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Mark Helprin is a contemporary author whose fiction is often seen as an assault on realism. His tales are filled with fantastic adventures and a dreamlike quality, and according to Helprin, can be seen as devotional literature. Helprin’s novels have been criticized for vagueness of their morality and the lack of a strong narrative structure. However, Helprin has won many awards for his fiction, and even when critics take exception with him, they are quick to point out that he is a writer with great imagination and talent.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in New York City
Mark Helprin was born in New York City on June 28, 1947. His mother, Eleanor Lynn, was a leading lady on Broadway during the late 1930s; his father, Morris, worked as a reporter, movie critic, and editor for the New York Times before he went to work as a publicity manager for movie studios and eventually became the president of Alexander Korda’s London Films. The details of Helprin’s youth are unclear; he has admitted that as a storyteller he tends to exaggerate anecdotes about his life. However, as reported by Jean W. Ross in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1985, ”he has described himself as Jewish by birth and by faith, although not in the orthodox tradition. He has also remarked on his determined pursuit of exceptional experiences in life; he is, for example, a skilled mountain climber.” These aspects of Helprin’s life are reflected in his fiction. For example, he uses the Holocaust as the backdrop for his short story “Perfection” (2004).
A Writing Career Begins with Short Stories
After Helprin graduated from secondary school, he attended Harvard University and earned his BA degree in 1969. While at Harvard, he began writing short stories. In 1969, two of these were accepted by The New Yorker and later included in his collection A Dove of the East (1975).
Military Service in Israel
After graduating from Harvard, Helprin entered the doctoral program in English at Stanford, but he left after a short time to move to Israel. He returned to Harvard in 1970, where he obtained a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies in 1972. Back in Israel again, he was drafted into that nation’s army and became a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. He served in the military from 1972 to 1973. This experience later helped him with the detailed descriptions of warfare in his novel A Soldier of the Great War.
First Novel is Favorably Received
After his military service, Helprin spent a short time at Princeton and a postgraduate year at Magdalen College, Oxford, England. Helprin’s first novel was Refiner’s Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling (1977), which received a mostly favorable critical response. He married Lisa Kennedy, a tax attorney and banker, on June 28, 1980. They have two daughters, Alexandra Morris and Olivia Kennedy.
Helprin’s next work, Ellis Island and Other Stories, had the rare distinction for a collection of short stories of winning a PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and an American Book Award nomination. In fact, it has received the most enthusiastic critical reception of all his works. In 1982 he also received the Prix de Rome from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Helprin’s second novel, Winter’s Tale, was on the New York Times best-seller list for four months, but it met with mixed reviews from critics. In 1984, Helprin was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Helprin then worked with illustrator Chris Van Allsburg on a well-received version of Swan Lake (1989) and wrote his novel A Soldier of the Great War, which was followed four years later by Memoir from Antproof Case. His most recent work is Freddy and Fredericka. In addition to the three volumes of short stories and five novels Helprin has published to date, he has also authored three books for children, all illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, and numerous nonfiction commentaries that address themes including politics, aesthetics, and culture.
Works in Literary Context
Mark Helprin explained in a Paris Review interview with James Linville in 1993 that his models for writing were William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, John Milton, Anton Chekhov, and William Butler Yeats, because they held other jobs. It is perhaps not surprising then that critics argue the key to Helprin’s almost legendary reputation lies in his diversity, especially in the forms and genres he employs, sometimes intermixing them in highly imaginative ways. Helprin is an unapologetically Roman-tic writer, and his work lies in a direct line with the visionary works of William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Blake, and Walt Whitman.
Romanticism and Spiritual Transcendence
The human desire for spiritual transcendence is the thematic focus of much of Helprin’s fiction. His tales usually involve a survivor who has experienced a profound loss and needs to heal his or her spirit to overcome despair. For Helprin, nature and art are essential in this process of regeneration. Helprin’s first collection, A Dove of the East has several stories that exhibit this power. In the title story, the protagonist’s wife and parents are killed during World War II. In caring for a hurt dove, he is able to balance his grief with the wonder of nature. In ”The Silver Bracelet,” a young girl is orphaned and she creates beautiful music out of her pain. The power of these two forces is derived from their continuity and the hints they provide about the divine. Helprin’s works always have moral implications, the most important of these being a sense of justice that Helprin brings to apocalyptic proportions in Winter’s Tale, the plot of which is the destruction of New York City and its rebirth as a city of absolute justice.
Magic Realism: Dreams and Nostalgia
Less consistently found, but still important to understanding Helprin’s work, is the use of dreams. Dreams are important in the Helprin narrative to show the continuity of time and to help blur the line between fantasy and reality. He does this in a short story from Ellis Island, ”The Schreuderspitze,” where the main character encounters the healing power of nature through his dreams about mountain climbing. Part of the fantasy prevalent in Helprin’s work comes from his nostalgia for things past. There are two stories in Ellis Island that are reminiscent of the past, the historical past in ”Martin Bayer” and personal past in ”A Vermont Tale.” Winter’s Tale combines the nostalgia and dream imagery of Ellis Island with the romance of Refiner’s Fire. The descriptions of nineteenth-century New York City from Winter’s Tale celebrate the past, too unrealistically according to some reviewers. Winter’s Tale, perhaps Helprin’s most romantic work, is also filled with imagery that seems to derive as much from literature and folklore as it does from the author’s imagination. In Helprin’s novel A Soldier of the Great War he takes his major themes and places them in the realistic and grim context of World War I. Helprin uses his personal knowledge of military life to create vivid descriptions of the violence, the cruelty, and sometimes the glory, of war.
