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Oates' Husband Was Quiet Voice

by Julia Keller | Cultural Critic | Chicago Tribune


February 24, 2008

They met on Oct. 23, 1960, in Madison, Wis., at a party sponsored by the University of Wisconsin's English department. She was a shy first-year graduate student from upstate New York; he was a bespectacled doctoral candidate from Milwaukee.

The first thing Joyce Carol Oates told Raymond Smith about herself was that she was a writer. She gave him a sample of her work: an essay on Samuel Beckett. "I glimpsed the quality of intellect and imaginative boldness of the girl I was to marry," Raymond Smith recalled many years later. "I was awed." Soon the world would share that awe.

Smith, 77, died Monday of pneumonia, in a hospital near the couple's home in Princeton, N.J., where Oates is a professor of creative writing.

Along with being Oates' partner as she ascended to the front rank of American writers, Smith also founded and served as editor in chief of Ontario Review, a highly regarded literary magazine whose pages glow with the work of major figures such as Margaret Atwood and Russell Banks, as well as with emerging writers.

His was a quiet voice, and not just in terms of decibels. Smith never sought the spotlight, despite being married for more than four decades to one of the world's most renowned authors. Instead, he worked behind the scenes on the magazine, and as Oates' protector and shield, her sounding board and soul mate.

In a journal entry from their first years together that was quoted in Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates (1998) by Greg Johnson, Oates wrote, "Marriage is only valuable in terms of Ray. Marriage in the abstract— to anyone else—would not appeal to me."

Smith was a good and gentle man, and he was crucial to Oates' artistic achievements, her incessant chronicling of the harsh beauty of our world, its strife and its splendors.