Alice Munro’s Late Style: ‘Writing is the Final Thing’

By | November 29, 2023

In the early 1970s I was lucky enough to run across the writing of Alice Munro—it grabbed me from the opening line of the first story I ever read (“Material” [1973]: “I don’t keep up with Hugo’s writing”) and I haven’t waivered since. Just then I was about to begin graduate school and Munro’s “Material” led directly an M. A. thesis in her early stories and first book, to numerous critical essays and reviews, to a bibliography, to her archives at the University of Calgary, and eventually to Munro herself and to an extended biography based on interviews with her, with others in her orbit, and one rooted in those archives. When Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives was first published in 2005 its subject was still writingThe View from Castle Rock (2006), Too Much Happiness (2009), and Dear Life (2012) followed its publication, with that last collection appearing after the 2011 revision of my biography.


            So this biocritical book is in part a closing of the circle to Munro’s career, but it is also one I felt I had to write and one, probably, that only I could write. Since the late 1980s I have attended to Munro’s archival papers closely, so I likely know more about the making of her stories than anybody—I sometimes say that I’m the only person in the world to have read the whole archive, though I don’t really know if that’s so. And, even once my biography was written, published, and revised, I kept on gathering Munro’s papers—at the New Yorker, at Knopf, and from such key figures in her career as her longtime agent Virginia Barber. I gathered toward more complete holdings surrounding the stories collected in her last three books, those my biography had only been able to approximate in its treatment. I knew too that the papers of her longtime Canadian editor, Douglas Gibson, had gotten to McMaster University as part of its McClelland & Stewart holdings. And I kept talking to Munro as she was making her last books. Altogether, even though my biography was done and twice published, I still wanted to tell (in one of Munro’s phrasings) “the rest of the story.” So this book on her late style emerged, and in it I have used those archival papers extensively.


            The View from Castle Rock intrigued me especially because it is unlike earlier collections, borne of very long contemplation—back into the 1970s—and explicitly historical in various ways. A “family book” as Munro had long thought about and described it, a book she “wanted to do for herself,” she said. When it appeared in 2006 its reception was, truly, more tepid than she had been getting during the 1990s and into the 2000s—with Castle Rock, she was offering her readers a very different Munro and they, for their part, were not wholly receptive. For my part, I thought her family book would prove a crucial presence in her oeuvre. That’s just what I’m offering here.


            With Alice Munro’s Late Style I set about making the case that this long-imagined family book should incontrovertibly be seen as the real beginning of her late style, one that revisits, echoes, and adapts previous stories—including pieces published long ago—and lays a foundation for the last two books, each of which reveal myriad revisitings of previous stories and situations. Too Much Happiness includes a succession of stories that embody Munro’s imaginative processes: “Wenlock Edge,” which Munro long thought belonged in Castle Rock, but ultimately kept out in favor of her “memory story,” “What Do You Want to Know For?”, a text central to the whole of Castle Rock and to her late style; “Face” and “Some Women,” vexing stories of mystery, familiar to Munro’s readers yet not; “Wood,” a story first published in 1980, repeatedly revised over the years, at last included in a collection; and finally the long title story in Too Much Happiness, one which reveals Munro at her most daring, again combining fact with fiction and telling an extended story most unlike her other work. It tells of the last days of the famed nineteenth-century mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky, the first woman to hold a chair at a European university, whose dying words were reputed to be “too much happiness.”


            But the apotheosis of Munro’s late style is in the “Finale” to Dear Life, four brief autobiographical stories that place Munro once more and finally amid her first family on their fox farm in Lower Wingham, Huron County, Ontario, a place where as she once wrote “everything is touchable and mysterious,” the place she started out from. Writing it once more to consciously close her stellar career, placing herself again amid her family and so amid her real material,  Munro in her “Finale” asserts once and finally that, for her, writing is still and has always been “the final thing.”


Robert Thacker, author of Alice Munro’s Late Style, is Charles A. Dana Professor of Canadian Studies and English Emeritus at St. Lawrence University, New York, USA. He has been working on 2013 Nobel Laureate Alice Munro since the mid-1970s and is now among the world’s leading Munro critics. He is author of Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography (2005; updated 2011), written with Munro’s cooperation, and Reading Alice Munro, 1973-2013 (2016; open access). He edited The Rest of the Story: Critical Essays on Alice Munro (1999) and Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; Runaway; Dear Life (2016) in Bloomsbury’s Studies in Contemporary North American Fiction series.

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