Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 155)
Cynthia Ozick 1928-
(Has also written under the pseudonym Trudi Vosce) American short story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Ozick's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 7, 28, and 62.
Ozick's short fiction, on which her reputation largely rests, repeatedly addresses the difficulty of sustaining a Jewish identity and heritage in a predominantly secular and assimilationist society. Her work also typically examines the calling and accountability of the artist, especially within the context of the Jewish moral code.
Ozick was born in New York City on April 17, 1928, to William and Celia Ozick. Educated at New York University and Ohio State University, she published her first novel, Trust, in 1966. The work focused on a young woman's search for identity and was written over the course of six years. The work received a lukewarm critical and commercial reception. Ozick later turned to primarily writing short stories and novellas, which have been published in magazines such as Commentary, Esquire, and the New Yorker. Ozick is also a noted literary critic, particularly of Jewish-American literature, and introduced the concept of “New Yiddish,” a language which would be comprehensible to speakers of English yet preserve the inflections and tone of the waning Yiddish language. She has served as a visiting lecturer at numerous colleges and universities, as well as holding teaching positions at New York University and the University of New York. Ozick has received a number of awards, including the Edward Lewis Wallant Memorial Award in 1971; a National Book Award nomination for The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971); the B'nai B'rth Jewish Heritage Award in 1972; a PEN/Faulkner Award nomination in 1984; and a National Book Critics' Circle Award nomination for criticism for Quarrel & Quandary (2000).
In most of Ozick's short fiction, the plots revolve around the dilemma of being Jewish in modern Western society, particularly the United States. In Levitation (1982), a couple in a mixed Jewish-Christian marriage fail to understand each other's priorities due to the basic incompatibility of their world-views. Ozick views American culture as predominantly pagan, concerned with nature and the physical realm of existence, and therefore inherently in conflict with the worship of the noncorporeal God of Judaism. In “The Pagan Rabbi,” the title character is torn between his love of religion and scholarship and his attraction to nature and magic. Ozick is also concerned with the idea that the production of art and literature can be considered blasphemous because it puts the artist in direct competition with God as creator. A recurring theme in her work—which is prominently examined in “Usurpation (Other People's Stories)”—is that all writers borrow material from other writers and usurp God's domain by attempting to replicate or transform reality through fiction. In Ozick's opinion, the rejection of such idolatry is a defining characteristic of the Jewish writer. The concept 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, or automaton, to help with her housework. The creature is useful at first, but begins to run amok, forcing her creator to destroy her. Similar religious offenses occur in Ozick's short story “The Shawl” and its sequel, “Rosa.” The focus of these narratives is a woman who idolatrously worships the memory of her infant daughter who was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.
Since the publication of Trust, Ozick has garnered critical acclaim for her attention to language and thought-provoking arguments about Jewish-American culture. Critics such as Millicent Bell and Mark Krupnick have compared her with other noted Jewish-American writers, including Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Norman Mailer. However, several reviewers have argued that Ozick's writing is often more self-conscious and intellectual than that of her peers. Krupnick commented that “More than any novelist of the past fifteen or so years, Ozick has changed our idea of the possibilities of American Jewish writing and set a new direction for that writing.” Many scholars have focused their criticism on one of Ozick's major recurring themes—the contradiction between writing fiction and obeying Jewish law which forbids the creation of idols. The critical reaction to Ozick's argument that art can act as a form of idolatry has been sharply mixed. Victor Strandberg noted that Ozick's works, by “refusing to ‘bestow apparently godlike authority on an author or biographer,’ … counteract the risk of idolatry that storytelling engenders by competing with God's creation.” Reviewers have also widely examined the underlying messages and spirituality of Ozick's fiction and essays. Janet L. Cooper, for example, has found Ozick's philosophical explorations confusing and contradictory, particularly for those unfamiliar with Judaism.
