Hortense Calisher 1911-
(Also has written under pseudonym Jack Fenno) American short story writer, novelist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Calisher's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 8, and 38.
Calisher is a highly regarded and accomplished prose stylist whose subtle, textured use of language elucidates the complexities of human experience. Her writing, much of which is semi-autobiographical, is often compared to that of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Edith Wharton. Calisher sees diversity as the defining element of the twentieth century, and her fiction reflects this belief. Although Calisher writes well-received novels, memoirs, and critical essays, her short fiction is generally regarded as her finest work, notably “In Greenwich There Are Many Graveled Walks” (1951) and the novellas in The Railway Police, and the Last Trolley Ride (1966). The four O. Henry awards presented to Calisher over the span of her career attest to her skill as a short story writer.
Born in New York City, Calisher grew up in a comfortable, middle-class Jewish home. Her father, born during the Civil War, was from Richmond, Virginia, and her mother, more than twenty years younger than her husband, was a German immigrant. The confluence of sensibilities arising from her multigenerational family—the South, New York City, Europe, and Judaism—inform much of her work. Calisher earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Barnard College in 1932. Upon graduation, she became a social worker for the Department of Public Welfare in New York City. In 1935 Calisher married Heaton Bennet Heffelfinger, with whom she shares two children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1958 and a year later Calisher married novelist Curtis Arthur Harnack. From 1957 to 1986 Calisher was a visiting professor and lecturer at various universities throughout the United States. She was president of PEN in 1986-87 and of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters from 1987 to 1990.
Calisher began her professional writing career in 1948 by publishing stories in the New Yorker, and soon garnered critical acclaim with the publication of her first collection of short stories, In the Absence of Angels (1951). She was twice named a Guggenheim fellow, in 1951-52 and 1953-54. Calisher earned her first National Book Award nomination for the novel False Entry (1961). The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (1975) and Calisher's memoir, Herself (1972) were also nominated for the National Book Award. She was awarded the Kafka Prize at the University of Rochester for the novel The Bobby-Soxer (1986), and in 1989 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Calisher is known for her keen observations and ability to share them vividly through image, character, and lush, distinctive language. Her early autobiographical work, sometimes called the “Hester” stories, appeared between 1948 and 1953. These stories, published primarily in the New Yorker and various collections during these years, depict her protagonist Hester's coming of age. Calisher's first published story collection, In the Absence of Angels, includes the critically acclaimed “In Greenwich There Are Many Graveled Walks.” The story contains trademark Calisher motifs and techniques—recognizable characters responding to a dark predicament not of their own making, revealed through rich prose in an intricate and carefully paced narrative. The novel False Entry draws partly on Calisher's southern roots and explores the life of a man with such a remarkable memory that he has assumed other people's identities through his knowledge of their past. In three months of writing about these experiences in his journal, he finally determines his own identity, permitting him genuine entry into the life of his beloved. His journal is written for Ruth Mannix, whose own story is told in The New Yorkers (1969), a novel admired for its realistic portrayal of New York City. The work evidences Calisher's skill in blending her knowledge of Jewish heritage, intimate familiarity with New York City, and psychological perception in her fiction. Following a pattern that continues to inform her work, Calisher subsequently alternated between short and long fiction, and published several volumes of both together. Tale for the Mirror contains a novella and twelve short stories, including “The Scream on Fifty-seventh Street,” an exploration of fear and loneliness. Extreme Magic (1964), another volume of one novella and short stories, demonstrates a growth in Calisher's range. Two stories in particular illustrate her feminine voice: “Songs My Mother Taught Me” reveals both humor and sensuality, while “The Rabbi's Daughter” explores the feminine duality of worldly achievement coupled with inner dissatisfaction.
Completely dissimilar from her previous work, Journal from Ellipsia (1965) has been called both a work of science fiction and a work of feminism. In line with the central themes of Calisher's fiction, however, the novel explores what it means to be human, this time from the point of view of an alien creature. Moreover, the story involves a journey from the star Ellipsia to Earth; transportation serves as a recurring interest in Calisher's work, particularly its relation to American myth and public consciousness. In Mysteries of Motion (1983), another novel with a celestial theme, Calisher examines six human lives aboard a space shuttle. The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride, two novellas published in a single volume, share the theme of a journey undertaken to promote both self-knowledge and perception of the world. The protagonist of The Railway Police experiences an epiphany when she witnesses the removal of an indifferent vagrant from a train. She interprets this as a sign for her to dispose of all her possessions, including the wigs that have long hidden her baldness from the world. Determined to reinvent who she is, she decides to strike out and become a vagrant herself. The Last Trolley Ride concerns two octogenarian grandfathers who decide to share one last adventure—a trip around the world. Calisher's memoir, Herself, describes her own journey from the world of suburban housewife and mother to the world of letters. In a second memoir, Kissing Cousins (1988), Calisher explores her Southern roots following a death in her family. In the novel The Bobby-Soxer, Calisher examines the dark provincialism of small-town America and the ambiguity of identity, embodied in the narrator's hermaphroditic relative. In Age (1987), Calisher again employs the fictional vehicle of the journal, this time to shed light on the lives of an elderly couple. The brief, alternating entries, designed to be a defense against loneliness for the surviving spouse, reveal their reflections on life, relationships, and the prospect of living on after the death of the other. The novel In the Palace of the Movie King (1993) involves an Albania dissident filmmaker who escapes communist Albania only to encounter alienation and disillusionment in America. Calisher's In the Slammer with Carol Smith (1997), reveals the effect that involvement in a radical student movement has on a protagonist decades later. Calisher has also served as editor of Best American Short Stories, 1981 (1981) and published a novel, The Small Bang (1992), under the pseudonym Jack Fenno.
Calisher is known as a “writer's writer” and an important voice in American fiction of the twentieth century, and critical response to her short stories is almost uniformly positive. Critics note that she dazzles readers with her sympathetic portrayal of everyday people, caught in moments of crisis, who attempt to exercise some control over their circumstances. Where her novels are concerned, however, response to her work is mixed. Critics have faulted her overwrought style, thinness of characterization, and lack of substantial plot. Reviewers disagree about the merits of The New Yorkers, acknowledged generally as one of her most important novels. A common contentious point among critics is the way Calisher uses language. Her short story style tends toward the terse and economical, in keeping with the genre, while her novels are far more exuberant in their expression. “Elliptical” is the word most frequently applied to her prose, and depending on the reviewer, it may mean either artful or ambiguous. Some reviewers insist that this technique reflects the complex, convoluted meanings explored in Calisher's fiction, while others simply view it as overwriting and a distraction.
Did this raise a question for you?