Ursula K. Le Guin was born in California. And not only was she born in California, but at Berkeley. Her parents were anthropologists, and they worked at the famous University from which the revolts of the 60s spread. Today, when we think of Berkeley, the word “counterculture” comes to our mind. But when Berkeley Campus was seething with protests, Ursula had already gone somewhere else. This does not mean that the spirit of her time didn’t touch her mind or her work. On the contrary, she contributed to it as a clever feminist and a nonconformist writer.
Her father, Alfred Louis Kroeber, turned out to be such an important figure in american anthropology that today the anthropology department headquarters at the University of California are inside a building named Kroeber Hall. Her mother, Theodora Covel Kracaw, earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology, but her interests shifted towards anthropology because, as Theodora Kroeber, she shared many of her husband’s field research journeys. Theodora Kroeber became a profesional writer whe her children were grown up. She wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, a biography of the last member of the Yahi tribe, annihilated by white colonists, which had a wide impact.
Ursula did not study anthropology, but many readers and critics have stated that this science greatly influenced her novels. She was a creator of worlds, and that includes the description of possible and impossible societies which often carry a judgement, an image or a reply addressed towards existing societies. It is inconceivable that such an inquisitive mind had not absorbed the information and hints coming from her parent’s talk and the family’s library.
As a child, she loved biology and poetry. She submitted a short story to a sci-fi magazine when she was eleven, but the editors rejected it. It took eleven years for her to try again. As a young woman, she got a master’s degree in French and a Fulbright Grant. With that, she boarded the Queen Mary to finish her studies in France. Then something happened: she met Charles Le Guin on board. She did not know it yet, but this “signalled the end of the doctorate for her” because her marriage did, according to her biographer Charlotte Spivack.
In fact, the couple married not long after disembarking in Paris in 1953. Charles, a historian, did achieve his doctorate, but not in France. Ursula changed her plans: she worked as a secretary, teacher of French and mother. And she wrote.
Anyway, Charles worked as a father too. We can see that even this unconventional, freethinking couple adopted traditional role genders to a certain extent: Charles went out into the world seeking for a post and a regular salary, Ursula retreated (partially) to the home stronghold. But Charles’ faithful support and his wife’s talent and hard work soon swiped the difference away.
Ursula and Charles Le Guin settled in Portland, Oregon, in 1959 and lived there for the rest of their lives. They had three children (Elisabeth, Caroline and Theodore), born between 1957 and 1964. And, well, having the same address during all your life does not mean you are not going out to have a look at the outside world sometime. Remember the Fulbright programme had given Le Guin a grant to study in France and get her doctorate? Well, she received further Fulbright grants to go to London in 1968 and 1975. Swinging London was still swinging, maybe slowing down a bit.
Also, an important change entered the family’s life in 1969: The Left Hand of Darkness was a major success. Ursula K. Le Guin was suddenly a very visible writer.
She died on January 2018 at her house in Portland, probably of a heart attack.
“I used to write between 10 and 12 at night with three kids. Pretty well takes up the day. And I couldn’t have done it if Charles hadn’t been completely in on it too. One person cannot bring up 3 kids and write full time. No way. But two people can do two full time jobs and kids.”
(This quotation comes from an interview by John Freeman in The Literary Hub.)
Le Guin was late to feminism:
“It was a real mind shift. And I was a grown woman with kids. And mothers of children were not welcome among a lot of early feminists. I was living the bad dream. I was a mommy. You know there’s always prejudice in a revolutionary movement. I wasn’t even sure I was welcome. And I wasn’t to some of those people. It took a lot of thinking for me to find what kind of feminist I could be and why I wanted to be a feminist.”
(And this quotation comes from the same place, a great text that draws the path of her life and career.)
America’s Greatest Writer Has Died
January 24, 2018