Childhood and education
Ursula K. Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California, on October 21, 1929. Her father, Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876–1960), was an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Le Guin's mother, Theodora Kroeber (1897–1979; born Theodora Covel Kracaw), had a graduate degree in psychology, but turned to writing in her sixties, developing a successful career as an author; her best known work was Ishi in Two Worlds (1961), a biographical volume about Ishi, an indigenous American who was the last known member of the Yahi tribe.
Ursula had three older brothers: Karl, who became notable as a literary scholar, Theodore, and Clifton. The family had a large book collection, and the siblings all became interested in reading while they were young. The Kroeber family also had a number of visitors, including well-known academics such as Robert Oppenheimer; Le Guin would later use Oppenheimer as the model for her protagonist, a physicist named Shevek, in The Dispossessed. The family divided its time between a summer home in the Napa valley, and a house in Berkeley during the academic year.
Le Guin's reading included science fiction and fantasy: she and her siblings frequently read issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. She was fond of myths and legends, particularly Norse mythology, and of Native American legends that her father would narrate. Other authors she enjoyed were Lord Dunsany and Lewis Padgett. Le Guin also developed an early interest in writing; she wrote a short story when she was nine, and submitted her first short story to Astounding Science Fiction when she was eleven. The piece was rejected, and she did not submit anything else for another ten years.
Le Guin attended Berkeley High School. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Renaissance French and Italian literature from Radcliffe College in 1951, and graduated as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. As a child she had been interested in biology and poetry, but had been limited in her opportunities by her difficulties with mathematics. Le Guin undertook graduate studies at Columbia University, and earned a Master of Arts in French in 1952. Soon after, she began working towards a Ph.D., and won a Fulbright grant to continue her studies in France from 1953 to 1954.
Married life and death
In 1953, while traveling to France aboard the Queen Mary, Ursula met historian Charles Le Guin. They got married in Paris in December 1953. According to Le Guin, the marriage signaled the "end of the doctorate" for her. While her husband finished his doctorate at Emory University in Georgia, and later at the University of Idaho, Le Guin taught French and worked as a secretary until the birth of her daughter Elisabeth in 1957. In 1959 Charles became an instructor in history at Portland State University, and the couple moved to Portland, Oregon. They would remain there for the rest of their lives, although Le Guin received further Fulbright grants to travel to London in 1968 and 1975. The couple had two daughters, Elisabeth and Caroline, by the time they moved, and a son, Theodore, was born in Portland in 1964.
Le Guin's writing career began in the late 1950s, but the time she spent caring for her children constrained her writing schedule. She would continue writing and publishing for more than 50 years, until her death. She was also an editor and a teacher at the undergraduate level. She served on the editorial boards of the journals Paradoxa and Science Fiction Studies, in addition to writing literary criticism herself. She taught courses at Tulane University, Bennington College, and Stanford University, among others. In May 1983 she delivered a Commencement speech entitled "A Left-Handed Commencement Address" at Mills College in Oakland, California. It is listed as No. 82 in American Rhetoric's Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century, and was included in her nonfiction collection Dancing at the Edge of the World.
Le Guin died on January 22, 2018, at her home in Portland, at the age of 88. Her son stated that she had been in poor health for several months. He gave no specific cause for her death, but said it was likely that she had a heart attack. Private memorial services for her were held in Portland. A public memorial service, which included speeches by the writers Margaret Atwood, Molly Gloss, and Walidah Imarisha, was held in Portland in June 2018.
Views and advocacy
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.
—Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin refused a Nebula Award for her story "
The Diary of the Rose" in 1975, in protest at the Science Fiction Writers of America's revocation of Stanisław Lem's membership. Le Guin attributed the revocation to Lem's criticism of American science fiction and willingness to live in the Soviet Union, and said she felt reluctant to receive an award "for a story about political intolerance from a group that had just displayed political intolerance".
Le Guin once said she was "raised as irreligious as a jackrabbit". She expressed a deep interest in Taoism and Buddhism, saying that Taoism gave her a "handle on how to look at life" during her adolescent years. In 1997 she published a translation of the Tao Te Ching, motivated by her sympathy for Taoist thought.
In December 2009, Le Guin resigned from the Authors Guild in protest over its endorsement of Google's book digitization project. "You decided to deal with the devil", she wrote in her resignation letter. "There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle." In a speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, Le Guin criticized Amazon and the control it exerted over the publishing industry, specifically referencing Amazon's treatment of the Hachette Book Group during a dispute over ebook publication. Her speech received widespread media attention within and outside the US, and was broadcast twice by National Public Radio.