by Robert Thacker
Alice Laidlaw Munro was born in Wingham, Ontario, Canada on July 10, 1931, the eldest child of Robert Eric Laidlaw (1901–76), a fox farmer, and Anne Clarke Chamney Laidlaw (1898–1959), a former schoolteacher. Members of her father's family, having emigrated to Upper Canada from the Ettrick Valley on the Scottish borderlands in 1818, were among the exodus of settlers from Britain who moved to the Americas seeking land and new opportunities following the Napoleonic wars. These Laidlaws settled west of York (now Toronto) in Halton Township and began farming. They were later joined by the family of their brother, William Laidlaw, who had emigrated to Illinois but died there. Some of the next generation - Munro's great-grandfather, Thomas Laidlaw (1836–1915), among them - in turn moved farther west during the early 1850s for land of their own in the Huron Tract of Canada West (now Ontario) near to Lake Huron in the area around Goderich in Morris Township. These Laidlaws were some of the first settlers of Huron County, Ontario, farming outside of Blyth. Munro's grandfather William Cole Laidlaw (1864–1938) married Sarah Jane "Sadie" Code in January 1901, and in November of that year the couple produced their only child, Robert Eric, Munro's father. Sadie Code's father Thomas had come to Huron County from eastern Ontario, from Scotch Corners near Carleton Place, and for his part was descended from Irish Protestants from County Wicklow who had themselves emigrated to Canada at about the same time as the first Laidlaws. His sister Ann married and a son of hers, George Chamney (1853–1934) became Munro's maternal grandfather. He and his wife, Bertha Stanley Chamney (1867–1935), had four children on the farm in Scotch Corners, three sons and a daughter, Anne Clarke Chamney, who became Munro's mother.
Before she married Robert "Bob" Laidlaw in 1927 and moved to Wingham to establish a fur farm there, Anne had through ambition and determination gotten herself off of her parents' farm - where her father had expected her to stay and work for free until she married - and put herself through the Ottawa Normal School, training as a teacher. Off on her own, she then taught school in Ontario and Alberta between 1919 and July 28, 1927, when she married Bob Laidlaw at St. John's Anglican church, Innisville, the Chamneys' family church. Having worked as long as she had, Anne Chamney had saved some money which the young couple used, along with a mortgage held by his parents, to establish their farm west of Wingham along the Maitland River and adjacent to a separate, low-lying area which most years flooded, called Lower Wingham or "Lowertown." It was there that they brought their first baby, Alice Ann, home during the summer of 1931.
Beyond the facts of this familial and personal history, this background is one that Alice Munro's readers know from her work. Commenting in a review of The View From Castle Rock (2006) in the London Guardian, Karl Miller has written "But then the whole corpus of Munro's stories is a memoir, the novel of her life." There, in that "family book," as she once called it, Munro treats her ancestors' emigration from Scotland and their settlement in Ontario; her parents' meeting, beginnings, and strivings; her own presence there growing up, her moving away, and continual imaginative returns there through her writing. While not exclusively so, Munro's stories are mostly set in and drawn from Huron County, Ontario, elaborating its people, its changing culture, its way of life. As Munro once told an interviewer, "I am intoxicated by this particular landscape, at home with the brick houses, the falling down barns, the trailer parks, burdensome old churches ..." Or as she wrote of her home place in 1974, having just returned to live again in Ontario after more than twenty years in British Columbia, on Canada's west coast, "This ordinary place is sufficient, everything here is touchable and mysterious." Munro's probings of the place where she was born, the place that she went away from and returned to, the place where she has largely lived since, are seen in her earliest stories from the 1950s through her most recent. Dear Life (2012) ends with a "Finale" of four pieces - "not quite stories" - in which the young Munro and her parents are recalled and, yet again, recreated. The last one, "Dear Life" (2011), ends with the invocation of Munro's mother's last days and funeral. Introducing these pieces there, Munro writes, "I believe that they are the first and last - and the closest - things I have to say about my own life."
