Where are you going, where have you been?
By: James Carol Oates
One of America’s most admired writers, Joyce Carol Oates did not only mesmerize with her superb writing skills but also in the way she tackled topics considered to be off-limits to women writers. She delved into the world of violence and sex crimes. One of her most popular work is the short story entitled “Where are you going, where have you been?” In this short piece Oates was not only brilliant in storytelling but she was also able to weave the day’s headlines and the social changes gripping America and turn it into a tale that easily captures the reader’s full attention. The following pages will not only deal with the text but also on how her past experiences contributed to her powerful style of writing.
Joyce Carol Oates was born in 1938 in the rural area in Lockport, New York. She grew up in a farm. Life was simple and nothing seems to change much. In fact she went to the same one-room schoolhouse her mother used to attend. Aside from the simplicity of the surroundings the area was also severely hit by the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is not hard to imagine people working hard but barely scraping by. The few industries in Lockport, New York suffered the inevitable – foreclosures and high rate of unemployment. There was nothing there that would have indicated that Joyce Carol Oates would grow into a prolific and much respected writer.
But what is not evident in the physical environment, one can find a surplus within the hearts of family members. Her parents nurtured her desire to acquire knowledge and encouraged her to learn how to read and write. At the age of 14 her grandmother gave her a typewriter and through this little hardware she hammered away the beginnings of her future novels, short stories, poems, and plays. Her childhood provided her insights into the life of rural folk and she was able to use this period in her life to contrast with what she was about to experience as a college student in Syracuse University, then afterwards as a teacher at the University of Detroit.
After more than five years living in Detroit – with her husband Raymond Smith – Joyce Carol Oates took a job at the University of Windsor, just across the Detroit River, in the province of Ontario, Canada. Again she relived what it is like to live in a rural setting yet at the same time never really leaving behind modern American living as she was practically a stone’s throw away from Detroit. From these two vantage points she was able to compare and contrasts the new face of the United States as opposed to other nations and as opposed to the past. She finds the land of her birth very different from what she used to know and she was able to express it in her writings.
She grew up in decade when the world was at war. She was a child growing up in a rural community at a time when America became the new superpower and bulwark for democracy. She became an adult in a time when America entered the decade of the 60s, when the nation had to redefine the meaning of freedom, equality, and human rights. It is during this period when she wrote some of her best works – novels and short stories that would forever alter the way people view female writers. The following will provide details on what exactly went on in the 1960s that would have influenced Joyce Carol Oates to write dark, twisted tales of violence, rebellion, and promiscuity that up to that point was considered taboo especially for women writers.
The following historical facts were taken from Edward P. Morgan’s The 60s Experience, and it will work like snapshots showing defining moments in American history and will reveal the social forces that shaped Joyce Carol Oates thinking and her distinct writing style:
· 1960 – Student sit-ins from Greensboro, North Carolina to Nashville showed that
young African-Americans – living under centuries of discrimination – will no longer be controlled by fear. The Civil Rights Movement is gaining momentum.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the use of birth control pills.
Kennedy and Nixon hold the first nationally televised presidential campaign debate.
· 1961 – The United States breaks off diplomatic relations with Cuba
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human being to escape earth’s gravity and view the earth from a new vantage point.
· 1962 – The Supreme Court finds it unconstitutional to allow bible reading and
prayer in schools.
James Meredith becomes the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
· 1963 – 250,000 people attended the civil rights March on Washington and they
heard Martin Luther King, Jr. declare his “I Have A Dream” speech.
Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Bob Dylan’s song gets into the top-40 charts.
· 1964 – The U.S. is slowly being sucked into the Vietnam War.
Congress approves the Equal Opportunity Act.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
· 1965 – The U.S. sends the first infantry troops to Vietnam.
Antiwar rallies are in vogue.
Draft cards were burned.
From 1960 to 1965, the critical period before Joyce Carol Oates published “Where are you going, where have you been?” was a time fraught with radical changes that in retrospect may have placed a lot of strain to those who were there. The TV was such a significant piece of equipment that would have enabled Joyce Carol Oates to see what was happening all over the nation. With the help of the television set millions of young Americans are easily influenced by the images and sounds coming from the recent protest rallies to the scientific breakthroughs in communication, transportation, and space travel.
Aside from mass media one of the major influences in her life was the campus. From the international conflict to problems with the Civil Rights Movement there is one thing that cuts right through everything and it is the campus and its students. It is from the campus that the government finds the age-appropriated draftee and it is also in the campuses where the government can find the most rabid antiwar organizations. The students and the teachers were active participants in transforming the nation into something far different from what has emerged in the post-Word War II era. There was a revolution, a transformation and Joyce Carol Oates witnessed it as a faculty member in the University of Detroit.
