JONG — PROVOCATIVE POET, NOVELIST, AND ESSAYIST
RECEIVES HONOR FROM TRURO'S CASTLE HILL CENTER FOR THE ARTS
published in The Cape Codder, Day & Night, July 7, 1999
evening, July 17, Erica Jong, poet, novelist, and essayist offers what
will surely be a spirited evening, when she appears at the Wellfleet
Congregational Church under the auspices of the 1999 Distinguished
Artists and Writers Chair at Truro's Castle Hill Center for the Arts.
Jong will speak about writing, about "what it means to devote
your life to creativity, how risky it is."
in 1997 by Derek Walcott and followed in 1998 by Saul Bellow, The Distinguished
Chair program is one more way the nearly 30 year old, prestigious Truro
art school is contributing to cultural life at the tip of the Cape
and enriching the experience of the many summer visitors to the area.
It was set up three years ago in an effort to move the school's presence
out beyond the campus and studio to serve a wider adult population.
One weekend a summer, a famous and distinguished artist is invited
to visit the school and to offer a public lecture and a workshop. Jong's
Sunday workshop "The Writing Process: Writing as an Act of Liberation" begins
at 10 AM at Castle Hill.
Jong's first novel Fear of Flying appeared in 1973, it catapulted her
into international fame. Since then, more than twelve and a half million
copies of this book have sold worldwide. Twenty-five years later she
has again astonished and captivated with the publication of What
Do Women Want? Bread. Roses. Sex. Power. (HarperCollins, September 1998).
It is a book of potent essays and bold commentary, written in the engaging,
free-wheeling tone that has been her signature style since that first
novel, published when she was only 31, blew the top off the myth of
muted female sexual desire and made her a heroine of women the world
over who had been holding back and resenting it.
youngest woman who was "of age" when Fear of Flying hit the
streets is into her fifth decade now, long past the summer of love,
and she has probably given up on the search for the "zipless fuck," the
rollicking, outrageous and, at the same time, deadly serious quest
of Jong's liberated, vulnerable character Isadora Wing. Perhaps now
it doesn't seem so scandalous in a time when the word "orgasm" appears
monthly on the cover of every women's magazine at the grocery store,
but at the time, many people found it horrifying and titillating that
a woman would admit to having such a desire for uncomplicated sex.
the book pornographic. Book critics, cultural commentators and writing
contemporaries attacked Jong in venomous and vicious terms. But there
were others, many, who found it hopeful. They glimpsed themselves in
Isadora's conflict between her desires for sexual fulfillment, career
satisfaction, home and security.
first novel continues to be reprinted, most recently in Chinese and
Russian, Jong has gone on to build an incredible stack of publications
-- seven more novels (The first two of them complete a trilogy of Isadora's
adventures.), five collections of poetry, and a children's book on
divorce (Megan's Two Houses). Witches (1981), an inspired blend of
poetry and prose and reinterpretation of myths of witchcraft, magic,
and the Mother Goddess, was revised and republished in 1997. Her memoir
of her friendship with Henry Miller, a genre-defying book that is at
once a memoir, a study of American literature, sexual politics, and
literary censorship, appeared in 1993.
of Fifty, published in 1994 as Jong herself crossed into her second half-century,
is a blistering mid-life memoir that assesses how far women have--or
have not--traveled since the explosion of feminism in the late sixties
and early seventies. It is her story --as a member of what she calls
The Whiplash Generation -- "raised to be Doris Day, growing to
womanhood wanting to be Gloria Steinem, then raising their daughters
in the age of Princess Di and Madonna." Like Fear of Flying ,
about which Jong says, "I just happened to write the book that
expressed where women were at a certain point in history," Fear
of Fifty was right on target in defining the current conflicts of the
age, and it, too, became a literary event and a super bestseller.
in What Do Women Want? question why life for "brainy" women
is so difficult and trace the source of the ongoing castigation of
working mothers. In "Jane Eyre's Unbroken Will," Jong writes: "Jane
seems to be possessed of the greatest treasure a woman can have: self
respect...she seems to know her own worth, an unforgivable sin in girls
In "Deliberate Lewdness and the Creative Imagination: Should We Censor
Pornography?" Jong, who is definitely anti-censorship, is especially critical
of "well-meaning feminists who assert without evidence that pornography
is rape." "What bothers me," she says, is the idea that somehow
feminism is anti-man. That fringe ideology...is going to turn off a whole generation
of young women."
fiction, Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters, published
in July 1997, is a four-generation saga about a Jewish family in America.