As "Dear Life" shows again, Alice Laidlaw began her life as something of the celebrated only child of Anne and Bob Laidlaw. They would have two more children, a son born in 1936 and another daughter in 1937, but for those first years Alice was her mother's own concern. Mrs. Laidlaw was socially ambitious and tended toward activities that set her apart from both other residents of Lower Wingham and from her husband's family who lived nearby. She drove a car, a mark of independence in a married woman then. Living at the end of "The Flats Road" - as Munro would characterize it in Lives of Girls and Women (1971) - the need for society led Anne and her daughter through "Lowertown" to Wingham proper, where a better class of people lived. Lower Wingham was a place, as Munro describes it in Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), where "the social structure" "ran from factory workers and foundry workers down to large improvident families of casual bootleggers and unsuccessful thieves." Living as they did at "the edge of town" - the title of one of Munro's early uncollected stories (1955) - the Laidlaws in effect ascended the social scale as they traveled into Wingham, set on higher ground, above Lower Town. Their home, a solid brick house built in the 1870s, was literally an island during the spring flooding of "Lowertown," but in Munro's early years it was also an island of social aspiration - her mother's, borne of the same determination which made her a schoolteacher and led her to marry. Even so, she did not entirely fit into Wingham. For his part, Bob Laidlaw worked building the family fur farm and, having grown up nearby, he fit in well - and he was well liked.
Alice Laidlaw began school in 1937 at the Lower Town School and spent two years there, completing grades one and three. It was a rough place, one Munro details in her story "Privilege" (1977). Beginning with grade four in the fall of 1939, though, she attended the Wingham schools - where her mother preferred to have her - and that required a daily walk of just under three kilometers, traveling through Lower Town, across the Lower Town bridge into Wingham, and through the town to the school. "I was eight, it was quite a walk, but I liked it," Munro recalled. This round trip continued until she graduated high school in 1949; these walks are a key to understanding Munro's point-of-view, for in walking to school she ascended the social ladder and, returning, descended it through Lower Town, past its "casual bootleggers and unsuccessful thieves."
By the time she was eleven in 1942, Alice Laidlaw was a reader. She has written of her early enthusiasm for Lucy Maud Montgomery and for Dickens's A Child's History of England, and by then too she had discovered Tennyson's Idylls of the King. She had also, through her walks back and forth to school and others nearby the farm, begun to see herself as "different, and different in what I considered a favorable way," she has said. In such difference is Munro's beginning as a writer. By the time she was eleven and had discovered Tennyson she had begun to write poetry, and she was "always making up stories in her mind."
Such a scene occurs in her "Boys and Girls" (1964), and Munro has also said that when she was creating such stories they were "half and half," partly imaginative and partly imitative of things she had read. Beginning then and throughout high school Munro worked on an imitation of Wuthering Heights, saying that it "was the soul of fiction I was trying to capture on my own ..." She wanted to be a part of the excitement, she has also said.
By the summer of 1943, just as Munro was turning twelve, a salient fact of her life became evident: Anne Chamney Laidlaw was showing the advancing symptoms of Parkinson's Disease. At the same time, her father's fur business had begun to falter - he would eventually close it and take a job on the night shift of the local foundry. Speaking of this time, she has said: "the lack of money and Mother's illness coming at the same time was pretty bad. But in adolescence I was very self-protected, I was ambitious and a lot of the time I was quite happy. But I ignored this. I knew it, but I didn't want to be tainted by tragedy. I didn't want to live in a tragedy." As her Mother's illness progressed, though, Alice's role within the family changed. She took over the domestic duties - cleaning and cooking, looking after her brother and sister - and lived ever more within her own imagination, taking walks, thinking her thoughts.
Outwardly, Alice Laidlaw's years in high school (1944–49) were usual enough. Owing to the situation at home - which her friends and the community understood - she did not have much of a social life; she did participate in some school activities - in an operetta like Del Jordan's in Lives of Girls and Women, for instance - and also unequivocally established her academic excellence. She was the 1949 class valedictorian and also received a scholarship for two years at the University of Western Ontario in London, having the highest standing in English of any student who applied there. She had also looked into school teaching then and, had the scholarship not materialized, would probably have gone in that direction.
