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Bernard Malamud was an internationally acclaimed author of Jewish-American literature, a genre renowned for its tragicomic elements. His novels and short stories, which often depict a Jewish and urban setting, contemplate the individual s struggle for survival in the harsh, modern world. Malamud s fiction draws from both Yiddish folk culture and classic literary traditions, including Greek mythology and Arthurian legend. Although he is best known for such novels as The Natural (1952) and The Fixer (1966), he is also recognized as a master of the short story form with his sympathetic yet ironic treatment of his tragic characters.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From New York to Washington D.C.
Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 26, 1914. His parents, Russian-Jewish immigrants, ran a grocery store where Malamud worked during much of his youth. Even as a young man, Malamud enjoyed a good story— apparently he enjoyed going to the movies (particularly Charlie Chaplin comedies) and relaying their plots to his friends. As a student at Brooklyn s Erasmus Hall High School, Malamud saw his earliest stories published in the school s literary magazine.
Malamud s parents were not highly educated and knew very little about literature or the arts. In fact, Mala-mud does not have memories of books on the shelves of his home. Yet, he pursued an academic career, and in 1936 received his BA from the City College of New York. In 1942 he earned his master s from Columbia University, where he wrote his thesis about author Thomas Hardy. Interestingly, critics have noted the similarities between Malamud s brooding protagonists and those of Hardy. After graduation, Malamud planned to teach English in the New York City public schools. Jobs at the time were scarce, so he took a job in Washington, D.C., with the Census Bureau instead.
Teaching and Writing in Oregon
Malamud soon returned to New York, where he wrote during the day and taught English at Erasmus Hall High School at night. In 1945 he married Ann De Chiara, an Italian-American. As both Malamud and De Chiara came from strong ethic backgrounds, neither of their parents approved of the marriage. During the early years of his marriage, Malamud continued to teach and write, and he published several short stories in a variety of magazines. Many of these reflect his experiences with and interest in New York’s immigrant populations, including Italians, African Americans, Jews, and others.
In 1949, Malamud accepted a position teaching English at Oregon State University at Corvallis. With the exception of a year he spent in Rome, Italy with his family, he continued teaching there until 1961 and was eventually promoted to the position of associate professor. During his twelve years at Oregon State, Malamud completed and published the first four books that constitute his initial literary phase. Malamud followed his first novel, a mythological baseball story entitled The Natural, with The Assistant, a novel about a Jewish shopkeeper based on Malamud’s experiences working in his family’s store as a youth. The following year, he published a collection of short stories entitled The Magic Barrel, which won the National Book Award in 1959. His third novel, A New Life, a satire inspired by his experience in the world of academia, was published in 1961.
An International Traveler
That same year, Mala-mud began teaching creative writing at Bennington College in Vermont, where he remained on the faculty until 1986. Periodically, Malamud interrupted his semesters at Bennington College to travel and lecture, experiences he credited with making him a universal writer. In 1963, he visited England and Italy, followed by travels throughout the Soviet Union, France, and Spain during 1965. From 1966 to 1968, he was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University and won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for The Fixer before touring Israel in 1968. During the 1970s and 1980s, Malamud continued to publish both novels and collections of short stories. In 1983 he returned to Italy to stay at the Bellagio Study and Conference Center, a retreat for writers and scholars endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation.
During the last few years of his life, Malamud divided his time between a home in rural Bennington and an apartment in New York City. He died of natural causes on March 18, 1986, in New York. At the time of his death, he had written sixteen chapters of a new novel, tentatively titled The People. The incomplete novel and several uncollected short stories were published posthumously in 1989.
Works in Literary Context
Although aspects of Jewish tradition are present in Mala-mud’s works, his fiction transcends cultural issues and reflects a universal concern for humanity. Despite unhappy or uncertain endings, his writing assures readers of the presence of goodness in a corrupt world. Malamud has credited American authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James with influencing his concerns with moral and spiritual struggles. Malamud has also said he was inspired by Russian writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov for their depictions of the self against society.
In The Assistant, Malamud introduces the “schlemiel,” a figure that would recur in his later works. The schlemiel is a bungling, ineffectual person who is easily victimized or who continually fails. Such a character commonly appears in Eastern European Yiddish and Jewish literature. Whether the schlemiel epitomizes the born loser, the hard-luck guy, the poignant misfit, or the Jewish world collectively, he has a long and honorable history. He can be traced back to nineteenth-century Yiddish writers such as Shalom Aleichem, whose ”Tevye the Milkman” stories (1894) were adapted for the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof (1964). The schlemiel is a composite of history, legend, myth, and folklore, and underlying all is the tragicomic element. More often than not, the comic figure of the schlemiel seems to be a victim, but because he often manages to redefine his world, in the end he achieves a moral victory frequently denied to others.
