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Considered one of the most important twentieth-century Jewish American authors, Cynthia Ozick emerged as the dominant voice for new directions in Jewish American writing. She brings considerable learning to her imaginative work. Her esteemed reputation is primarily based on her short fiction, in which she repeatedly addresses the difficulty of sustaining a Jewish identity and heritage in a predominantly secular society and resisting pressures to assimilate. She also examines the calling and accountability of the artist, especially in the context of the Jewish moral code, in her fiction. Ozick won three O. Henry Prizes in short fiction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised in the Bronx Born April 17, 1928 in New York City, Ozick is the daughter of William and Celia (Regelson) Ozick. Her parents were both Yiddish-speaking Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father owned a pharmacy and was a Jewish scholar who raised his family in the Bronx. As a young child, Ozick was subject to much degradation because of her religion, but found solace in reading and writing. She also lived through the Great Depression, which was prompted by the stock-market crash of 1929. The stock market crashed because an investment boom that began in 1924 was fueled by investors buying stocks with borrowed money. The stocks themselves were also wildly overvalued and their value plummeted as the economy took a downturn. The failure ofthe stock market led to a dramatic and sustained worldwide depression that lasted through the 1930s. The American economy recovered in the early 1940s as the nation entered World War ii. Ozick was in her teens, attending the prestigious Hunter College High School in Manhattan, while the devastating conflict raged abroad.
Launched Writing Career
Ozick earned her undergraduate degree in English from New York University (NYU) in 1949, and then an MA in literature from Ohio State University in 1950. At Ohio State, she wrote a thesis on the later novels of Henry James, who became an influence on Ozick’s own novels. After completing her graduate studies, Ozick worked as an advertising copywriter for Filene’s Department Store. She married lawyer Bernard Hallote in 1952, with whom she had a daughter, Rachel. She also launched a writing career in the early 1950s, and produced two unpublished novels. She taught English at NYU from 1964 to 1965, and published some poems in a Jewish magazine in 1965.
For six years, she worked on the manuscript of Trust, which became her first published novel in 1966. The book focuses on a young woman’s search for identity amid the confusion of modern American life in the aftermath of World War II. The work received only lukewarm critical and commercial reception. Ozick then turned to writing short stories and novellas, which were published in such periodicals as Commentary, Esquire, and The New Yorker.
Success with Short Fiction
In 1971, Ozick began publishing collections of short stories and novellas to great success. Her first was The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), which won the Jewish Council Book Award and B’nai B’rith Jewish Heritage Award. The title story is a fantasy about a young rabbi’s struggle between Pan and Moses, nature and Judaism, while ”Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” explores the conflict of the traditional Jew living in a gentile world. Subsequent short fiction collections include Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976) and Levitation: Five Fictions (1982). The former explores issues and moral dilemmas facing the Jewish writer, while the latter tells the story of a World War II orphan who becomes fixated on the idea that he is the son of Bruno Schulz, a famous Polish Jewish writer killed by the Nazis in their effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II.
Ozick returned to longer fiction in the early 1980s with the novel The Cannibal Galaxy (1983), which told the story of a young Orthodox Jew who survives World War II hidden in a priest’s library. After the war, he attempts to launch a Jewish school that would bring together the best of Jewish and Western traditions. This novel was followed by The Messiah of Stockholm (1987)— which was thematically similar to Bloodshed. The Shawl (1989), considered her most powerful and controversial work, consists of two novellas about Holocaust survivors.
In the early 1980s, Ozick began publishing her literary criticism and intellectually challenging essays in collections. They included Art and Ardor (1983), which focuses on the idol-making character of fiction. Other essay collections include Metaphor and Memory (1989). These essays make it clear that at least some imaginative works can be numbered on the side of the angels and that literature can be an abiding, even necessary, moral force. Other nonfiction collections include Fame and Folly (1996), Quarrel and Quandary (2000), and The Din in the Head (2006).
In the mid-1990s, Ozick turned to playwriting with Blue Light, which was first produced on Long Island in 1994. It was an adaptation of The Shawl and had an Off-Broadway run under that name in 1996. After this play, Ozick returned to fiction, albeit with a lighter tone. The comic novel The Puttermesser Papers (1997) uses fantasy and an episodic structure to delineate the magical adventures of Jewish attorney Ruth Puttermesser. In 2004, she published a realistic novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, which focuses on a teenage orphan working for a German immigrant family head by a professor who obsessively studies the Karaites, an obscure Jewish sect.
By the early 2000s, Ozick was living and working in New Rochelle, New York, and contributing to a variety of publications including the New York Times as well as her own original books. In 2008, she won two lifetime achievement awards, the PEN/Malamud prize for short fiction and the PEN/Nabokov award.
Works in Literary Context
Ozick’s fiction is written with great intelligence, elegant incisiveness, and sharp, often satiric, wit. She focuses primarily on facets of Jewish life and thought. Among her favored topics are: the Holocaust and its legacy; the Jewish presence in contemporary life; and Jewish mysticism and legend. Ozick also addresses a wide range of other literary and political subjects, including gender politics. Sophisticated and erudite prose is a hallmark of her writing style, especially of her short fiction. As a fiction writer, Ozick was greatly influenced by Henry James as well as the literature, history, and philosophy of Judaism.
