September 6, 2001

Pulitzer Winner Details Role of Nature in Work

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alison Lurie, a former professor in the English department, used to spend her days at Cornell meandering through the plantations, rose gardens, wildflower preserves and water lily ponds around campus.

Yesterday she recounted how her fascination for the outdoors grew when she was a child, and how it shaped a course on children’s literature she would later teach.

She presented her lyrical, rhythmic talk, “Secret Gardens and Enchanted Forests: Nature in Children’s Literature,” in front of more than 300 students, admirers and members of the Harder family, who sponsored the fifth annual William H. (’30) and Jane Torrence Harder lecture.

The presentation kicked off the first in a series of Cornell Plantations free Wednesday night lectures.

Lurie, a New York City native, recalled, “When I was seven years old, my family moved to the country; my idea of the world was entirely changed. Suddenly I saw the nature world as full of mystery and possibility.”

She explained, “I thought that if there were cows, which I had only seen in pictures, why couldn’t there be elves?”

Lurie, her white bobbed hair and bright blue top just visible above the high podium, did not spend too much time discussing her own children’s books but instead focused on some of her favorite writers, and favorites of those in the audience.

Nature, she noted, is portrayed differently in different stories, from acts of nature that are irrational (in the “Pooh” books) to nature that is dangerous (such as the perils faced in “Little House on the Prairie”) to nature that heals (as it does contrary Mary in “The Secret Garden”).

“The underlying folklore of fairy tales was that nature was alive, was aware of us,” she said.

Lurie — who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Foreign Affairs” — is primarily known in literary circles for her books for adults. She is the former F.J. Whiton Professor of American Literature at Cornell, but still keeps an office in Goldwin Smith Hall and visits as a creative writing instructor.

In introducing Lurie, Prof. Harry Shaw, chair of the English department, said that she approaches her subjects with “wit, precise insight and a touch of malice. Such novelists are fascinated by workings of society.”

Torrence Harder ’65, who spoke on behalf of his family, noted that literature changes the way readers view nature.

“The prognosis for the future involves reversing the damage we have done over time,” he said.

The lecture series is co-sponsored by the department of English and was introduced by both Philip E. Lewis, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as Donald A. Rakow, director of the Cornell Plantations.

Nine lectures will be held through November starting at 7:30 p.m. in the James Law Auditorium in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Next week will feature David Hickley, founder of the Heronswood Nursery in Kingston, Wash. His lecture is titled, “Plant Hunting in Turkey: From Collection to Sale.”

Archived article by Beth Herskovits