Often favorably compared with southern writers such as Eudora Welty, author Shirley Ann Grau (1929-2020) wrote about the South for nearly 60 years. Grau spent much of her childhood in Montgomery, Montgomery County, and her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Keepers of the House, is set in rural Alabama.
Shirley Ann Grau Grau was born on July 8, 1929, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Adolph and Katherine Onions Grau. She had one sister. Her paternal grandfather migrated from Prussia to the United States shortly before the Civil War; her maternal grandfather of Scottish descent migrated south from his native Indiana. Both grandmothers were Spanish and French, bestowing Grau with German, Scottish, and Louisiana Creole ancestry. Grau’s family history attests to the cultural diversity of the South, a theme that would later become prominent in her writings.
Grau’s family moved to Montgomery in the early 1930s. Grau attended the private Margaret Booth School from 1938 to 1945 and gained a thorough knowledge of Latin and literature. The family moved back to New Orleans during Grau’s senior year of high school, and Grau went on to attend Tulane University, graduating in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in English with honors. She was also inducted into the prestigious academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa. Grau then embarked upon a graduate degree at Tulane but left after one year when she found out that women were not allowed to serve as teaching assistants.
Afterward, Grau concentrated on her writing career and published her first book of short stories, The Black Prince, in 1955. The collection met with critical acclaim; one reviewer described the book as the best collection since J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. Although Grau’s content was decidedly southern, many critics remarked upon her unique and realistic depiction of the South as distinct from the earlier southern gothic novels and stories of writers such as William Faulkner.
Also in 1955, Grau married Tulane University philosophy professor, James Kern Fiebleman, with whom she would have five children. The couple began to split their time between Louisiana and Massachusetts, spending summers in Martha’s Vineyard and winters in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. After her marriage, Grau lived what she often described as ordinary and contented; in addition to her diverse musical interests, Grau also enjoyed sailing and duck hunting. Yet Grau continued to write. In 1958, she published her first novel, The Hard Blue Sky, followed by a second novel, The House on Coliseum Street, in 1961. Both novels were set in Louisiana and neither garnered the critical attention of The Black Prince.
In 1964, during the height of the civil rights movement, Grau published The Keepers of the House, a novel set in rural Alabama that tells the multi-generational story of the Howland family through the eyes of Abigail Howland. In the novel, Grau comments on the complicated southern social and political matrix of race, class, and gender. During the story, it is revealed that Abigail’s grandfather married a mixed-race African and Native American woman and produced three mixed-race children. Because of the racism in the community, Abigail’s husband, a local politician, abandons the once-respected Abigail as she meets with violent threats from others in her small Alabama hometown. In 1965, Grau was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Keepers of the House. Afterward, Grau taught creative writing at the University of New Orleans for one year and then returned to writing full time, remaining in New Orleans.
Although Grau continued writing about the South in her later works, she also explored other regions ranging from the northeastern United States to the African continent. None of her later works surpassed the critical acclaim of The Keepers of the House, however. In her last published novel, Roadwalkers (1994), Grau tells the story of six orphaned African American children living in the Depression-era South. In 2018, Grau was inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. She died in New Orleans on August 3, 2020, from complications of a stroke.
Works by Shirley Ann Grau
The Black Prince and Other Stories (1955)
The Hard Blue Sky (1958)
The House on Coliseum Street (1961)
The Keepers of the House (1964)
The Condor Passes (1971)
The Wind Shifting West, stories (1973)
Evidence of Love (1977)
Nine Women, stories (1985)
Selected Stories (2003)