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Gurganus, Allan (b. 1947)  
 
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The critically acclaimed writer Allan Gurganus is perhaps best known for his novels Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a comic epic about the history of the South, and Plays Well With Others, about the New York art scene in the 1980s, just as AIDS was emerging.

His mentor, the writer John Cheever, once described Gurganus as "the most technically gifted and morally responsive writer of his generation."

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Gurganus was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1947 to a fundamentalist Baptist store owner and a retired school teacher. He originally trained as a painter, and had his first one-man show at the age of twelve in his hometown's Arts Center. He later studied painting at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His oil and water color paintings are now represented in many public and private collections, including the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Rocky Mount Arts Center.

Gurganus left art school in 1965 to join the Navy for a three-year stint. While stationed on the USS Yorktown, he became inspired to write after reading Henry James's Portrait of a Lady (1881), which he discovered in the ship's library.

Honorably discharged from the Navy in 1968, Gurganus moved to New York City to attend Sarah Lawrence College and study creative writing with the renowned writer Grace Paley. In 1972 he won a scholarship to the Iowa Writers' Workshop where he was tutored and befriended by the award-winning novelist and master of the short story John Cheever.

Cheever, a closeted bisexual, took a romantic interest in Gurganus, who is 35 years his junior. Although the two never had a sexual relationship, Gurganus appears in several admiring entries in Cheever's private journals, which were published in 1991.

Without telling him, Cheever submitted one of Gurganus's short stories, "Minor Heroism," to the New Yorker. The magazine accepted and published the story in 1974. It was the first story the magazine had ever published that featured a gay character.

After graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Gurganus taught briefly at both Stanford and Duke universities before returning to New York to teach part-time at Sarah Lawrence College.

Gurganus went on to achieve national fame with the publication of his critically lauded and commercially successful first novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989). Begun in 1981 while Gurganus was still teaching at Sarah Lawrence, the novel was first conceived as a 30-page short story, but was published eight years later as a 700-plus-page opus.

Alternating scenes of tragedy with those of comedy, the novel is narrated by 99-year-old Lucy Marsden from her bed in a charity rest home. Lucy recounts her marriage as a bride of 15 to a Civil War veteran more than triple her age. She frequently interrupts her narrative to offer shrewd, and often irreverent, social commentary on the history and customs of the South, including the enduring legacy of slavery.

As Jay Tolson in his insightful review of the novel for the New Republic observed, "a Whitmanian or . . . gay sensibility," permeates the novel. This is especially evident in the stories Lucy narrates about her husband Will and his "angel-voiced" boyhood friend Ned, who was killed by a sniper's bullet while both boys were fighting in the Civil War. Will never fully recovers from this early loss. Lucy recognizes his pain and marries him as a sort of reclamation project, or as she explains, "I still believed I could rescue the boy in him."

The novel won the 1989 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A 1994 CBS-TV adaptation of the work won four Emmy awards, including one for Best Supporting Actress for Cecily Tyson, who portrays a former slave. A somewhat less successful one-woman version of the novel, starring Ellen Burstyn, opened on Broadway in the fall of 2003 for a limited run.

A collection of Gurganus's early short stories and novellas, written in the 1970s and 1980s, are included in White People (1991). Narrated in a startling range of first-person voices, the collection displays the depth and breadth of Gurganus's talents.

Several of the stories in the collection concern, either overtly or obliquely, same-sex desire. These include "Reassurance," a story in the form of two letters, one written by Walt Whitman and the other by a Union soldier to his mother, both purportedly composed in the summer of 1865, and "Adult Art," which concerns the erotic musings of a middle-aged married man for a young stranger in a small Southern town. As the married man in the story explains, "I've got this added tenderness. I never talk about it. . . . It sounds strange but feels so natural. I know it will get me into big trouble. I feel it for a certain kind of other man, see. For any guy who's even clumsier than me, than I."

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Allan Gurganus. Photograph by Roger Haile.
  
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