Beginning her studies at Western that autumn, Alice Laidlaw initially studied journalism but shifted to Honors English for her second year and won that year's prize for the best grades in the major. In the spring of 1950 her first published story appeared in Folio, the undergraduate literary magazine; that story, "The Dimensions of a Shadow," would be followed by two more there. During university, she spent about half of her time on academics and the other half writing - she has said that then she could feel the writing taking over. Another contributor to Folio was Gerald Fremlin, an older student and war veteran; Laidlaw noticed him and he noticed her, but by then she had met and was seeing James Munro. About two years older, from Oakville, Munro was the eldest son of a senior accountant at the Timothy Eaton department store in Toronto, and studying Honors History. He had aesthetic interests and was something of a romantic. Jim fell hard for Alice and, by the end of her second year, the couple had decided to marry. Jim opted to take a general degree and got a job with the Eaton store in Vancouver. They were married in Wingham at the Laidlaws' home on December 29, 1951, and left for Vancouver by train immediately after a wedding dinner; only the parents, Alice's siblings, and two close friends attended. One of the friends recalled the ceremony as "about as modest a wedding as you could have."
When she married Alice Munro was just twenty years old - for her twentyfirst birthday the next July her husband gave her a typewriter as a gift. Together these two facts indicate Munro's direction. With her scholarship money ending, she could either find another way to live or go home to Wingham. Should she do that, her Mother's health and responsibilities there would require curtailing her own ambitions. And while she and her new husband came from very different class backgrounds - upper-class husbands based on Jim are recurrent throughout Munro's work - there is no question but that he saw his new wife as a writer and supported her work. Thus the typewriter. Looking back, Munro has described this moment as "the twin choices of my life."
At the same time the newlyweds embarked on the sort of conventional marriage common in postwar North America. Jim went to work downtown in a suit and tie, Alice kept house and cooked, but also read and wrote. Their first daughter, Sheila Margaret was born in October 1953; a second, Catherine Alice, was born in late July 1955 but, lacking functioning kidneys, died the same day; Jenny Alison followed in June 1957. They eventually settled in West Vancouver. Munro once recalled these years in "The Moons of Jupiter" (1978), writing of "wives yawning, napping, visiting, drinking coffee, and folding diapers; husbands coming home at night from the city across the water. Every night I kissed my homecoming husband in his wet Burberry and hoped he might wake me up ..." "We had become a cartoon couple, more middle-aged in our twenties than we would be in middle age." During these years too Munro read widely - it was in the late 1950s that she discovered Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples (1949), an important influence - and tried to produce a novel. She never really liked Vancouver.
No novel emerged but stories did. Even before her marriage Munro had made contact with Robert Weaver at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC); he produced a radio program called Canadian Short Stories and was looking for suitable contributions. In May 1951 he bought "The Strangers" from her, the first of fourteen stories he would broadcast. Weaver championed Canadian writing through the CBC and the Tamarack Review, a literary magazine, between the late 1940s and mid-1980s. He was critical to Munro's career: an editor, advisor, and facilitator. He treated her seriously as a writer and was, beyond Munro's husband and his own colleagues, among the very few who knew she wrote. Weaver encouraged, helped, and made suggestions - he is largely responsible for Munro's early career, a fact she has acknowledged often. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Munro had stories broadcast on the CBC and she placed them in various Canadian periodicals - The Canadian Forum, Chatelaine, Mayfair, Montrealer, Queen's Quarterly, and the Tamarack Review.
By 1963 Jim Munro had tired of working at Eaton's - he was interested in selling books but the company had ignored requests to work in that department - so the couple decided to move to Victoria and open a bookstore. Munro's Books opened that fall - it is still flourishing there. Independent bookstores were rare then, paperback lines were new, and so the Munros faced a real challenge. The work brought them together to make a go of the store - Munro has described the first years, from 1963–66, as the happiest years in the marriage: "We were very poor, but our aims were completely wound up in surviving in this place." In September 1966 another daughter, Andrea Sarah, arrived a month after the Munros had moved into a large Tudor-style house which Munro did not want and never liked. Going there affected the marriage, as Munro told Catherine Ross: "something happened right then. Something pulled apart." That this was happening during the 1960s is relevant: social mores were changing and, for her part, Munro was more sympathetic to the tumult, youth movements, and changes than her husband was.
