Elizabeth Cullinan, writer with an eye for detail, dies at 86

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Elizabeth Cullinan, writer with an eye for detail, dies at 86
She never became well known, but her relatively modest output earned her outsize critical acclaim.

by Katharine Q. Seelye

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- 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 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).

She never became well known, but her relatively modest output earned her outsize critical acclaim.

“Miss Cullinan is always intelligent, precise and skillful,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1971, “turning out stories of near‐faultless craftsmanship.”

The Times critic John Leonard wrote of her, “When you can say in eight pages what most novelists have never been able to say at all, heavy breathing notwithstanding, you are a first‐rate writer.” Her story “A Story in the Key of C,” he said, “shines with such love that to summarize is to smudge it.”

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.”

Her two volumes of short stories, “The Time of Adam” (1971) and “Yellow Roses” (1977), included all 23 that had been published in The New Yorker, as well as others published elsewhere.

Irish themes — including domineering matriarchs, dutiful daughters and the rituals of Catholicism — pervade Cullinan’s work, and she often wrestles with issues of Irish American identity, though as a whole her writing transcended easy categorization.

Her protagonists were typically young women who spurned their mothers’ examples of domesticity, enjoyed professional careers and led transgressive lives in secular Manhattan.

In “The Sum and Substance,” a story from “Yellow Roses,” Ellen MacGuire is in the hospital for the removal of an ovarian cyst. While she is in agonizing pain, her mother appears with a jar of face cream. When Ellen says she doesn’t care how she looks, her mother responds, “You will, dear.”

Cullinan helped redefine Irish-American literature, veering away from the male tradition of “ward bosses and henchmen, larger-than-life political fixers, tavern social life and father-son relationships,” Patricia Coughlan, who taught Irish literature at University College Cork, wrote in a 2017 essay in The Irish Times.

“With quiet irony but consistently," Coughlan wrote, “she resists assumptions that women’s concerns and experience are supplementary to men’s.”

Friends described 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.

“Her characters were all based on real people, and if you knew them, you could recognize them,” her friend Thomas Cahill, the author of “How the Irish Saved Civilization” (1995), said in an interview.

“She wasn’t terribly solemn,” he added. “She noticed both the light and the dark.”

Elizabeth Irene Cullinan was born on June 7, 1933, in the Bronx to Cornelius and Irene (O’Connell) Cullinan. Her father worked in insurance, and her mother was a homemaker and a piano teacher.

Elizabeth attended the Academy of Mount St. Ursula in the Bronx and won a scholarship to Marymount College in Manhattan, from which she graduated in 1954.

The next year she landed her first job, in the typing pool at The New Yorker.

The work was a short geographical distance from her home “but culturally worlds away from her relatively unprivileged, devout and largely anti-intellectual Bronx childhood,” Coughlan wrote.

At The New Yorker, Cullinan was a secretary to William Maxwell, one of the magazine’s celebrated fiction editors, whom she regarded as a mentor.

“Working for William Maxwell was like nothing else in this world except reading his novels,” she wrote. “It made me a writer.”

After the magazine published three of Cullinan’s stories, Maxwell told her to “go and be a writer,” which she did. From 1961 to 1963 she lived in Ireland, where she wrote “House of Gold,” considered her most important work.

Back in New York, she continued to write. Over the years, she received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Carnegie Fund. She taught at Fordham University, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

In 2015 she moved to Towson, Maryland, to be closer to her nieces. She died at a retirement community there. Her niece Claire T. Hartman said the cause was lung disease.

She is survived by a sister, Margaret Mary Cullinan. Another sister, Claire Cullinan Hartman, died in 2010.

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

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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