Biography of Robert Cormier (1925-2000)
Robert Cormier, often considered the most important American writer for young adults, authored ten major novels and many short stories over the course of his career. For much of his life he was a newspaper writer for the Fitchburg Sentinel, where he won awards for his human-interest stories. Even after he became able to support his family solely by writing novels, he continued to write for the paper on occasion.
Cormier was born in the French Canadian section of Leominster, Massachusetts, the second of eight children. His childhood involved many moves within the French Hill area, but the family never left Leominster, where his father, Lucien, supported the family by working in the factories. Cormier grew up in an extended family and close community of relatives and friends. His mother, Irma, was Irish, and so the Cormier children spoke English at home, unlike most of the French-speaking children in the neighborhood. The Catholic school he attended, St. Cecilia's Parochial Grammar School, was a bilingual institution. Though Cormier always wrote in English, the names of his characters are often French-sounding, as his stories frequently take place in the fictional town of Monument, a place not unlike Leominster.
Cormier was bookish as a child, and not particularly good at sports. He read a great deal, and was happiest at home with his family. The Catholic school life could sometimes be difficult. At the end of his eighth grade year, Cormier witnessed his house burning, aware that his mother and baby sister were inside. The nun teaching him at the time made him sit back down and say prayers with the class before he could run out to help his family. Luckily the mother and baby were safe, but Cormier said that it took many years for him to come to terms with his anger over this incident.
High school proved more successful for the young Robert, and he was the president of his senior class at Leominster High School. He went on to Fitchburg State College, where he was also president of his senior class. Cormier's mother Irma, and teachers in high school and college, had read his early writing efforts and encouraged him to write. When Cormier was a freshman in 1944, a teacher at Fitchburg sent one of his stories to the Catholic magazine Sign. The story, "The Little Things that Count," was published for seventy-five dollars. With this encouragement, and his mother's prediction that he would become a writer, the young man was spurred to keep writing. He was working in a factory on the night shift, and attending classes during the day. He took a job at a radio station, writing short news pieces for the airwaves, and eventually worked for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. During this time he met Constance Senay, to whom he was married from 1948 until his death in 2000.
Connie and Robert Cormier had four children, and their teenage years had an influence on the kind of writing Cormier produced. Though Cormier always avoided slang and dated phrases, believing that nothing would make a novel more obsolete, the speech patterns and conversations of his teen characters sometimes reflect what he heard from his own children and their friends.
Cormier's four most popular novels The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, After the First Death, and Beyond the Chocolate War were often criticized for their sexual imagery and violent content, in addition to their dark subject matter. Several cities and school districts banned the books at various times. Cormier and several critics have pointed out that the unrelenting realism of the stories can actually encourage teens, rather than depressing them. The controversy over Cormier's subject matter has not dissipated, and the books still inspire division among critics and teachers. Each of Cormier's major novels has gone through several printings, and his popularity has not diminished. Two of his novels, The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese, have been made into films.