Early in 1967 the publication of Munro's first book began to come together. Earle Toppings, head of trade books at the Ryerson Press, had approached her in late 1964 about the possibility. Urged on by Weaver, Toppings and others at Ryerson had been collecting Munro's stories as they appeared in magazines. The editor assigned to the book, Audrey Coffin, was "joyously" enthusiastic about Munro's stories and wrote to her that they needed new stories to round out the volume. Domestic responsibilities and a five-month-old baby notwithstanding, Munro produced "Postcard," "Walker Brothers Cowboy," and "Images" - the last two the strongest stories in Dance of the Happy Shades, published in September 1968. It is dedicated to Robert E. Laidlaw. Weaver wrote the jacket copy and, as it turned out, he also served on that year's Governor-General's Award committee. Because of his long association and advocacy of Munro, he tried to withdraw from any discussion of her book, but at that point the other jurors told him Munro's book had won. It was very well reviewed and, once the Governor-General's Award was announced, one of the Victoria papers headlined its story "Literary Fame Catches City Mother Unprepared."
Munro's first book changed things for her. While some literary people had become aware of her writing - she had gotten support from Margaret Laurence during the 1960s - new people sought her out because of her writing: Margaret Atwood, John Metcalf, and Audrey Thomas among them. With the 1971 publication of Lives of Girls and Women, interconnected stories called a novel that became a feminist cri de coeur, Munro's reputation grew further, and it did so at a time of increasing cultural nationalism in English Canada. Its writers were being noticed, valued, and celebrated in ways they had not been.
These attentions came at a difficult time. Munro knew that her marriage had faltered and in the early 1970s she decided to leave it. There were periods of living apart and sharing the children in Victoria, and of travel with them, but in 1973 she left British Columbia for good and moved to back to Ontario. Settling again in London, she initially commuted to Toronto to teach creative writing at York University. Seeking other opportunities to support herself as a writer, she concentrated on her own work and expanded her connections within the writing community. Munro was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of Western Ontario for 1974–75.
Living close to Wingham, Munro visited her father there - Bob had remarried after the death of Anne Laidlaw in 1959 - and so began rediscovering the textures of the home place she had been writing about through memory for over twenty years from far away. She was then working on the stories that became Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), her third book. Some of these were reworked versions of older pieces, but the best were altogether new and some of them - "Winter Wind" (1974), "The Ottawa Valley" (1974) - showed the imaginative effects of her return to Ontario. During this time too she wrote "Home" (1974), a memoir that even more starkly defines those effects. Returned home, Munro had begun a new life.
Yet two more steps were to be taken. In August 1974 Munro was interviewed on CBC Radio by Harry Boyle, another writer from Huron County. Among its listeners were two persons who proved pivotal to Munro's life and career. The first, Douglas Gibson, was editorial director of the trade division of Macmillan of Canada; hearing the interview, he used it as an opportunity to write to Munro and begin pursuit of her as a Macmillan author. In this he succeeded completely, publishing her next book, Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), as well as all of her books since as her Canadian editor. As Munro has often said, he has been singular as an editor for her because he never asked for anything other than short stories. When he left Macmillan for McClelland & Stewart in 1986 to found his own imprint, Douglas Gibson Books, Munro elected to fight to go with him - her The Progress of Love (1986) was that imprint's first book.
The second notable person hearing Munro's interview with Boyle that August day in 1974, even more important, was Gerald Fremlin. Munro had shared the pages of the April 1950 Folio with him, knew him, and was attracted to him when they were students at Western. Deducing from her comments in the interview that she had moved back to Ontario, Fremlin reconnected with her. A physical geographer, he had retired from a career with the Canadian government and returned to his hometown in Huron County, Clinton, to look after his elderly mother in the house he grew up in. In August 1975 Munro moved to Clinton to live with Fremlin there. Returned to Huron County after over twenty years away, living just thirty-five kilometers south of Wingham where her father still was, Alice Munro had really come home.
