new under the sun.
In The Longings of Women (1994) Piercy joins the lives of three women. As Kerstin Westerlund Shands explains, "The three protagonists are brought together through plot and characterization as well as through imagery of marginal or open spaces juxtaposed with tropes of invisibility, dissimulation, and camouflage integral to the novel's exploration of women's encapsulation in patriarchal codes and their methods of actualizing some measure of autonomy and authenticity." Piercy's intent, as expressed throughout her work and especially in this novel, is to examine the longings of women whether they command a place in academe, are homeless, or are trapped within the boundaries placed around the working-class poor. For all women, issues of identity are paramount. Despite a need for her husband to be "as physically smitten with her as she was with him," Professor Leila Landsman, a forty-five-year-old writer who knows more about literary than actual love, recognizes that one of the reasons for the length of her marriage was "that I and my husband led separate lives and spent part of every year apart." But is such a relationship love? Perhaps women want power when they say they want love. Another character, Becky Souza Burgess, loves the way Sam "was always trying to do what she told him"--especially when she gives him directives about making love. Becky wants to escape the shabby house where her mother struggled to raise seven children, and she wants security and position. She also wants to be in love, but she confuses love with lust. An actress in a theater group, she plays roles--and fails to achieve the position of power she desires. Unable to manage even the condo for which she spends most of her salary, she is a victim of her own longings, which lead her to kill. Leila Landsman calls love a disease--a "long and tedious delusion. . . . a one-person brainwashed cult." Why then, Piercy questions, are women so enraptured by love? The third woman, homeless Mary Burke, offers another perspective, emphasizing the accommodations of women. Trying to pass as a respectable middle-class woman rather than a bag lady, she goes through department stores trying samples of makeup and spraying herself with perfume. A woman wearing lipstick, makeup, and powder is deemed respectable. If Mary could look right and smell right, she believes, she would not be thought homeless and a vagrant. Mary, like Becky, assumes a mask. Even her daughter, who runs the "Goddess Shop" for oversized women who would not be thought of as goddesses, does not understand her mother's plight. Mary Burke's name alludes to Edmund Burke , the eighteenth-century British philosopher who wrote that death is the loss of self. Buying into the myth "that if you were pretty and smart, you would get what you wanted," Mary says that when her husband wanted her out of his way, he treated her "like a piece of cheese that had turned bad." In the end Leila finds a way to give Mary an opportunity to return to the middle class. Through such characters, the novel carefully examines how much personal space a woman needs to be happy and successful.
Piercy's next novel was an important literary achievement. City of Darkness, City of Light views the French Revolution from a feminist perspective. Piercy employs six viewpoint characters: Maximillien Robespierre, George Danton, Condorcet, Madame Roland, Pauline Leon, and Claire Lacombe. Historians of the period have praised Piercy's portrayal of Robespierre, who Piercy views with a mixture of admiration and horror at what he became. The novel also focuses on the roots of modern feminism in the French Revolution, examining how revolutionaries abandon their original ideals as they become corrupted by power. Two of the main characters are feminists: Particularly compelling are Piercy's fictionalized versions of three Revolutionary women. Pauline Leon, an unmarried chocolate maker, and Claire Lacombe, an actress who founded the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women in 1793. The members of this most radical women's group of the French Revolution wore red liberty caps, tricolor ribbons, and trousers, carried pistols and daggers, and were, Piercy writes,
far more visible than the men who always outnumbered them. They were scarier than they should have been. Most men saw them as bloodthirsty Amazons about to do something unspeakable. That they had seized the male prerogatives of weapons and bold demands seemed to scare the men the most, as if some enormous charade on which their power depended might topple. That was their most potent weapon: the perception of them as unnatural, out of control and therefore wild and dangerous. . . . but it was male fear that gave them their edge.
Setting her novel in France between 1789 and 1794, Piercy explores structures of dominance and subordination as they relate to class and caste, race and religion, and social and economic reform. Indeed she constructs the force of women witnessing the world. She contrasts the views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher and antifeminist who argued that women were domestic creatures designed to please husbands and bear children, and of the profeminist Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, who contended in "On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship" (1790) that women possessed rights equal with men. He was, Piercy says,
almost alone in his new ideas, but he observed in the salons that educated women were as intelligent and able in argument, in pointed discourse, as any of the men, and often as witty. He could see no basis in his own experience for the universal belief that women were mental or emotional children. Some no doubt were, since they were given little useful training and no real education; but then, a great many men were idiots or mental incompetents. Freedom was a universal right of all humans or an intellectual contradiction. If only some were born free, then freedom could not exist except as a greedy privilege.
For Piercy ethnic concerns are never separate from those associated with race, class, and gender, and she is particularly interested in the plight of Mendès Herrera, who, as an outcast Jew, had "no rights, no legal status," and was "hardly viewed as human." She emphasizes again the power of language, saying that it "is the great tool by which we manipulate each other socially and are manipulated. Poverty of life goes with poverty of mind. What we can't speak about, we can't think about." Human beings "do each other in," as Georges Danton says at the end of the novel. "It's a disease. The poison is power." Louis Capet lost his head, but the Revolution marched on. Life and times changed, but not necessarily for the better. If the world is to become a safe place for all classes and religions, then, Piercy asserts, power must not be abused but administered with accountability and care.
