In her long and famously prolific career as a novelist, Joyce Carol Oates has worked in many different modes, from the social realism of her National Book Award-winning "them" (1969) and the neo-Gothic storytelling of "Bellefleur" (1980) to the dreamlike historical fiction of "Black Water" (1992) and "Blonde" (2000), both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. In "The Accursed," Oates combines elements of all of these styles in a bravura performance that has yielded her best, most entertaining and engrossing novel in years.
Set in Princeton, N.J., in 1905-06, this ambitious, often wickedly satirical yarn imagines the great social transformations of the early 20th century through the eyes of wholly fictional and real-life characters, including a trio of presidents of the United States — Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt — along with Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) and other legends of the era.
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Amazingly, Oates wrote the first draft of "The Accursed" nearly 30 years ago and finished it only recently. Printers Row Journal caught up with the 74-year-old author by phone to discuss the novel's remarkably protracted gestation; here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: I was at a literary conference in Key West a little more than a year ago when I heard you say you were working on a novel whose first draft you'd written in 1984, which I now know was "The Accursed." How was it that you returned to that manuscript after so many years?
A: When I first began teaching at Princeton University in the late 1970s, I conceived a novel set at Princeton and that part of New Jersey, which is very rich in history. I had access to a great university library, the Firestone Library, which has a great deal of material on Woodrow Wilson, including his letters. So I began this long, postmodernist Gothic novel that would deal with many social issues in the early 20th century, including the class struggle, women's struggles and particularly the racial struggle, but cast in a Gothic storytelling vein. I drew a big map of Princeton at that time, with my fictitious houses mixed in with the real houses. The real houses, like Drumthwacket, are beautiful and enormous; many are still lived in by private families, although Drumthwacket is now the governor's mansion. So the novel has its origins in to me a very vivid, living history and a specific place, with houses, parks, trees, churches and the Princeton Theological Seminary, which I walk past all the time. I wrote a draft, but I wasn't satisfied with the voice, which seemed to me too 19th century. I needed a way to make it a little more contemporary, even though the story is set in 1905.
Q: You wrote a number of neo-Gothic novels around that time, including "Bellefleur," "A Bloodsmoor Romance" and "Mysteries of Winterthurn."
A: Yes, and each one has its own particular voice. "Mysteries of Winterthurn" was my favorite of that series, and like it, "The Accursed" has many historical figures that are quasi-real. Woodrow Wilson is quite real, of course, and I use some of his letters more or less verbatim. Jack London was a fascinating personality, and the way he behaves in my novel, which seems quite extreme and even demented, is based on the observations of people who knew him. Upton Sinclair, I knew a bit about him; the cabin in which he lived part of the time was on Rosedale Road, which I drive all the time going to the university. I also did some research on Theodore Roosevelt.
Q: But the narrative voice remained a problem.
A: Yes, and so I put the draft aside for many years while I was working on other projects. Sometimes I would take it out and start to rewrite it, but I'd get to about page 30 and stop, because I'd just not have the voice. I did this probably 10 times over the years. In 2011, I took it out again, and this time I had an idea, which was to focus on a theme. The theme I came up with was the moral indifference, really the tangible and unconscionable indifference, of the ruling white Christian class to African-Americans and their social situation, including the activities of (racist groups). With that focus, I rewrote the novel in a voice that seemed adequate for that theme. The characters and some of the plot are the same, but they're expressed in a different language now. I'd never had an experience quite like that, and it was very thrilling for me to take each chapter up from the old novel and reshape it, condense and compact it, give it a certain velocity.
Q: Did the original draft have the same narrator, the aristocratic Mr. van Dyck, who's looking back on the events from the vantage point of many decades later?
A: Yes, but he's more contemporary now, less 19th century. His wit is a little sharper, and he doesn't talk as much.
Q: How accurate are the portraits of the various historical figures in the book? Was Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton, in fact a paranoid, neurotic person?