Without Fremlin's unplanned reconnection, Munro says she would not have returned to Huron County on her own. But returning there had immediate and clear effects on her work, even though Munro said at the time that she was not sure she would keep writing. She began working with Gibson on a text to accompany a book of Ontario photographs, "Places at Home," and while the book was never published, Munro incorporated much of it into Who Do You Think You Are?. These were stark vignettes revealing close scrutiny to the physical details of place and, at the same time, they reveal in Munro's writing what might be called a new "geological awareness." Munro shared with Fremlin an interest in land forms, geological history, historical geography; throughout their time together, Munro has said, driving about Huron County (and other places too) and studying the land has been their greatest shared recreation. But returning to Huron County in 1975, by then scrutinizing the detail of her home place from a new perspective, by bringing these new perspectives into her work, Munro transformed her writing - Who Do Your Think You Are? (published as The Beggar Maid  in the United States and Britain) shows that transformation throughout. There is a new immediacy, greater directness, and a more complex engagement with the local culture in those stories. Munro's return to Huron County showed immediately.
Although she did not hear Munro's interview with Boyle, Virginia Barber, a literary agent in New York, had begun thinking about her - she approached Munro's former editor in Toronto about her in early 1976 and, in March of that year, approached Munro directly. After corresponding about the role of a literary agent, the two met that summer in Toronto and confirmed a business relation. Munro was then working on the stories that became Who Do You Think You Are? and, in November, she sent seven of them to Barber. Her agent then set to work at once and by the middle of that month Charles McGrath, a young fiction editor at the New Yorker, let Barber know that they would buy "Royal Beatings" and returned the rest of the stories to her. By the time that story appeared in March 1977 the New Yorker had considered ten of Munro's stories and bought another, "The Beggar Maid" (1977). The editors knew that in Munro they had a real find, so beginning in 1978 she has had a right-of-first-refusal contract with the New Yorker and altogether has published sixty-two contributions there. In October 2013, just after Munro's Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, the New Yorker republished her "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" (1999–2000) as a tribute to one of its own.
But in 1977 Munro's relation with the New Yorker was just beginning, and once they had passed on most of the other stories Barber submitted them to other commercial magazines. She placed stories that figured in Who Do You Think You Are? in both Canadian and U. S. outlets: Chatelaine, Ms., Redbook, Saturday Night, Toronto Life, and Viva. During the 1980s Munro's periodical appearances became almost wholly international; Barber added the Atlantic Monthly, GQ – Gentleman's Quarterly, Grand Street, Granta, Mademoiselle, and Paris Review; in the 1990s, The London Review of Books had a story and, during the 2000s, the American Scholar, Harper's, New Statesman, and Virginia Quarterly Review were added. Since 1979, only two stories have been in Canadian publications. Throughout, the New Yorker has remained the primary venue for her stories.
Concurrent with her submission of Munro's new stories to magazines in late 1977, Barber also sought an American publisher for Munro's next book. Her first three had been published there by McGraw-Hill though not, the agent thought, very much to Munro's advantage, gauged either by money or by increased reputation. Barber arranged an auction of the rights and, initially, W. W. Norton looked to publish the book, one that would take a different form than that envisioned in Canada by Gibson and Macmillan. During 1978 the Norton editor was pushing her to make a novel of the material and, through this process, those suggestions had an effect on Munro's own conception of it. Due to be published by Macmillan in November, on a Saturday in mid-September Munro called Gibson and told him that she wanted to take the book off the press and restructure it, dropping stories, reshaping some, adding others; she would pay the costs. They did just that, and this episode is now celebrated in the history of Canadian publishing. It also shows Munro focused and sharp, a writer absolutely bent on reaching the forms she seeks, and one defining a new relation - a closer one than previously - to her materials.