Trust (novel) 1966
The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (short stories) 1971
Bloodshed and Three Novellas (short stories) 1976
Levitation: Five Fictions (short stories) 1982
Art & Ardor (essays) 1983
The Cannibal Galaxy (novel) 1983
The Messiah of Stockholm (novel) 1987
Metaphor & Memory: Essays (essays) 1989
The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (short stories) 1989
What Henry James Knew and Other Essays on Writers (essays) 1993
*Blue Light (play) 1994
Fame & Folly: Essays (essays) 1996
Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing (essays) 1996
Puttermesser Papers (short stories) 1997
Quarrel & Quandary (essays) 2000
*This play is based on Ozick's short story “The Shawl.”
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SOURCE: Cohen, Sarah Blacher. “The Fiction Writer as Essayist: Ozick's Metaphor & Memory.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal 39, no. 3 (summer 1990): 276–81.
[In the following essay, Cohen observes that with the publication of Metaphor & Memory, Ozick “can no longer claim she is a literary nobody.”]
Try to “possess one great literature, at least, besides (your) own: and the more unlike (your) own, the better.” So cautioned the critic Matthew Arnold. Years later, author Cynthia Ozick heeded his advice. Over the course of time she has populated her house of fiction with three mind-stretching novels and four collections of riveting short stories. To keep her fiction company, she has brought in a rich assortment of provocative essays to share the premises. In the preface to her 1983 collection of essays, Art & Ardor, she informs us how she happened to write these departures from fiction:
I have written over one hundred essays—some in the form of articles or fugitive pieces, others to serve a public occasion … three or four out of political necessity, as forays into advocacy journalism … the rest an outgrowth of reading and reviewing. … Most … out of unashamed print-lust. …
She bemoans the fact that she was an unknown freelancer, a literary orphan with no benevolent god-parents to...
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SOURCE: Krupnick, Mark. “Cynthia Ozick as the Jewish T. S. Eliot.” Soundings 74, nos. 3–4 (fall–winter 1991): 351–68.
[In the following essay, Krupnick compares Ozick's works to the writings of T. S. Eliot.]
I want to start with my title: “Cynthia Ozick as the Jewish T. S. Eliot.” I have been asked whether I ought to have said: “Cynthia Ozick as a Jewish Eliot.” And no doubt I should have, for Ozick exemplifies only one of many versions of T. S. Eliot among American Jewish writers of the past half-century. There has been for example, the Eliot of Lionel Trilling, the leading literary figure in his circle of New York intellectuals in the 1940s. And we have had the art critic Clement Greenberg and his Eliotic Trotskyism, notably in his famous essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” And after Trilling and Greenberg there came the poet Delmore Schwartz and his idea of Eliot as “international hero.”
What follows will not be a full comparative study of Eliot and Ozick. Mostly I want to talk about Ozick and I have drawn Eliot into the discussion mainly to launch my essay, on the principle that it helps in learning to think about a writer whom we have only recently come to know to set her in relation to a writer we have been reading for a long time. My excuse for introducing Eliot rather than someone else as a reference point is that Ozick herself has frequently...
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SOURCE: Ozick, Cynthia, and Mario Materassi. “Imagination Unbound: An Interview with Cynthia Ozick.” Salmagundi, nos. 94–95 (spring–summer 1992): 85–113.
[In the following interview, Ozick comments on her writing career and the influences behind The Messiah of Stockholm.]
[Materassi:] Let's begin with a standard “first question”: How and when did you become a writer?
[Ozick:] This question is really very easy for me, because I never was not a writer. I think I knew this very, very early, before I could even hold a pen. Partly it was simply instinct, and partly I had a model: there was a writer in my family, my mother's brother, who died a few years ago. He was a Hebrew poet.
What was his name?
His name was Abraham Regelson. He emigrated to Israel when that state declared its independence in 1948. And though he won a number of major prizes there, his star is very much in eclipse. He did not write skinny little subjective lyrics—he wrote big, dramatic, philosophical poems rather like Milton, actually. He has a great poem called “Cain and Abel.” At any rate, I, of course, as a very small child, did not know anything about his content or his form—that goes without saying. Nor have I ever really absorbed it, because it was in a language that I have never mastered. But the fact that there was an uncle who...
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SOURCE: Ozick, Cynthia, and Elaine M. Kauvar. “An Interview with Cynthia Ozick.” Contemporary Literature 34, no. 3 (fall 1993): 358–94.