Works in Critical Context
From the beginning critics have agreed that Helprin is a talented writer who provides his readers with a wide range of settings and a graceful prose. Helprin’s work is often described as sprawling, expansive, and inventive, and most critics agree that there is a depth to his prose. Ellis Island and Other Stories is the work that made Helprin a favorite of the critics. He won numerous awards for the work, and the success of his writing within the context of these stories is the reason that many critics believe Helprin’s style works best in the short story form. His dreamlike fantasy novels are praised for their imagination, but they are often criticized for being vague. Winter’s Tale in particular suffered from this criticism. Critics complain that this, Helprin’s most controversial work, lacks the precision of Ellis Island, that the story is forced, and that there is a lack of a strong narrative. Winter’s Tale has been called unconvincing because it is almost too romantic, and projects idealism at the expense of reality. Others were impressed with the affirmative nature of the tale and found it a great source of comfort and hope to modern man. With A Soldier of the Great War, Helprin seemed to have overcome some of the complaints about his earlier work. He was praised for his simple language and for the choice of his themes.
Ellis Island and Other Stories
This collection of stories produced a chorus of critical praise. Rhoda Koenig in New York magazine selected the title story as the best in the collection. Some of the other stories, she wrote, ”long on mood and short on plot, seem like watercolor sketches for more finished work, but the majority of them shimmer with the bright and lavish metaphors of this most accomplished artist.” Reynolds Price in the New York Times Book Review noted the wide range of settings in the collection, both in time and place, commenting that ”Such an ambitious reach is almost unheard of in our short fiction since Poe.” Price went on to state that the author’s purpose ”seems to be the rapid deduction and communication of a personal metaphysics…. His technical confidence and his admirable concern for texture … go far toward compelling a reader’s cooperation in the aim.” For A.V. Kish, writing in Best Sellers, ”Each story is true to itself, created by a writer whose language is a thing of beauty and a joy to read.”
Winter’s Tale, Helprin’s second novel, held a place on the New York Times best-seller list for four months. Seymour Krim, writing for Washington Post Book World, described the allegorical novel as ”the most ambitious work [Helprin] has yet attempted, a huge cyclorama” with a theme ”no less than the resurrection of New York from a city of the damned to a place of universal justice and hope.” In his view, however, which was one of several negative critical responses to the book, it turned out to be ”a self-willed fairy tale that even on its own terms refuses to convince.” In the Chicago Tribune Book World, Jonathan Brent called the book ”a pastiche of cliches thinly disguised as fiction, a maddening welter of earnest platitudes excruciatingly dressed up as a search for the miraculous.” In the opinion of Newsweek’s Peter S. Prescott, ”Helprin fell into the fundamental error of assuming that fantasy can be vaguer than realistic fiction.” In the view of Benjamin De Mott of the New York Times Book Review, however, not through the unique and compelling characters or ”merely by studying the touchstone passages in which description and narrative soar highest” can the reader ”possess the work”: ”No, the heart of this book resides unquestionably in its moral energy, in the thousand original gestures, ruminations . . . writing feats that summon its audience beyond the narrow limits of conventional vision, commanding us to see our time and place afresh.” Detroit News reviewer Beaufort Cranford found that the book ”fairly glows with poetry. Helprin s forte is a deft touch with description, and he has as distinct and spectacular a gift for words an anyone writing today.” Further, Cranford noted, ”Helprin’s fearlessly understated humor shows his comfort with a narrative that in a less adroit grasp might seem too much like a fairy tale. Openers editor Ann Cunniff, who also caught the humor in Winter’s Tale, wrote about ”the beautiful, dreamlike quality of some of Helprin s passages and ”frequent references to dreams in the book. ”All my life, Helprin explained to Cunniff, ”I’ve allowed what I dream to influence me. My dreams are usually very intense and extremely detailed and always in the most beautiful colors. . . . Frequently, I will dream, and simply retrace that dream the day after when I write. It s just like planning ahead, only I do it when I m unconscious.
- Bodine, Paul. ”Mark Helprin.” Operative Words, Essays and Reviews on Literature and Culture. San Jose, Calif.: Writers Club Press, 2002, 154-56.
- Broyard, Anatole. Review of Winter’s Tale. New York Times (September 2, 1983): C20.
- Field, Leslie. ”Mark Helprin and the Postmodern Jewish-American Fiction and Fantasy.” Yiddish 7, no. 1 (1987): 57-65.
- Koenig, Rhoda. ”The Invisible Helping Hand: Ellis Island and Other Stories.” New York Vol. 14, no. 5 (February 2, 1981): 52-53.
- Johnson, Mark. ”A Conversation with Mark Helprin.” Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion 17 (Fall 1997): 48-59.
- Kish, A. V. ”Fiction: Ellis Island and Other Stories.” Best Sellers Vol. 41, no. 1 (April 1981): 6.
- Lytal, Benjamin. ”Helprin, Mark. Freddy and Fredericka.” New York Sun Arts & Letters Section (July 13, 2005).
- Neumeyer, Peter. Review of Swan Lake. New York Times Book Review Vol. 94 (November 12, 1989): 28.
- ‘Grady, Selina. ”Land of the Free and the Home of the Vulgar. ” San Francisco Chronicle (July 10,2008): E3.
- Prescott, Peter S. ”Worst of Times. ‘ ‘ Newsweek Vol. CII, No. 12 (September 19, 1983): 78, 81.
- Price, Reynolds. ”The Art of American Short Stories. ‘ ‘ New York Times Book Review (March 1,1981): 1, 20.
- Royal, Derek Parker. “Unfinalized Moment in Jewish American Narrative. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 22, no. 3 (2004): 1-11.
- Towers, Robert. ”Assaulting Realism. ‘ ‘ Atlantic Monthly Vol. 252, No. 3 (September 1983): 122-23.
- Mark Helprin. Accessed December 6, 2008, from http://www.markhelprin.com.
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