Gail Godwin


Novelist Gail Godwin (1937- ) has often been labeled as a feminist and Southern writer for her portrayals of women and themes common in the South. She has published 16 books over a span of 40 years of writing and in these works addresses broad questions about relationships between women and men, family, art, and spirituality.

Godwin was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on June 18, 1937, to Mose Winston Godwin and Kathleen Karahenbuhl Godwin. After her parents divorced, Godwin, at the age of two, moved with her mother into the home of her grandparents in Asheville, North Carolina. Soon after, her grandfather died, and the three women became what Godwin has described as a "small man-less family."

Godwin's mother made her living in multiple ways, but all of her professions related to language and writing. She taught poetry, drama, and creative writing at the Plonk School for the Creative Arts; instructed in Spanish and composition at St. Genevieve Junior. College; was a reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times; and published romance fiction under the pseudonym Charlotte Ashe. Birmingham native Gail Godwin (1937- ) is a Gail GodwinHer mother was also a story teller, her work ranging from personal anecdotes to completely fictionalized tales. In a 1989 essay, "My Mother, the Writer: Master of a Thousand Disguises," Godwin notes her debt to her mother's writing career and explains how she learned to manipulate autobiographical elements into fiction and create a disguise for herself as a storyteller. Godwin's grandmother was active in her life as well and also provided valuable help with her Kathleen's writing. Critics have noted how both women in this matriarchal household shaped Godwin's career and life, with her grandmother's conventional Southern womanhood and her mother's more unconventional, ambitious, and dynamic nature.

In 1948, Godwin's mother married Frank Cole, with whom she had three more children: Franchelle Cole, Tommy Cole, and Rebel Cole. After the marriage, her family began to move regularly. She attended five high schools in four years and graduated in 1955 from Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, Virginia. At her graduation. Godwin was reunited with her father, and she moved in with him in Smithfield, North Carolina. Godwin attended Peace Junior College in Raleigh, North Carolina, from 1955-1957 and then attended University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC). While in Chapel Hill, Godwin's father committed suicide.

Godwin graduated from UNC in 1959 with a BA in Journalism. She then moved to Miami, Florida, where she was hired as a reporter for the Miami Herald; she was fired within the first year, however, by a bureau chief who felt that she had not developed into a strong reporter. While in Miami, Godwin married Douglas Kennedy, a photographer. They divorced in 1961, and she moved to London, England, and worked for the U.S. embassy's travel service. While taking writing classes, she married her second husband, psychotherapist Ian Marshall, but the marriage also ended in divorce. In 1966, after returning to the United States, Godwin enrolled in the University of Iowa's famed Writers' Workshop, where she studied under Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving; she completed a master's degree in 1968 and a PhD in English in 1971.

Since that time, Godwin has primarily earned her living as a writer, only intermittently taking on teaching and research jobs at universities. Godwin's writing reflects her experiences, and her fiction often deals with women from the South, relationships with mothers, suicide, the step-family dynamic, divorce, and the artist. Her early novels center on women seeking independence from dominating husbands. The Perfectionists, her first novel, was her dissertation at the University of Iowa and was published in 1970. It tells the story of the dissolving marriage between an American journalist and a British psychotherapist and was reviewed as a dark psychological novel. Her follow-up work, Glass People, centers on Francesca Bolt, who separates from her husband and takes a trip to the South in an attempt to forge her own independence and identity. Works like these have led to Godwin's reputation as a writer who deals with women's identity as a theme. Critics focused on her feminist messages about women's victimization. At the time these works were published, Godwin felt both claimed and limited by the women's movement, believing that readers were missing other important themes in her work.

In the summer of 1972, Godwin spent two months at Yaddo, an artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. There she began a long-term relationship with New York composer Robert Starer. After leaving Yaddo, Godwin taught writing at New York schools, including Vassar College and Columbia University. In this same time period, she began collaborating with Starer on musical works, beginning with The Last Lover, a chamber opera composed in 1975. The couple moved to Woodstock, New York, in 1976.

Godwin's subsequent novels continued to center on women as protagonists but also dealt with the relationship between the artist and her art. In Violet Clay (1978), the title character explores herself and her identity through art, making something of her past memories through her own art. Godwin's eighth novel, The Finishing School (1984), centers on Justin Stokes, an actress who similarly learns to channel the trials of her life into her dramatic performances onstage. The audience is left with a complicated picture of how art and life blend, along with a portrait of how memory and art are linked.

Godwin has also been labeled a "southern" writer. Although initially wary of writing about Asheville because of its association with writer Thomas Wolfe, she eventually overcame that pressure and wrote about the city in which she'd been raised. Asheville and the South more generally became central to her work but she never intended to be a "Southern Novelist." Many of her works, in exploring the protagonists' identities, tell stories of women in complicated relationships with mothers and grandmothers, women who flee the South, and the idea of Southern womanhood. Ultimately, however, the women always return to confront and sometimes embrace that aspect of their personal history. A Southern Family, published in 1987, is Godwin's first use of multiple points of view. In the novel, Theo Quick has killed his girlfriend and then himself. Readers follow the reactions of the Quick family, struggling with blame and the question of Theo's identity. Critics have applauded the range of voices in the work, voices that cross gender, class, generational, and regional barriers.

Beginning in the 1990s, Godwin's work remained centered on her female characters' identities but also explored their relationships with God. Her 1991 novel, Father Melancholy's Daughter, takes place over the span of a liturgical year and follows Margaret Gower on a spiritual quest as she tries to understand the meaning of her mother's life while looking after the "melancholy father" referenced in the title.

In 2001, Robert Starer died of congestive heart failure. Since then, in addition to her novels, Godwin has published the non-fiction work Heart: A Personal Journey Through Its Myths and Meanings (2002), which focuses on the archetypal symbol of the heart, combining discussions of medicine, the arts, myth, religion, and philosophy. In 2007, inspired by writer and diarist Virginia Woolf and encouraged by friend and fellow author Joyce Carol Oates, Godwin published her personal journals from 1961-1963 under the title The Making of A Writer. These journals provide an understanding both of her writing process and of the events that shaped her fiction. Some critics have noted just how closely the journals followed plot elements of Queen of the Underworld, a novel that came out the same year. Godwin continues to live and write in Woodstock, New York.

Works by Gail Godwin  

The Perfectionists (1970)

Glass People (1972)

The Odd Woman (1974)

Dream Children (1976)

Violet Clay (1978)

A Mother and Two Daughters (1982)

Mr. Bedford and the Muses (1983)

The Finishing School (1984)

A Southern Family (1987)

Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991)

The Good Husband (1994)

The Finishing School (1999)

Evensong (2000) (2002)

Evenings at Five (2004)

The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963 (2007)

Queen of the Underworld (2007)

Unfinished Desires (2009)

Additional Resources 

Donlon, Jocelyn Hazelwood. "Gail Godwin Talks About Southern Storytelling." Southern Quarterly 32 (Spring 1994): 11-24.

Hill, Jane. Gail Godwin. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

———. "Gail Godwin." American Short-Story Writers Since World War II: Third Series, edited by Patrick Manor and Richard E. Lee. Dictionary of Literary Biography 234. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.

Xie, Lihong. "Gail Godwin." The History of Southern Women's Literature, edited by Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

———. The Evolving Self in the Novels of Gail Godwin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.

Carrie Spell
Auburn University


Published February 2, 2010
Last updated July 11, 2013