In most of Ozick’s short fiction, the plot revolves around the dilemma of being Jewish in modern Western society, particularly the United States. In “Levitation,” found in Levitation: Five Fictions, a couple in a mixed Jewish and Christian marriage fail to understand each other’s priorities due to the basic incompatibility of their worldviews. Ozick sees American culture as predominantly pagan, concerned with nature and the physical realm of existence, and therefore inherently in conflict with the worship of the intangible God of Judaism. For example, in ”The Pagan Rabbi” from The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, the title character is torn between love of religions and scholarship on one hand and attraction to nature and magic on the other. In ”Envy; or Yiddish in America” from the same collection, the protagonist Edelshtein is an immigrant Yiddish poet who cannot get translated or published in English, and satirically attacks the successful but secular Yiddish novelist Ostrover, a figure based on Isaac Bashevis Singer. Edelshtein reveals Ozick’s belief that for Jewish literature to be valuable, it must remain focused on Jewish themes and must reject assimilation.
Another recurring theme in Ozick’s work is that every writer borrows material from other writers and, more importantly, usurps God’s domain by attempting to replicate or transform reality through fiction. This theme is best illustrated in the story ”Usurpation (Other People’s Stories),” published in Bloodshed and Three Novellas. The idea of a person taking on the role of a godlike creator is given a humorous twist in ”Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” in which Ruth Puttermesser creates a female golem (a creature made in clay and brought to life by magical incantations) to help with her housework. The creature is useful at first, but begins to run amok, forcing her creator to destroy her. A similar religious offense is treated in Ozick’s story ”The Shawl,” and its sequel, ”Rosa” (also published in The Shawl). The focus of the narratives is a woman who idolatrously worships the memory of her infant daughter, who was murdered in a Nazi death camp. Even the essays in Art and Ardor focus on the idol-making characters of fiction. However, the essays in Metaphor and Memory, scrutinizing the works of writers from Primo Levi and S. Y. Agnon to Anton Chekhov and Henry James, make it clear that at least some imaginative works can be numbered on the side of the angels.
Works in Critical Context
Ozick’s short fiction has always been extremely well-received by critics. Many commentators have said that her stories are free of the opaque language that made the novel Trust so difficult to read. Reviewers have generally recognized Ozick’s strengths to be her challenging ideas and evocative style, while noting weaknesses in her characterizations and her portrayal of the emotional realm. Some critics question the accessibility of Ozick’s fiction to average readers, describing her style as overly pedantic and parochial, with its strong emphasis on Jewish concerns. Critics have compared Ozick to T. S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, and Grace Paley.
The Messiah of Stockholm
Many critics praised The Messiah of Stockholm as the first of her books to reconcile her need to create fiction with her desire to remain a follower of the Jewish tradition. In the New York Times, the well-known critic Harold Bloom writes that ”The novel is a complex and fascinating meditation on the nature of the writing and the responsibilities of those who choose to create—or judge—tales.” Bloom also notes that the novel can ”be, at times, very funny indeed about the daily operations of one of the city’s newspapers and … [the protagonist’s] peculiar detachment from everyday work and life.” The Messiah of Stockholm also garnered praise for its stylistic vitality. Writing in the Chicago Tribune Books, Mona Simpson calls the book ”a poetic yet often raucously comic epic,” and also maintains that ”of course, no work of Ozick’s can be talked about with-out first acknowledging the simple brilliance of her prose.” John Calvin Batchelor of the Washington Post Book World enthuses that The Messiah of Stockholm ”is a superb read, with prose so deft that were it fisticuffs the author would be forbidden by law to combat mortals.”
Heir to the Glimmering World
Heir to the Glimmering World (published as The Bear Boy in England) also received positive reviews. Reviewing the novel in Women’s Review of Books, Jan Clausen writes that ”This uncharacteristically hefty volume revisits prior themes—tensions between faith and heresy; the irreducibly individual impact of the Holocaust on each of its victims; textuality as a way of life; the Jewish intellectual woman as hero—in the startling form of neo-Victorian realist pastiche.” John Leonard in the New York Times Book Review finds that the novel ”is both a chambered nautilus and a haunted house—a fairy tale with locked rooms, mad songs, secret books and stolen babies. And a children’s story, an Oedipal grief, about killing fathers and moving on. And a send-up of Victorian novels that solve their problems with fortuitous marriage, sudden death, miraculous inheritance, emigration to Australia or all of the above.” Guardian Online reviewer Ali Smith concludes that ”like all the best fiction, while it knows that books are a necessary refuge, it doesn’t once dodge the heresies and complexities of the real and it works, like all Ozick’s fine, uncompromising and paradoxical oeuvre, to leave both books and world at once more properly mysterious and better understood.”
- Bloom, Harold. Cynthia Ozick: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea Publishers, 1986.
- Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1994.
- Kasuvar, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1993.
- Kielsky, Vera Emuna. Inevitable Exiles: Cynthia Ozick’s Views of the Precariousness of Jewish Existence in a Gentile Society. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
- Batchelor, John Calvin. Review of The Messiah of Stockholm. Washington Post Book World (March 8, 1987).
- Bloom, Harold. Review of The Messiah of Stockholm. New York Times Book Review (March 22, 1987): 1.
- Clausen, Jan. Review of Heir to the Glimmering World. Women’s Review of Books (November 2004): 3.
- Halkin, Hillel. ”What Is Cynthia Ozick About?” Commentary (January 2005): 49-55.
- Parrish, Timothy L. ”Creation’s Covenant: The Art of Cynthia Ozick.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Winter 2001): 440-464.
- Leonard, John. Review of Heir to the Glimmering World. New York Times Book Review (September 5, 2004).
- Scrafford, Barbara. ”Nature’s Silent Scream: A Commentary on Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.”’ Critique (Fall 1989): 11-15.
- Simpson, Mona. Review of The Messiah of Stockholm. Tribune Books (March 1, 1987): 7.
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