[In the following interview, Ozick offers her views on Jewish culture, her role as a Jewish writer, and the importance of the Holocaust.]
American Jewish writers too often face the unreasonable demand that they be responsible for reinforcing and revitalizing Jewishness. To yield to such a demand is to renounce the freedom of imaginative writing, an unthinkable sacrifice for a serious writer. Small wonder that American Jewish writers—Philip Roth and Stanley Elkin come immediately to mind—have vigorously resisted the label “Jewish writer” together with its attendant restrictions. Yet more than they have with Roth or Elkin, critics have unquestioningly regarded Cynthia Ozick as a Jewish writer whose muses not only are Jews but whose ideas are limited to Judaism. Ozick, in fact, has always treated her tradition as a threshold rather than a terminus; indeed, her passion for making distinctions, for distinguishing one thing from another so as not to blur that which must be kept clear, springs from rabbinic practice.
The drive to keep disparate what is dissimilar led Ozick in the 1970s, for example, to declare universalism the ultimate Jewish parochialism and in 1989 to insist, at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, on the crucial...
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SOURCE: Lakritz, Andrew. “Cynthia Ozick and the End of the Modern.” Chicago Review 40, no. 1 (winter 1994): 98–117.
[In the following essay, Lakritz compares The Messiah of Stockholm to Bruno Schulz's The Messiah.]
In recent years a debate has raged over the definition of the age. Some say with the end of the Second World War, a new era has emerged which old labels no longer suffice to name, and the new name which seems to have taken strongest hold is “postmodern.”1 Others have criticized this movement toward new paradigms under the assumption that the post-war period represents elements of thought and culture that are in important ways extensions of modernism, indeed, of romanticism itself.2 Cynthia Ozick's book The Messiah of Stockholm in some ways identifies itself as “postmodern” in the sense that it is consciously about a man who has come after, come too late, and lives in a time when the important values of writers working in the first half of the century no longer seem to be of significance. The central figure of the novel does all he can to catch up to his “father,” the dead Polish-Jewish writer, Bruno Schulz. What I would like to do in the following essay is not so much to rehash the question of how to name the period we are in as to examine the symptoms of this belatedness. In particular, I am interested in how Ozick constructs herself as...
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SOURCE: Cohen, Sarah Blacher. “Introduction: Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art of Truth-Telling.” In Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy, pp. 1–20. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Cohen discusses Ozick's use of humor and satire in her writing.]
“Can one write comically without knowing one is doing it?” Cynthia Ozick posed this rhetorical question (in “Letter to Sarah Blacher Cohen,” 28 January 1992) but claimed to have no answer for it. Rather, she offered a tentative explanation for the uninvited presence of the comic muse intruding upon her work. She recalled the following experience from childhood:
At age eleven or twelve, I read and reread a short story by Somerset Maugham called “Jane,” [about] … a country cousin who arrives in London as a mousey and dowdy insignificance and becomes a social lioness, taking the town by storm. She is regarded as a great wit; all of London society laughs. The narrator can't understand why. The revelation at the close of the story is that Jane never sets out to make people laugh and has no notion that she is a wit. Her secret, it is finally discerned, is that she, almost alone in society, is not a hypocrite: she tells the truth.1 Apparently in London society no one does such an outlandish thing as say what one really means. Truth-telling is so preposterous an...
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SOURCE: Cohen, Sarah Blacher. “Cynthia Ozick: Prophet for Parochialism.” In Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, edited by Judith R. Baskin, pp. 283–98. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Cohen explores Ozick's sense of Jewish identity and its effect on her writing.]
The waning of the immigrant experience and the depletion of the Yiddish culture which so enriched that experience have prompted some critics to write an epitaph for the dying body of Jewish-American writing in the postwar period. Thus, Ruth Wisse has written that Jewish-American literature “derives its strength from the peculiar tension of the Jew who is native to two cultures while fully at home in neither; hence the more fully the Jew becomes integrated into the larger culture, the less the tension and the fewer the creative energies generated by it.”1
This charge may apply to the totally assimilated Jewish writers who, like Philip Roth's Portnoy, say the equivalent of “stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass. I happen also to be a human being.”2 But it doesn't apply to a new group of American Jewish writers of the 1970s and 80s who have attempted to express their artistic vision in Jewish terms. Unconcerned about real or imagined charges of parochialism, they have freely explored the particularistic aspects of Judaism and have...
