Courtesy of Cornell University

A trailblazer for women in her field and broader academia, Prof. Alison Lurie, English, was the second woman to be awarded tenure at Cornell.

December 8, 2020

Renowned Author and Pioneering Cornell Professor Alison Lurie Dies at 94

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Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, died in hospice care in Ithaca on Dec. 3. She was 94. 

The professor emerita of English taught classes on creative writing, folklore and children’s literature throughout her 35 years at Cornell until her retirement in 2005. She was perhaps best known for her novels depicting the life of academic elites. 

“Alison Lurie was both a great writer and a smart, kind, sharp and canny presence,” said Prof. Alice Fulton MFA ’82, English. Fulton had been Lurie’s student in her creative writing program and was later her colleague.

“I seem to remember every meeting I had with Alison because of memorable things she said or simply because of her mysteriously powerful, playful aura,” Fulton said in a University press release. “She was deeply unconventional, both wild and wise, and I cherish the chance I had to know her.”

When Lurie started at Cornell in 1969, she was a trailblazer for women in her field and broader academia: In 1979, she was the first woman on the creative writing staff, and the second ever woman in the faculty body awarded tenure at the University.

Lurie first moved to Ithaca — where she lived until her death — in 1961, when her first husband Prof. Emeritus Jonathan Bishop, English, began teaching at Cornell. 

Ithaca served as a clear inspiration for the primary setting for several of her novels, including her 1967 book Imaginary Friends, which depicted a fictional Ivy League school in Upstate New York called Corinth University.

“This is the world I know — so I’m not the kind of person who can write, let us say, about 18th-century France or even 18th-century America, or gang wars in Los Angeles,” she said in a 2013 interview. “I’ve mostly written fairly close to the worlds I live in.”

Her 1984 novel Foreign Affairs, which earned a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award nomination, centered on a Corinth University professor’s journey to England and back. 

Lurie published 11 novels over an almost 60-year career — many of which were sharp social satires, critiquing the social dynamics of American academic elites. Several of her novels received international critical acclaim and screen adaptations. She released her final novel, The Last Resort, in 1998.

Critics described Lurie as a contemporary Jane Austen, citing her focus on social dynamics and domestic concerns.

Lurie also wrote nonfiction, most notably The Language of Clothes. She co-edited the Garland Library of Children’s Classics collection and released several folklore anthologies for children. In addition, she produced two critical studies of children’s literature, the field she was originally hired to teach in at Cornell.

Her work was highly engaged with the political movements of her day, especially protests against the Vietnam War. She also challenged book banning and conservatism in children’s literature and was arrested in 1985 at a rally against Cornell’s investments in the South African government.

“Among those who knew her in Ithaca, Alison will also be remembered for her backyard receptions each fall, as well as her Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction and gracious personality,” said Prof. Robert Morgan, English, in a University press release. 

Lurie was born on Sep. 3, 1926, the child of a sociologist and a journalist. In 1947, she graduated from Radcliffe College with degrees in history and literature.

In 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo named Lurie the New York State Author from 2012 until 2014. Oxford and Nottingham Universities awarded her honorary degrees, and she received grants from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. Lurie earned various commendations alongside her Pulitzer Prize, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. 

Lurie is survived by her husband Edward Hower ’63, a fellow author and educator, along with her sister, three children, two stepchildren and three grandchildren.

Correction, Dec. 8, 1:27 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated that Luries was the second ever tenured professor at Cornell. Before Lurie, multiple women received tenure in the College of Agriculture and Life Science and in the home economics department; two female professors in the College of Arts and Sciences received tenure before Lurie as well. The article has since been updated.