It began, according to Jong, as a wish to "go back to Russia and
find out all about my roots." "After writing my autobiography,
Fear of Fifty, I became so aware that that heritage had really made
me who I was...I wanted to write about the lineage of women and how
one generation gives strength to the next." The novel tells the
story of the twentieth century through the lives of four women who
embody it. Jong thinks that whereas in the early part of the century,
immigrants were desperate to assimilate, now "there's a feeling
that there's something valuable in the heritage, something interesting
grandparents came from Odessa, Russia, although they met in London
at the turn of the century. Jong grew up on Manhattan's Upper West
Side, in a “totally assimilated, very unreligious" family,
the second daughter of a painter-mother and musician-turned-businessman
father. As an undergraduate at Barnard College, she edited the college
literary magazine and produced poetry programs for the Columbia campus
radio station. She majored in writing and literature. In 1963, she
received her BA from Barnard, Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude. Two
years later she was awarded an MA in Eighteenth-Century English literature
from Columbia University. She later studied poetry with Stanley Kunitz
and Mark Strand.
Kunitz Jong says, "I took his poetry workshop. He was a great presence,
a great teacher and mentor. His poetry is very sharp and very enduring." Kunitz
was "very kind and supportive" as Jong put together her first book
of poetry, the book that really began her literary career. Fruits & Vegetables.
was published in 1971. The book became a classic and was reissued by Ecco Press
in 1997. Her poems have been praised as witty, passionate, bawdy and beautiful.
she left Columbia half-way through the PHD program in eighteenth-century
English literature to write her assumption-shattering first novel,
she returned to that century with her 1980 picaresque novel Fanny,
Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones It
is a book about the adventures of a kind of female Tom Jones, about
which Anthony Burgess said in Saturday Review, "Jong has gone
further than Joyce." The book is now being developed as a musical
by the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.
and provoking controversy has taken its toll on Jung's personal life.
She has been married four times. "I had tough times," she
said of the split from the father of her daughter, Molly, now 20. "It
was incredibly painful." But time and experience have brought
happiness to Jong in the mellowing middle years. She now has been married
to attorney Ken Burrows for ten years. She wrote about the happiness
this relationship has brought her in Fear of Fifty. And her daughter
Molly is out in the world and doing well, publishing her own first
novel. "When you're a mother," Jong says, no matter what
your work, "the child has your total focus. When that period ends,
you feel a huge internal shift. You want to do things in a new way,
take risks. I was finished with my responsibility as a mother and I
began to feel a need to make changes. I wanted to learn new things,
to change my writing style." Jong sees Hillary Clinton as emblematic
of this struggle for balance in the lives of women in our current culture.
Smart, capable, ambitious, yet wanting to sustain family and relationship
-- how difficult the culture makes it still for a woman to live out
In an interview
last fall in The Independent, Jung talks about where that shift took
decide not to be ashamed of who you are, almost anything is possible.
You can investigate all these seemingly negative things and find in
them what you need, which is 'who am I, where do I come from?' And
I think that's a pretty interesting quest and a quest that everybody
wants to go on around the time of mid-life, because of your grasp of
your mortality, which is maybe the thing that makes us human.
Now that she has written an autobiography, she is free, she says, to invent.
liberating to realize you don't have to write only out of your own
narrow little world. You don't have to be literal-minded to write what
because of the new book and its coincidence with the Presidential Scandal,
and the impeachment hearings, Jong has been asked to appear on a lot
of talk shows and to write a lot of opinion pieces. "It uses a
different kind of energy," she says. "It's reacting to political
events. You aren't required to go into yourself." "To move
from that into writing fiction requires a transition. Fiction demands
a kind of trance state. Shutting everything out." When Jong is
working on fiction, she doesn't do anything else. She goes to her study
early in the morning and doesn't leave until 3 or 4 in the afternoon,
when she often works out with her daughter and a trainer. When you're
writing, you can't be concerned with future recognition or past successes,
she adds. "You have to have a beginner's mind."
from her country home in Vermont, Jong reports that she is working
on several projects now. She's writing a new novel, which she doesn't
want to talk about while it's in progress. She's writing a short book
on Hillary Clinton for her Italian publisher which will be distributed
internationally. And she has a new book of poems in process, poems
she's been collecting since Becoming Light came out in 1991.
feel blessed and lucky," Jong says, "for my creative work.
Even though it's really hard, really difficult. Because you have to
generate everything out of yourself."
years, Jong has expressed herself in her poetry, fiction, and essays,
and has spoken for contemporary women with great empathy and humor
and courage. She continues to provoke controversy. According to Naomi
Wolf, Jong treats her work "as a sacred calling, no matter who
it enrages, rather than a career move. For this reason she will probably
always continue to enrage many of her contemporaries. For this reason,
she is sure to outlast them."