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SOURCE: Strandberg, Victor. “Judgement.” In Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick, pp. 152–91. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Strandberg examines the critical reaction to several of Ozick's works, including Trust and The Pagan Rabbi.]
THE CRITICAL RECKONING
Cynthia Ozick, thirty-eight years old when Trust launched her career, was fifty-five when William Scheick and Catherine Rainwater produced the first sustained effort of Ozick scholarship, a seventy-five-page segment of the summer 1983 Texas Studies in Literature and Language that included an introduction, an interview, a bibliography, and my own long essay. The first book of criticism on Ozick was Harold Bloom's Cynthia Ozick (1986), a collection of essays intended to represent “the best criticism so far available” on Ozick's fiction. It is an accurate reflection of her career, and not a reproach to Bloom's book, that twenty years after publishing Trust, such a collection would consist of thirteen book reviews (eight in the NYTBR) with an average length of three pages, along with six essays averaging (not counting my own) nine pages. Bloom includes a bibliography with another twenty-five items, twenty of which are reviews of two or less pages. The book thus furnishes a good starting point for a quick scan of the...
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SOURCE: Powers, Peter Kerry. “Disruptive Memories: Cynthia Ozick, Assimilation, and the Invented Past.” MELUS 20, no. 3 (fall 1995): 79–98.
[In the following essay, Powers discusses Ozick's opinions about Jewish identity and the role of the Jewish-American author.]
He that applieth himself to the fear of God, And setteth his mind upon the Law of the Most High, He searcheth out the wisdom of all ancients, And is occupied with the prophets of old.
—The Wisdom of Ben Sira
The popular and academic successes of Jewish writers in the 1950s and 60s led John Updike—in what now seems high comedy—to a sustained fret over the popularity of things ethnic in American literature.1 While Updike's paranoia about his unmarketable ethnicity has abated, the predominance and importance of Jewish writers certainly have not. Even as I was writing this essay, Philip Roth won the P.E.N./Faulkner award for 1993. By almost any standard, the achievement of Jewish-American artists denotes a success that parallels the general prominence of Jewish-Americans in American life.
Still, for Cynthia Ozick that very success marks a more profound failure. In her estimation, Jewish-American authors have too often bought literary success at the price of an internal colonialism, or—to use a more Ozickian term—at the price...
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SOURCE: Alkana, Joseph. “‘Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?’: Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, the Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics.” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 4 (winter 1997): 963–90.
[In the following essay, Alkana offers a positive assessment of The Shawl, noting Ozick's stance against universalism in stories such as “The Shawl” and “Rosa.”]
For American Jewish writers, the Holocaust remains a compelling subject for fiction; and their work constitutes an ongoing reply to Theodor Adorno's famous claim “that it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz” (87). The task of telling Holocaust stories has involved a recognition that beyond the fundamental value of presenting witness and survivor accounts, whether in nonfictional or fictional forms, there is value in telling more stories, particularly stories of life after Auschwitz. A work such as Art Spiegelman's Maus features a self-conscious narrative style that addresses this as an imperative while highlighting the sense that conventional literary forms may be inadequate to the task. Such anxiety is evident in the trajectory of American Jewish literary attitudes toward the Holocaust, and the career of Philip Roth exemplifies changing literary responses to the Holocaust.
The characteristic American Jewish response during the years...
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SOURCE: Klingenstein, Susanne. “‘In Life I Am Not Free’: The Writer Cynthia Ozick and Her Jewish Obligations.” In Daughters of Valor: Contemporary Jewish American Women Writers, edited by Jay L Halio and Ben Siegel, pp. 48–79. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Klingenstein examines Ozick's reflections on her Jewish and American identities.]
