Elizabeth Cullinan: “She trained her exacting eye on the details of the human condition.”

From a New York Times obit, by Katharine Q. Seelye, of “Elizabeth Cullinan, Writer With an Eye For Detail”:

At 22, Elizabeth Cullinan began her working life with an entry-level job at The New Yorker. Her task was to type manuscripts submitted by literary lions like John Updike, James Thurber and E.B. White.

Perhaps it was muscle memory from all that typing, but soon enough she was writing stories herself—of New Yorker quality—and being compared to Chekhov and Joyce. The magazine began publishing her in 1960.

By the time Ms. Cullinan died on Jan. 26 at 86, her oeuvre consisted of two volumes of short stories, most of which had appeared in The New Yorker, as well as two novels, “House of Gold” (1970) and “Change of Scene” (1982). . . .

Ms. Cullinan trained her exacting eye on the details of the human condition, which she observed as her characters sought to cope with one another—and their pasts—in tense, even suffocating familial circumstances.

“House of Gold,” which won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, is the portrait of a devout lower‐middle‐class Irish Catholic family assembling for the death of the matriarch in the pre-Vatican II era.

“What is so strangely impressive” about the novel, Richard M. Elman wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “is its complete dedication to the ordinary, to sensation, event, process, detail: the feel of cool water splashed against the wrists on a sultry day; the way sweat rises on the shoulder blades against a young girl’s dress; the curious antisepsis of a nun’s bright blue eyes; or the slightly sour smell on the cheek of death.”. . .

Friends described Ms. Cullinan as disciplined, humble and private. And yet, while handling difficult subjects, she was often playful, even comic, especially in her portrayal of the intricacies of personal relationships. . . .

Ms. Cullinan had recently completed a third novel, “Starting From Scratch,” a fictionalized account of her days as a young secretary at The New Yorker.


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