Three Women (1999) tells the story of a mother, grandmother, and daughter who find themselves, after a period of independence, trying to coexist in one house. At the age of forty-nine, Suzanne Blume, a successful trial lawyer and law professor, finds herself the caregiver for her mother, Beverly, who has suffered a stroke and is no longer able to live alone in her own apartment. Suzanne's unemployed daughter, Elene, in her late twenties, returns home and conducts a clandestine affair with her mother's friend's husband.
Examining issues associated with aging, disability, and health care, Piercy shows that it is not easy for three generations to live harmoniously together when each is deprived of a place of her own. Yet, woman is traditionally the healer, and it is she who is able to transcend personal tragedy.
During her distinguished literary career, Piercy has taught or been a writer in residence at schools such as the University of Kansas (1971), Thomas Jefferson College and Grand Valley State College (1975-1976, 1978, and 1980), Holy Cross University (1976), State University of New York at Buffalo (1977), University of California at San Jose (1984), Ohio State University (1985), University of Cincinnati (1986), and University of Michigan (1992). She has also taught at many writers' conferences. In addition to the honors mentioned previously, she has received the Borestone Mountain Poetry Award (1968 and 1974), the Literature Award from the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on the Status of Women (1974), a National Endowment for the Arts Award (1978), the Rhode Island School of Design Faculty Association Medal (1985), the Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prize (1986 and 1990), the Sheaffer Eaton-PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence (1989), the Golden Rose Poetry Prize (1990), the New England Poetry Club (NEPC) Award (1990, 1991, and 1992), the May Sarton Award (1991), the Brit ha-Dorot Award of Shalom Center (1992), the Barbara Bradley Award (1992), and the Orion Scott Award in Humanities (1993).
From the beginning Piercy's novels have expressed a fundamental belief in the possibilities of freedom for all people, regardless of age, sex, race, religion, or sexual preference. She recognizes history as a continuing lesson in how people may exist together as true individuals while creating a stable society based on understanding and respect. Her fiction and poetry have social and literary value. It is clear that Piercy will continue writing fiction, and if her most recent novels are any indication, her best novels may lie ahead of her.
The Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan has a collection of Marge Piercy's manuscripts and memorabilia.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- "An Interview With Marge Piercy," Kalliope, 4 (Winter 1982): 37-45.
- "Interview with Ira Wood and Marge Piercy," Pulp, 8, no. 1 (1982).
- Richard Jackson, "Shaping Our Choices," in his Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets (University: University of Alabama Press, 1983).
- Interview with Kay Bonetti [recording], Columbia, Mo.: American Audio Prose Library, AAPL 168-1, 1986.
- Kathy Shorr, "Marge Piercy," Provinceton Arts Magazine, 90 (1990).
- Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson, Inter/View: Talks With America's Writing Women (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), p. 65.
- Lisa Davis, "Marge Piercy on Cooperative Living," Communities: Journal of Cooperative Living, 82 (Spring 1994): 57-58.
- Patricia Doherty, Marge Piercy: An Annotated Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).
- Francs Bartkowski, "The Kinship Web: Joanna Russ's The Female Man and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time," in her Feminist Utopias (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
- Diane P. Freedman, "The Ecology of Alchemy, or, Recycling, Reclamation, Transformation in Marge Piercy, Tess Gallagher, Alice Walker, Susan Griffin," in her An Alchemy of Genres: Cross-Genre Writing by American Feminist Poet-Critics (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1992).
- Elaine Tuttle Hansen, "The Double Narrative Structure of Small Changes," in Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1985).
- Lisa Maria Hoegland, Feminism and Its Fictions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1998).
- Anne Hudson Jones, "Feminist Science Fiction and Medical Ethics," in The Intersectional of Science Fiction and Philosophy, edited by Robert E. Myers (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983).
- Margaret Keulen, Radical Imagination: Feminist Conceptions of the Future in Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Sally Miller (New York: Peter Lang, 1991).
- S. Lilian Kremer, Feminism and Its Fictions (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).
- Susan Kress, "In and Out of Time," in Future Females: A Critical Anthology, edited by Marlene Barr (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981).
- Magali Cornier Michael, Feminism and the Postmodern Impulse: Post-World War II Fiction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).
- Elaine Orr, "Mothering as Good Fiction: Instances from Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time," Journal of Narrative Technique, 23 (Spring 1993): 61-79.
- Sara Ruddick, "Thinking Mothers/Conceiving Self," in Representations of Motherhood, edited by Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 29-45.
- Joanna Russ, "Recent Feminist Utopias," in Future Females, edited by Marlene Barr (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981).
- Kerstin Westerlund Shands, The Repair Of The World (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994).
- Robert Shelton, "The Social Text as Body: Images of Health and Disease in Three Recent Feminist Utopias," Literature and Medicine, 12 (Fall 1993): 161-177.
- Christine W. Sizemore, "Masculine and Feminine Cities: Marge Piercy's Going Down Fast and Fly Away Home," Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 13, no. 1 (1992): 90-110.
- Pia Thielmann, Marge Piercy's Women: Visions Captured and Subdued (Frankfurt, Germany: R. G. Fischer, 1986).
- Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, eds., Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy (Mobile, Ala.: Negative Capability Press, 1991).