WRITER WITHOUT PROGRAM
It is a truth universally acknowledged that biographies are a species of fiction. The hard reality of this truth dawned on me when I was invited to contribute a portrait of Cynthia Ozick to this collection of essays. My friend for many years, she is also a literary intellectual whose mind has profoundly shaped the direction of my work. I realized quickly that despite my familiarity with many facets of her life and work, I would not be able to grasp her inner gestalt. Ozick's fundamental sense of self, the core of her being, would still elude my pen.
Writers cannot be adequately described with the help of social categories. Writers are the passionate moments of literary creation. They are coextensive with the span of time when something comes into being on the page. The writer's social circumstances are secondary to the acts of literary creation. His or her situation in life—gender, class, religion—may inspire elements of plot, for instance, but it...
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SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 65, no. 1 (winter 1998): 49–60.
[In the following review, Bell discusses pieces of short fiction from several Jewish authors, including Ozick.]
In 1954, this magazine published “The Magic Barrel,” which was an immediate sensation. One previous story of Bernard Malamud's had appeared in these pages and a few others elsewhere, but he was mostly known as the author of The Natural, a first novel that gave no hint of the vision and voice he had begun to use in short fiction. When, thirty years later, Robert Redford appeared on movie screens as Malamud's slugger, Roy Hobbes, the novelist was pleased that the film (although it had happy-ended his story) gave notice that he had not been merely a “Jewish writer.” He had always been interested in writing “for all men,” he said. The Natural had successfully evoked the most American of myths as expressed by our national sport. But the novel had not, in doing this, cast a single character as a Jew—a false start for Malamud whose Jewishness was the ground water of his imagination. His second novel, The Assistant, now thought to be his best taps directly into his own early memories. It has a hero who resembles Malamud's father, an immigrant grocer struggling to survive in New York during the Depression. And the short stories he had begun writing derive from early...
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SOURCE: Cooper, Janet L. “Triangles of History and the Slippery Slope of Jewish American Identity in Two Stories by Cynthia Ozick.” MELUS 25, no. 1 (spring 2000): 181–195.
[In the following essay, Cooper examines Ozick's characterizations in her fiction.]
Cynthia Ozick's fiction is filled with characters in a state of identity crisis: “pagan rabbis,” Holocaust survivors, and frustrated artists who are struggling against the continual pressure of being Jewish in a hostile Christian environment. Not only do these characters stumble through America like “inevitable exiles” (Kielsky 23), but they are extremely conscious of their struggle and think a great deal about who they are in relation to those around them (Walden 2). Therefore, it is virtually impossible to read one of Ozick's texts without thinking a great deal about Jewish American identity.
Ozick's message, however, often is not clear; her texts are tightly condensed and often difficult, especially for the non-Jewish reader. Rather than mitigating the complexity of her fiction, Ozick's impressive volumes of essays further complicate the reader's understanding of her message. If one believes that Ozick's characters suffer from crises of identity because they are Jewish, it seems logical to browse Ozick's essays in search of what she believes to be the key elements of Jewishness, but one will again find the consummate...
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Arana-Ward, Maria. “Cynthia Ozick.” Washington Post Book World 20, no. 3 (15 January 1995): 10.
Arana-Ward summarizes Ozick's career and the broad scope of her writing.
Brookner, Anita. “Knowing the Score in Old New York.” Spectator 282, no. 8915 (19 June 1999): 44.
Brookner explores the character of Ruth Puttermesser in The Puttermesser Papers.
Cheyette, Bryan. “Not Grown Quaint but Old-Fashioned.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4869 (26 July 1996): 24.
Cheyette reflects on Ozick's critical reception in Britain and finds fault with her arguments in Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing.
Dandona, Kabir. “Essaying Ozick.” Tikkun 16, no. 2 (March 2001): 68–70.
Dandona offers a positive assessment of Quarrel & Quandary.
Eder, Richard. “Out of Time.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (15 June 1997): 2.
Eder praises the wit of The Puttermesser Papers, describing the work as ironic, sympathetic, and haunting.
Hadas, Rachel. “Text and Stories.” Partisan Review 58, no. 3 (summer 1991): 579–85.
Hadas compares Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum with The Shawl, stressing the...
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