Norton never published its version. Munro's editor left the firm and Barber and Munro decided to seek another publisher. They took it to Alfred A. Knopf, where Munro began working with Ann Close in late 1978, just as Who Do You Think You Are? was finally being published in Canada. Like Gibson in Canada, Close is still Munro's editor in the U. S. With her arrival, the third person in Munro's editorial triumvirate was in place. Beginning with The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose (1979) from Knopf, itself a slightly different version of Who, Barber, Close, and Gibson have worked together to produce eleven original story collections and three volumes of selected stories. Working together and with a succession of New Yorker editors - who have often helped reshape Munro's stories for its pages, although sometimes those changes have been dropped in book versions - they provided the literary foundation for her reputation and celebrity. Although Barber retired in 2003, she has remained involved with Munro's career, seeing new stories and celebrating such triumphs as the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 and the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Once Munro returned to Huron County in 1975 to live with Fremlin in Clinton, most of her activities that might be cited here might well be seen as commonplace. Her father, with whom she have developed a new and different relationship since she had come back to Ontario, died from heart troubles during the summer of 1976; he had taken to writing himself in previous years, and Munro arranged for the publication of a book of his, The McGregors (1979), from Macmillan. His passing also allowed Munro a greater freedom in her use of childhood memories. In 1976 too Munro received the only honorary degree she has accepted, from the University of Western Ontario - becoming a graduate of that university at last. During the late 1970s too Munro became active - unusually so, given that she has never been very politically involved - in efforts to defend literature from people in Ontario who were seeking to censor Canadian works in high school curricula. Her friend Margaret Laurence's The Diviners came under particular scrutiny, but Lives of Girls and Women was reviled too. Munro's defense of these books, and of literature generally, had a particular sharpness to it, all more so since one of the forums she spoke at took place in Clinton - her neighbors, people she saw daily on Clinton's streets, made up the audience. In 1980 the Wingham Advance-Times took exception to some remarks about Wingham erroneously attributed to her in a national magazine and published an anti-Alice Munro editorial, "A Genius of Sour Grapes." Munro really was home.
Such instances largely ended during the 1980s as Munro's reputation grew through her ongoing and frequent publication, and because of the long list of prizes she has received for her work. She and Fremlin lived in Clinton, saw friends and relatives, cross-country skied, travelled about. Each of them worked. They bought a place in Comox, British Columbia and began spending winters there, driving back and forth by various routes. Though largely averse to visiting-writer positions, Munro accepted one that brought her close to friends and relatives at the University of British Columbia in early 1980 and another later that year that took them to Australia. They returned there for an extended holiday in 1983. She also traveled to Europe, spending time and doing family research for The View From Castle Rock in Scotland and, on another trip, spending some extended time in Ireland. As her reputation grew, Munro abandoned book tours and did fewer public events, although she did do some and regularly traveled to accept many of the awards which she has won for her work. As each new book has been published - there have been ten since The Beggar Maid - Munro has emerged for interviews and attended to her celebrity. Yet she has also remained elusive, read and reviewed but not that often seen in the media. Her life has been quiet, lived mostly in Clinton among friends and family, concentrated on the richness of her literary imagination. And as her life has continued Munro has, as everyone does, experienced the vicissitudes of being: illnesses, slowing down, the deaths of friends and loved ones. Gerald Fremlin passed away in April 2013. Eighty-two years old herself, Munro's own situation is that of a person her age. She has said that she has stopped writing. Dear Life, with its "Finale," seems to suggest that this is so.
In 1980 Munro contributed her papers to the University of Calgary Archives - there have been three major accessions and the collection is now just over eight meters of textual records. These records are variable from the 1950s and early '60s, offer great detail from Lives of Girls and Women (1971) though the stories contained in The Progress of Love (1986), and become variable again after that. Even so, the Alice Munro Fonds - which a very few scholars have availed themselves to - tell an eloquent and precise story detailing the focus of Alice Munro's life. In draft upon draft, beginning upon beginning, story after story, version after version, revised ending after further revised ending, Munro's papers reveal her to be just what she is: an artist who has lived her life mostly in Clinton, quietly, focused ever and always on her writing. She has been bent on discovering, as she once wrote, "the rest of the story" in each and every one she has produced.
Throughout her life and career, Alice Munro has meditated the life she has lived herself, that she has seen others live, the lives she has known and imagined. Through their complexity, through their clarity, and through their precision, the stories Munro has published capture the very feelings of what it is like to live, to be alive. The feeling of just being a human being. From first to last - whichever one the last may be - Munro's stories reveal her as a consummate artist who is without question among the most accomplished masters of the short story. And of prose fiction. In her hands, the short story is complete, whole. Her work is a triumph. As Munro once said of the writing of another, "so this is how it should be done."
From The Nobel Prizes 2013. Published on behalf of The Nobel Foundation by Science History Publications/USA, division Watson Publishing International LLC, Sagamore Beach, 2014
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2013