Frazier, Ian

Born: 1951

Ohio connection: Birth


A writer with a preference for manual typewriters, Ian Frazier was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1951 and grew up in Hudson, Ohio. He was the eldest of five children born to David (a Standard Oil research chemist) and Margaret Kathryn Hursh Frazier (a high school teacher). Before graduating with a degree in general studies from Harvard University in1973, he attracted considerable media attention for a cartoon he did for the Harvard Lampoon. Poking fun at Henry Kissinger, a former Harvard professor and the 56th Secretary of State, Frazier drew the venerable Ph.D. and Nobel Prize winner as the male centerfold for a fictitious issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine. After his job application to the New Yorker was rejected, (on the grounds of there already being a preponderance of Harvard graduates on the magazine’s payroll) Frazier accepted an assignment in Chicago in 1973, writing cartoon captions for Oui magazine. Moving to New York the following year, he lived in a Canal Street loft in the former Knickerbocker Candy factory. Finally, toward the end of 1974, William Shawn, the New Yorker’s editor, hired Frazier to write unattributed articles for the “Talk of the Town”, for the sum of $200 a week. As his articles began to become an increasingly popular feature, Frazier was entrusted with longer, attributed pieces, offering readers a highbrow, frolicsome wit that some found “deft” but others “dumb.” Changing journalistic tastes in the mid 1980s impacted the New Yorker, as readers gravitated toward the lengthy “fact-pieces” that staff writers such as Frazier were encouraged to produce. Prodded by his own self-doubts and the heartfelt advice of fellow New Yorker contributor and friend, Jamaica Kincaid, he made the decision to go on hiatus from the magazine to travel and focus exclusively on writing non-fiction. During a three-year period (1982-1985) in which he endured a self-imposed exile in Kalispell, Montana, he drove 25,000 miles in an old van across the Great Plains. During his trek, he talked to hundreds of people, read local newspapers, and devoured whatever historical, geographical, and agricultural books about the plains that he came across. Out of these experiences came his book The Great Plains, a veritable dessert whose recipe included a pinch of social history, a dash of folklore, and a dollop of poetry. The book won Frazier the prestigious $25,000 Whiting Writer’s Award. During the gestation of Great Plains, both of Frazier’s parents died, his father of pneumonia in 1987, and his mother of cancer the following year. Grief-stricken, he felt compelled to channel his anguish into another creative project (Family, 1994), chronicling the history of his family line, traveling for information as extensively as he did for Great Plains. In 1990, he donated several of his manuscripts and correspondence to the Albert B. Alkek Library of the Texas State University-San Marcos. In a return to his stylistic roots, he penned Coyote v. Acme (1996), a series of brief, cynical essays gathered from the best of his New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly output. Frazier’s Lamentations of the Father (2008) and Travels in Siberia (2010) were both well-received.

1989 Whiting Award for The Great Plains; 1997 Thurber Prize for American Humor, for essay collection Coyote vs. Acme; 2009 Thurber Prize for American Humor, for essay collection Lamentations of the Father.