Le Guin, Ursula K.
Le Guin, Ursula K.
- Jeremy Brett
Le Guin, Ursula K. (21 Oct. 1929–22 Jan. 2018), science fiction and fantasy novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet, was born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California, the first child and only daughter of Alfred Louis Kroeber and Theodora Covel Kracaw Brown Kroeber, both of whom trained as anthropologists. Alfred Kroeber held a doctorate in cultural anthropology and studied under Franz Boas at Columbia University. He moved to California in 1901 and began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where, among other achievements, he played a central role in establishing the university’s Museum of Anthropology. Theodora Kroeber was Alfred’s colleague in fieldwork in South America, and later became known for her published works on the cultures of Native Californian peoples, particularly the 1961 book Ishi in Two Worlds.
Her parents’ professional activities meant that Kroeber came of age in a household marked by a concern with stories, myths, and analyses of various cultural traditions. This anthropological background became of notable use in her literary career, with its deep exploration of human cultures. Kroeber attended Berkeley High School, graduating in 1947; she then went to Radcliffe College, where she graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Renaissance French and Italian literature in 1951. That same year she began her graduate work at Columbia University, where she received an M.A. in Romance literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in 1952. While traveling to Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1953, she met Charles Alfred Le Guin, an historian and fellow Fulbrighter. The two were married in Paris in December 1953.
With the marriage, which eventually produced three children (Elizabeth, b. 1957; Caroline, b. 1959; and Theodore, b. 1964), Le Guin decided to abandon her embryonic career in academia and instead try to devote herself full time to writing. After temporary residences in Charles’s home state of Georgia (where Ursula taught freshman French at Mercer University in Macon) and Idaho, the Le Guins moved to Portland, Oregon, where Ursula would live for the remainder of her life.
Le Guin began her writing career in 1951 with a novel set in the fictional Central European nation of Orsinia but abandoned it after a kindhearted rejection by Alfred Knopf in 1952. She took his editorial advice to heart and began writing a new Orsinian novel, entitled Malafrena. (After repeated rewritings, it would be published in 1979.) In the meantime, Le Guin’s first actual published works appeared, also set in Orsinia: the poem “Folksong from the Montayna Province” in the journal Prairie Post in 1959, and the short story “An die Musik” in 1961 in Western Humanities Review. Le Guin would later collect eleven stories from this universe into the 1976 collection Orsinian Tales.
Le Guin’s first entry into the fantastic came in 1966 with the publication of her first science fiction novel, Rocannon’s World. She would later credit her interest in writing science fiction to her discovery of the work of Cordwainer Smith and the realization that science fiction can be a mechanism for exploring the human condition as well as outer space. Rocannon’s World also marked the start of Le Guin’s most important group of works: the Hainish, or Ekumen, Universe. This loose collection of novels and stories do not form a coherent history or clear series of narrative connections, but all take place in a galaxy settled by numerous and culturally varied human civilizations that all descend from the humanoid Hain. Many of these settled planets (including Earth) are members of a vast interstellar confederacy called the Ekumen; the variety in human cultures across the Ekumen allowed Le Guin to analyze the many ways in which human beings interact with each other across disparate societal and natural environments.
Over time, many of Le Guin’s most acclaimed works were written as part of this loose cycle of writings, including 1971’s “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow”; 1972’s The Word for World Is Forest, a futuristic comment on the Vietnam War; and 1974’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, which explored the relationship between societies on two different worlds—one based on an economy of rampant capitalism, the other a peaceful anarcho-syndicalist society. The most famous Hainish work, and perhaps Le Guin’s most acclaimed piece of fiction, is the 1969 award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel, set among a society of humans who can periodically change gender at will, is of pivotal significance for the exploration of gender identities and relations in science fiction.
Other fantastic works of particular note by Le Guin include her first science fiction novel set on Earth, The Lathe of Heaven (1971), about a man whose dreams drastically affect the real world around him; and the 1974 story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a searing moral allegory centered around a utopian city that prospers off the degradation and abuse of a single innocent child. One of her more remarkable literary achievements, based heavily in Le Guin’s interest in cultural anthropology, was the dense Always Coming Home (1985)—an account of the Kesh, a society living in a far-future post-apocalyptic California. The work weaves together myths, autobiographies, maps, drawings, and other sources to create what amounts to a detailed imaginary ethnography.
Le Guin was also notable as a writer of fantasy, particularly for her highly influential Earthsea series, that began with the novel A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and continued through four additional novels and nine short stories. Earthsea is notable in fantasy literature in its setting within a diverse archipelago of islands that is settled mainly by darker-skinned people. Le Guin objected to traditional Western assumptions about fantasy worlds being populated by exclusively white characters and set in a pseudo-European Middle Ages.
Over the course of her lifetime, Le Guin amassed a large collection of honors, including eight Hugo Awards, six Nebula Awards, twenty-four Locus Awards, three James Tiptree Jr. Awards, one National Book Award, and three World Fantasy Awards (including the 1995 Award for Life Achievement). She won the 1979 Gandalf Grandmaster of Fantasy Award, and was made the 20th Grand Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2003. She was made a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress in 2000, and in 2014 she was awarded a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation. Her acceptance speech for this last honor went viral for its attack on profiteering publishers and her comments that “hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.” This earnest language was very much of a piece with Le Guin’s decades of sensitive, thoughtful fiction.
Le Guin wrote in the introduction to the 2017 Library of America edition of her Hainish Novels & Stories, “God knows inventing a universe is a complicated business.” Over the course of her sixty-five-year career, she would invent many of them. The author of over twenty novels, over one hundred short stories, a dozen collections of poetry, thirteen children’s books, and twelve collections of essays, Le Guin died at her Portland home at the age of eighty-eight; her passing was mourned by countless readers worldwide.
Le Guin has inspired generations of writers, through her detailed and sensitive descriptions of alien cultures, her thoughtful worldbuilding, and her skilled and graceful use of language. Likewise, readers around the world have been touched by Le Guin’s outspoken social and political consciousness as well as her willingness to expand the boundaries of the science fiction and fantasy genres through examining subjects such as gender, colonialism, political philosophy, and cultural diversity.
The vast majority of Le Guin’s literary and personal papers are located in the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon Libraries. Many of her most significant works have been or will be published, with helpful notes, by the Library of America. (Le Guin is to date one of the few authors to be published by LoA during her lifetime.) There is no standard biography of Le Guin, so researchers must rely on more specific studies, such as Amy M. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Journey to Post-Feminism (2010),Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat the first book-length examination of Le Guin’s feminism and its influence on her work. 80!: Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, ed. Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin (2010) is a Festschrift produced in Le Guin’s honor, showing how influential she and her work were to so many. Le Guin’s opinions on traditional fantasy assumptions, given at the 2004 BookExpo America, can be found at https://www.ursulakleguin.com/some-assumptions-about-fantasy. Her 2014 National Book Foundation speech can be found at https://www.ursulakleguin.com/nbf-medal. An obituary appeared in The New York Times, 23 January 2018.