From growing up poor in a rural community, getting used to the traditions handed down from generation to generation, Joyce Carol Oates went on to experience and observe extreme changes in communication, space travel, student activism and how young people assert their freedom. Aside from student radicalism and the insistence of the young that they do not need any institution to tell them what to do, there was also a sharp rise in violence. It is understandable where the youth find inspiration for their violent tendencies, and these are from various international conflicts as well as those closer to home, the violence related to the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1966 prior to writing the said piece Oates chanced upon the true-to-life story of Charles Schmid, Jr. a real life villain who was an expert in seducing women and leading them to their death. A close reading of a report from TIME magazine circa 1966 will reveal that Oates based the story of Connie and Arnold Friend on the events surrounding the gruesome murders in Tucson, Arizona.
In the early part of the story Oates immediately introduced the tension between Connie and her mother. Connie does not like the way her family is treating her. Her mom always keeps on comparing her with her sister while his father does not seem to know how to talk when he is in the house. The tension is not only caused by the typical teenage angst but also the result of the collision between the present and the past. The mother is looking back and hoping that her Connie will behave the same way as those who lived a generation earlier – polite, obedient, thrifty, and like a servant, working hard to keep the house functional.
The father was living in the past. He is tough as nails and he expects everyone to understand why he is emotionally absent in the home; his actions justified by mere fact that he is the bread winner and therefore his word is law and he is treated like a King in his own house. Connie rebels against these stereotypes and prefers to be away from her family choosing instead to be with friends. Oates was able to draw deep from her own experience in order to create the said characters. Her time spent in the rural setting of Lockport, New York allowed her to see the typical American household before the invasion of TV, the telephone, and rock and roll. It was simple; children showed deference to their parents and most of the time obeyed the rules set by the elders. But in the decade of the 60s young men and women are challenging the status quo.
In the second part of the story Oates brought his readers to a place reminiscent of Charles Schmid, Jr.’s story. Connie and her friends frequent the same establishment where Charles Schmid, Jr. loves to prowl and pick up girls. But it did not end there; Schmid was the inspiration behind the creepy disturbing and spine-chilling character of Arnold Friend who happened to spot Connie while she was on her way home. One of the major twists in the story was the unexpected attraction between the pretty girl and the jerk with “…shaggy, shabby black hair that looked crazy as a wig…” nothing made sense and so is the world around them.
The third part of the story shows Arnold Friend who was brazen enough to seduce Connie in her own home and yet also displaying the sick mind of serial killer who had done his homework. Arnold Friend, whose name should have been changed to Arnold Fiend, an evil person, was determined to force Connie to do things that she does not like to do. Since the reader is familiar with the Charles Schmid, Jr.’s story Oates allowed them to fill in the blanks. Yet in spite of the abrupt ending one is left with the impression that if only Connie did not quarrel with her mother she would not have suffered at the hands of the crazy Arnold Friend.
At the heart of the story is the impact of a rapidly changing world. Joyce Carol Oates was no stranger to the meaning of radical change. She experienced it first hand being a girl who grew up in the rural area of Lockport, New York, lacking material wealth and yet went on to become a best-selling author. It must have been hard adjusting to a life of fame and fortune but her varied experiences allowed her to draw upon a wealth of resources, an attribute that would serve well prolific writer like her.
The story in focus is replete with unresolved issues of rebellion, dysfunctional homes, sexual urges, and violence. These issues are discussed through the lives of the characters, Connie, her family, her friends and the mysterious Arnold Friend. And Joyce Carol Oates was able to create these characters because America in the decade of the 1960s is a land struggling to absorb the radical changes simultaneously and moving in breakneck speed. The timeline that listed technological breakthroughs as well as the history-altering events of wars, assassinations, protests, freedom from inhibitions could have easily torn this country in half. All of these influenced Joyce Carol Oates to write the way she did.
There were those who will not let her off the hook that easily. And they demanded that maybe the reason why she writes so well with such disturbing topics is that she was probably a victim and a product of dysfunctional family where violence was a way of life. According to Gavin Cologne-Brookes, the driving force behind her desire to write violent laden stories is not due to some sort of terrible experience as a child but simply the desire to compete with men, specifically with other great male writers. Cologne-Brookes quoted her saying, “…there is nothing like that supreme accolade – to be told that you write like a man” (236).
It is now made clear that Joyce Carol Oates was not only shaped by the social forces around her – the turbulent decade of the 60s – but also by her desire to be recognized as one of the best in her field. There is that desire to compete and play with the big boys. And judging from her modest background – a farm girl who dared to dream big – it is safe to say that he was an intense competitor and that she emerged the victor in more than a few occasions.
Colongne-Brookes, Gavin. Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Louisiana:
Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Johnson, Greg. “A Brief Biography.” Accessed 20 June 2008 Available
Morgan, Edward. The 60s Experience: Hard Lessons About Modern America. Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1991.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Accessed 19 June 2008
Available from http://jco.usfca.edu/works/wgoing/text.html
Time Magazine. “Growing Up in Tucson.” Accessed 20 June 2008 Available from