Photo of Shirley Ann Grau
Shirley Ann Grau (NC ’50)
Author of six novels and four short story collections, novelist Shirley Ann Grau found immense inspiration in life in the Deep South.
Grau was born in New Orleans and grew up in Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of a physician. In a 2003 interview with The Associated Press, she recalled that as a child she was fascinated by Greek and Latin, but also loved roaming the woods. Critics would later note in her fiction meticulous descriptions of flowers, plants, and trees.
In 1950, Grau graduated with honors from Newcomb College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the prestigious academic honor society. She said she pondered careers as a Classics professor or lawyer, but found sexism too pervasive in academia and the law. Grau enrolled in Tulane’s graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in Literature, but she withdrew when the English department chairman said he wouldn’t hire women as teaching assistants.
Nevertheless, she remained steadfast in her pursuit of a writing career, and her first book, The Black Prince and Other Stories, was published in 1954, when she was 26.
In 1965, Grau won the Pulitzer Prize for her fourth book, The Keepers of the House. Grau said she first thought the call telling her she had won was a practical joke from a friend.
“I was awfully short-tempered that morning because I’d been up all night with one of my children,” Grau told Deep South Magazine in 2013. “So, I said to the voice I mistook, ‘Yeah, and I’m the Queen of England, too,’ and I hung up on him.”
The Keepers of the House drew critical praise, but also threatening phone calls for its depiction of a long romance and interracial marriage between a wealthy white man and his Black housekeeper in rural Alabama. Ku Klux Klansmen, angry over the book amid the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, tried to burn a cross on her yard. Grau and her family were not home at the time.
Throughout her career, Grau resented being pigeonholed as a Southern writer, even though her novels and short stories are set in the South.
“No novel is really a regional novel,” she said in a 2005 Washington Post interview. “A novel has to be set somewhere. A Southern writer has a harder time because everybody says immediately ‘Southern regionalist.’ … I would love to get away from the Southern label. I would like once in my life to have something I write taken as fiction, not as Southern sociology.”
Grau, who passed away in 2020, certainly achieved acclaim beyond the ‘Southern label,’ with her work receiving praise across the United States and globally for nearly seven decades.