Heritage Moments: Farm girl at the Lockport library, 7-year-old Joyce Carol Oates discovers books

Aug 1, 2016

In all of world literature, few authors are as highly esteemed and abundantly prolific as Joyce Carol Oates. Several of her more than 40 novels and numerous short stories, essays, and poetry collections have won honors including the National Book Award, the O. Henry Award and the Pushcart Prize, and she herself was awarded the National Humanities Medal. From the early ’60s to today, her works have often been dark, brooding, even Gothic – but always revelatory and ineffably beautiful.

Oates grew up on a small farm on Transit Road in Millersport. Her parents barely scraped together a living. She attended a one-room schoolhouse on Tonawanda Creek and, later, commuted via Greyhound bus to schools in Lockport and Williamsville; went to church in Pendleton; accompanied her father, a tool and die man at Harrison Radiator, on long, meandering drives through Niagara County and on excursions to Buffalo to watch Golden Gloves boxing. As a schoolgirl she spent her off hours wandering, alone, through the streets of Lockport.

Much of her writing is suffused with scenes and characters from Lockport, Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Toronto, sometimes named explicitly, but more often present only implicitly in mood, circumstance and landscape. Though Oates moved away decades ago, her dark imagination bears the unmistakable imprint of the Niagara Frontier.

Yet only recently has she discussed in detail her childhood here, as if she needed the time to fully understand how this strange, stormy region molded her mind and soul – and how it made her a writer.

She started to reveal the answer in a 2010 article in Smithsonian magazine, in which she returned after an absence of many years to Lockport – “home,” she called it, the repository of her “deepest, most abiding and most poignant dreams.”

She remembered the event that sealed her lifelong love affair with books, words, stories and ideas – the day her grandmother, Blanche Morgenstern Woodside, took her by the hand to the Lockport Public Library, a stately building on East Avenue that still stands today, and presented her with a Niagara County library card. Young Joyce (in Smithsonian Oates says she was 7 or 8; in later recollections she puts her age at 6) takes in the scene with a sense of wonder:

… bookcases lining the walls — books with brightly colored spines — astonishing to a little girl whose family lives in a farmhouse in the country where books are almost wholly unknown. That these books are available for children — for a child like me — all these books! — leaves me dazed, dazzled.

That visit still left her dazzled so many years later. “The Lockport Public Library,” she wrote in Smithsonian, has been an illumination in my life.”

Thus began Oates’s lifelong love affair with the written word. But what she described in that article turned out to be just a foretaste of the fully realized work would come five years later: Oates’s haunting memoir of her childhood, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age.

Oates, the young farm girl, on the cover of her 2015 memoir of childhood along Tonawanda Creek.
Credit HarperCollins Publishers

In it, she recalls, over and over, how profound a role the Niagara Frontier played in forming her unique imagination. “What is most palpable here,” wrote the Buffalo News reviewer Karen Brady, “is how much Western New York lives within Joyce Carol Oates – a daughter of genius loci, with an inimitable spirit of place, and of circumstance and time.”

Or, as Oates herself put it in her author’s note at the start of The Lost Landscape:

Its focus is upon the ‘landscape’ of our earliest, and most essential lives, but it is also upon an actual rural landscape, in Western New York State north of Buffalo, out of which not only much of the materials of my writing life have sprung but also the very wish to write.

That wish to write has turned out to be a gift to the world.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Blanche Morgenstern Woodside: Christina Rausa

Joyce Carol Oates, age 7: Sarah Kalenik

Librarian: Elizabeth Storm-Reif

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)