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Shirley Ann Grau, a ‘quiet force’ in Southern literature, dies at 91

Ms. Grau won a Pulitzer for “The Keepers of the House.”
Ms. Grau won a Pulitzer for “The Keepers of the House.” Associated Press/File

WASHINGTON — Shirley Ann Grau, a Louisiana writer whose atmospheric, richly detailed works explored issues of race, gender, and power, notably in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘‘The Keepers of the House,’’ died Aug. 3 at a senior-living center in Kenner, a New Orleans suburb. She was 91.

The cause was complications of a stroke, said her daughter Nora McAlister.

In six novels and dozens of short stories, Ms. Grau examined the racial prejudice of White Southerners, the limited opportunities traditionally afforded to women, and the inexorable pull of the past in places such as Louisiana, where she was born, and Alabama, where she spent much of her childhood.

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Ms. Grau was a ‘‘quiet force’’ in 20th-century Southern literature, ‘‘with a beautiful eye for detail and an incredible ability to immerse readers in her fictional communities,’’ said Alison Graham-Bertolini, a North Dakota State University professor of English and women and gender studies.

‘‘Her novels wade fearlessly into the complexities of racism and miscegenation across generations,’’ Graham-Bertolini said in an e-mail interview, ‘‘and bring to life the South’s diversity — people, dialects, customs, food and architecture, along with the searing heat, pungent smells and the unbroken blue sky of Louisiana in midsummer.’’

Among book critics, Ms. Grau was perhaps most celebrated for her short stories — ghost stories, love stories, elegiac stories, nearly all of them lyrical and unsentimental — which evoked ‘‘the faint musty sweet odor of bourbon’’ or examined ‘‘the dusty-eyed old people who want to be left alone.’’

Most of her work was set in the South, although Ms. Grau rolled her eyes at suggestions that she was a ‘‘Southern author’’ or a ‘‘Southern lady writer,’’ as journalists of the 1950s and ’60s sometimes called her. ‘‘No novel is really a regional novel,’’ she said. ‘‘A novel has to be set somewhere. . . . I would like once in my life to have something I write taken as fiction, not as Southern sociology.’’

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Ms. Grau was 25 when she published her first book, ‘‘The Black Prince and Other Stories’’ (1955), a National Book Award finalist that Time magazine hailed as ‘‘the most impressive U.S. short story debut between hard covers since J.D. Salinger’s ‘Nine Stories.’ ‘‘ The book focused on Black characters whom Ms. Grau variously depicted falling in love, stealing a coat, or paddling down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Her decision to write from a Black perspective surprised some fellow white writers from the South. ‘‘I can only see them from the outside,’’ Flannery O’Connor wrote in a 1956 letter to a friend, later published in the book ‘‘The Habit of Being.’’ ‘‘I wouldn’t have the courage of Miss Shirley Ann Grau to go inside their heads.’’

Ms. Grau was criticized at times for her use of Black characters, alternately labeled inauthentic by Black literary critics and accused of being overly sympathetic by white supremacists during the civil rights era. She said that she was simply writing what she knew, having grown up in a society in which social contacts frequently crossed racial lines.

‘‘One doesn’t sit down one day and say, ‘Let’s see, I’ll write a story about a white woman today. And tomorrow I’ll write a story about a Black man,’ ‘‘ she told the Silicon Valley newspaper Metro in 1998. ‘‘I’m interested in people, but not as representatives of a race. I see people first. I do stories first.’’

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With the civil rights movement in full swing, Ms. Grau published her best-known novel, ‘‘The Keepers of the House’’ (1964). Set against a backdrop of segregationist politics, the book chronicled three generations of the Howland family, whose social status in rural Alabama is destroyed by the revelation that the family’s white patriarch secretly married his Black housekeeper, with whom he had three children.

‘‘This is a novel of dignity, stature, compassion,’’ wrote New York Times book critic Orville Prescott. ‘‘Miss Grau’s specialty,’’ he added, ‘‘seems to be the creation of a special world compounded in equal parts of exact observation and of imaginative creation. . . . The air is still with tension and it seems almost as if, in spite of her factual realism, Miss Grau were retelling a myth about life in a distant past.’’

Ms. Grau was awarded the 1965 Pulitzer in fiction — she said she hung up on the prize committee member who called to announce the honor, thinking that a friend was playing a prank — and also stirred up the hatred of ‘‘semiliterate gentlemen,’’ as she put it, who made threatening phone calls objecting to her depiction of interracial marriage.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan tried to burn a cross in her yard in Louisiana, but Ms. Grau said she found the episode more amusing than menacing. The Klansmen apparently forgot a shovel: Unable to force the cross into the dirt, they left it burning flat in her yard.

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‘‘It scorched a few feet of grass and it scared the neighbors, but I wasn’t even here,’’ she told the Associated Press in 2003, while sipping gin at her home outside New Orleans. ‘‘I was at Martha’s Vineyard. It all had kind of a Groucho Marx ending to it.’’

Shirley Ann Grau was born in New Orleans on July 8, 1929. Her father was a dentist, her mother a homemaker. Growing up in Montgomery, Ala., she studied ancient Greek and Latin and drove through the countryside on weekends, searching for rare plants with her grandfather, an amateur botanist.

While he introduced her to gardening, her grandmother introduced her to lock picking, teaching her how to break a lock that her grandfather had used to keep Ms. Grau from reading his copy of Daniel Defoe’s book ‘‘A Journal of the Plague Year.’’

Returning to New Orleans, Ms. Grau graduated from an all-girls Catholic school and enrolled at Newcomb College, a women’s school affiliated with Tulane University. She received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1950, began writing short stories, and studied for a doctorate at Tulane, until the department head said no women could work as teaching assistants.

‘‘I didn’t like the rules of the game, so I quit,’’ she told the Southern Quarterly, a scholarly journal. ‘‘Just about then my freelance pieces began to show. So I said, OK, follow where the doors open.’’

In 1955, she married James Feibleman, a Tulane philosophy professor and writer.

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They settled in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb, where Ms. Grau — who became Shirley Feibleman but used her maiden name in print — sailed and fished on Lake Pontchartrain and collected an estimated 8,000 books. She also went hunting, having become a good shot in childhood while going after rabbits and squirrels with a .22-caliber rifle.

‘‘I still think the best way to describe her is, she thought eccentric was a positive term,’’ said McAlister, her daughter. ‘‘She used to say, ‘What you say is right, what you do is right,’ which in essence means be who you are.’’