The Malamud schlemiel is used to realize a variety of themes and motifs in many of his novels. He is seen in character Roy Hobbs, a downtrodden baseball player, in The Natural, and in Frank Alpine, the cynical, homeless, anti-Semitic youth hired by grocery store owner Morris Bober in The Assistant. The schlemiel is similarly evident in the unlucky handyman Yakov Bok of The Fixer and especially in failed painter Arthur Fidelman, the main character in Pictures of Fidelman (1966). In addition to appearing repeatedly in Malamud’s novels, the schlemiel also appears in the stories collected in Rembrandt’s Hat (1973). In ”The Silver Crown,” for example, a young biology teacher purchases a silver crown from a rabbi for $986, ostensibly to cure his father of cancer—but the father dies anyway. In ”Man in the Drawer,” writer Howard Harvitz leaves America to forget his troubles, and, in all the great expanse of Russia, happens to encounter a Jewish taxi driver and author who pushes a forbidden manuscript on him. The catch is that if Harvitz agrees to smuggle the manuscript out of the country, he could find himself in a situation much more serious than the one he had originally tried to escape. Unfortunately, as is evidenced by Harvitz and other of Malamud’s characters, schlemiels have a tendency to worsen their problems by making the wrong decisions.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have lauded Malamud’s imaginative power and narrative skills since the beginning of his career. With the publication of his first works, he won praise for his adept fusion of folk, symbolic, and realistic narratives, as well as for the moral visions and ethical concerns demonstrated in his writings. Scholars have also commended Malamud’s presentation of the transcending power of human suffering as well as his proficient use of irony, comedy, and humor in otherwise tragic stories of life. While most early critics recognized Malamud’s successful blending of Jewish experience with modern narrative techniques, some argued that Malamud limited himself creatively by relying too heavily on allegory and myth. Others have also been critical of Malamud’s tendency to undercut his tragic vision with comic, even grotesque, characterization.
Malamud’s stature as an artist has increased steadily since his death in 1986. While the importance of myth and archetype and the redemptive power of human suffering have remained central concerns in critical assessments of his work, a new generation of critics has focused on other issues, such as the nature of free will, human spirituality, Judaic law, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and the role of women in his narratives. What has ultimately emerged is a view of Malamud as a complex, often contradictory writer and an artist deeply concerned with the meaning of human existence.
The Magic Barrel
The title story of Malamud’s prize-winning first short story collection, ”The Magic Barrel,” is one of his most frequently discussed works of short fiction. Described by author and editor Sanford Pinsker as ”quintessential Malamud—in form, content, and perhaps most of all, in moral vision,” the story focuses on the interaction of two main characters: a young, unmarried rabbinical student named Leo Finkle, and Pinye Salzman, a vulgar, yet colorful, marriage broker who smells distinctly of fish. The tale of their relationship combines elements of realism and fantasy in an urban, Jewish setting and centers on the protagonist’s struggle to break through the barriers of personal isolation. While Malamud’s handling of such themes as love, community, redemption, and Jewish identity has been widely praised, he is also noted for his creative use of ambiguity.
Scholars and critics have remarked favorably on Malamud’s mixture of folk and realistic treatments of his subject matter, and have proposed links between ”The Magic Barrel” and the paintings of Marc Chagall. Commenting on the story’s infamously ambiguous conclusion, reviewer Mark Goldman has remarked that the ”last scene, like many of Malamud’s sudden, summary endings, is a consciously ironic parable and not an escape from tragedy. All the complex meaning is fixed, flashed back upon the story itself in a kind of [James] Joyce an epiphany that runs counter to the neatly packaged endings of the naturalistic tale.”
Critical reaction to The Assistant has focused on Malamud’s use of symbolism, the theme of duality, and Jewishness as a literary archetype. In regard to protagonist Morris’s altruism in dealing with the neighborhood’s poor, along with the criminal Frank’s decision to repay the money he stole from Morris, critics have discussed Morris and Frank as symbolic representatives of the decency of human nature. Scholar Max F. Schulz has argued that the actions of the two men support the characterization of Morris as a ”mythic hero renewing life for the community” and Frank as a ”proletarian hero winning justice for society.” According to some critics, Malamud uses religious imagery in The Assistant to introduce the theme of the double. Citing Frank’s identification with St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake and acknowledged hero, and Morris’s Christlike selflessness, academics have claimed that Frank’s relationship to Morris mirrors St. Francis’s celebrated emulation of Christ. Scholars have also identified doubling in Frank’s conversion to Morris’s faith, the adoption of his humane moral outlook, and the assumption of his duties. Summarizing Malamud’s fusion of character and symbolism in The Assistant, critic Meyer Levin observed: ”Mala-mud has succeeded …in individualizing his people to a point where one feels able to continue conversation with them outside the book and yet he has kept for each of them a symbolic role, so that the tale has moral echoes, almost a runic quality; it is essentially a parable.”
- Abramson, Edward A. Bernard Malamud Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993.
- Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Fields, eds. Bernard Malamud and the Critics. New York: New York University Press, 1970.
- Helterman, Jeffrey. Understanding Bernard Malamud. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.
- Salzberg, Joel. Critical Essays on Bernard Malamud. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.
- Schulz, Max F. Radical Sophistication: Studies in Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1969.
- Wisse, Ruth. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
- Levin, Meyer. ”Growth in Brooklyn.” Saturday Review (June 15, 1957): 28-29.
- Mandel, Ruth. ”Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant and A New Life: Ironic Affirmation.” Critique 7 (Winter 1964-1965): 110-121.
- Standley, Fred. ”Bernard Malamud: The Novel of Redemption.” Southern Humanities Review 5 (1971): 903-318.
- My Jewish Learning, Inc. Bernard Malamud. Retrieved November 25, 2008, from http://www. myjewishlearning.com/culture/literature/ Overview_Jewish_American_Literature/Into_The_ Literary_Mainstream/Literature_Malamud_ Norton.htm.
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