A: Yes, he was. He was extremely vain. He had a public self and a private self, and the private self was extremely hypochondriacal. He had an armamentarium of all these different medicines. He used enemas because like many people of that era, he took laudanum, which caused constipation. His paranoia may have been fueled by some of the drugs he was taking.
Q: That was a period of a lot of faddish thinking about health, as we know from T.C. Boyle's "The Road to Wellville."
A: Yes, and a lot of those fads seem to us in 2013 really quirky and dangerous. Anyway, Wilson was extremely mean-spirited, a vicious enemy. He focused his paranoia on Dean Andrew West, who was a very popular presence at Princeton. He was a bachelor, and today it would seem evident that Dean West was gay, and that he had an entourage of gay graduate students. The feud between President Wilson and Dean West, over the location of the graduate college, consumed everyone in the town at that time. My office at Princeton is on the sixth floor of a very nice building called New South, and I can sit at my window and look out over the treetops at the graduate college on the hill, which is there because Dean West won the battle of Princeton. President Wilson retired, but then became governor of New Jersey and, finally, president of the United States. But it was all because he failed at Princeton. It's very funny, because he had this ignominious defeat and was held in some contempt, but went on to become president of the country.
Q: Certain events in the plot, including the willful behavior of some of the female characters, are interpreted by some in the novel as supernatural — in fact infernal — when really they're the first stirrings of modernity.
A: Yes, exactly. Some of those things, such as the emergence of homosexuals, were considered literally unspeakable. Queen Victoria, you know, was so completely disbelieving that there could be an unnatural love of women for women that there were never any laws against lesbianism in England. There were simply no words for it. And that's the way it was in Princeton in these years, also. But of course there were, as you say, stirrings of modernity in young people, and more adventurous people, who were looking ahead and being very critical of the old 19th century notions. Those stirrings were very palpable, such as in the women's suffrage movement. But the racial tragedies were continuing at that time, and things were not really changing for the better. There were some communities in New Jersey where (racist groups were) extremely powerful. And the Christian leaders of the time, out of cowardice perhaps, were complicit. They had a terror of miscegenation, of race-mixing; nobody wanted their beautiful white daughters with a black man. That was a major taboo.
Q: In the past you've said that the supernatural is not real in your fiction except as a projection of the subconscious mind, but there are moments in "The Accursed" in which, as a reader, I wasn't so sure. Early on, for example, three characters encounter what appears to be the ghost of a young black woman who was lynched.
A: Well, it's a storytelling mode in which the surreal emerges out of a realistic historical era, the way our dreams and fantasies emerge when we're surrounded by reality. You can be sitting at your desk and have a dream that's quite surreal, which is the definition of surrealism — the conjunction of ordinary things with extraordinary things, the disparate coming together. To me the demons and the ghosts are emerging out of the repression of that white community. They're repressing all these things, out of which these visions are manifesting.
Q: Then there's this person, Axson Mayte, with whom the heroine flees her own wedding, and who is remembered as having a different appearance by almost everyone who met him, which also seems rather spooky.
A: He's a demonic projection of a society that has been repressing all these truths. You know, I'd written about vampires in the past, the vampire being a mythical and iconic figure that I interpret as an exploitation of a person or group of persons by others. I don't think of the vampire as a romantic figure, which I suppose today is a teenage preoccupation. It's more symbolic of a class struggle through history.
Q: On some level, of course, "The Accursed" is a satire of aristocratic thinking. Since you've lived in Princeton for many years, you must have a sense of the self-regard of the old families there. There was a great insistence in that world on bloodlines and breeding and so forth. Do you still sense that in Princeton today?
A: No, just the names remain, and the houses, which are mostly renovated, and very expensive. Woodrow Wilson lived in two houses, and my friend Jeffrey Eugenides (author of "Middlesex" and other novels) now lives in one of them, an English Tudor house.
Q: That's impressive.
A: Well, you can buy these houses, which go for $3 (million) or $4 million. All you need is money.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
By Joyce Carol Oates, Ecco, 669 pages, $27.99