Jong, Erica (Vol. 83)
Erica Jong 1942–
American poet, novelist, and biographer.
The following entry provides an overview of Jong's career-through 1990. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 8, and 18.
Best known for her novel Fear of Flying, Jong has received both popular and critical recognition for her frank, satirical treatment of sexuality. Her works have been interpreted both as pioneering efforts in the movement toward an authentic and free expression of female sexuality and, according to an anonymous reviewer in Kirkus Reviews, as "porn with a literary veneer." Some critics have noted that attention to the risque elements of Jong's fiction has eclipsed her treatment of serious social issues in her fiction and poetry.
Jong grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City. Her mother, Eda Mirsky Mann, was a painter, and her father, Seymour Mann, was a musician, composer, and importer of giftware. As an adolescent, Jong wrote and illustrated numerous journals and stories. She later served as editor of the literary magazine and producer of poetry programs for campus radio at Barnard College, from which she graduated in 1963. Jong (then Erica Mann) earned an M.A. in English literature at Columbia University in 1965, and in 1966 she married Allan Jong, a Chinese-American psychiatrist. The Jongs moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where Allan served in the military until 1969, and Erica taught at the University of Maryland Overseas Division. It was in Germany that Jong departed from writing poetry in the formal style of William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas, and began developing her own distinctive approach to treating the human condition in order to incorporate the sense of paranoia she experienced as a Jew living in Germany. It was with her poetry collection Fruits and Vegetables that Jong first gained critical attention, but it was shortly after the publication of Fear of Flying in 1973 that Jong received popular notice and became a famous writer. Jong's awards include Poetry magazine's 1971 Bess Hokin prize, the 1972 Madeline Sadin Award from New York Quarterly, and the 1972 Alice Faye di Castagnolia Award from the Poetry Society of America.
In her poetry, Jong presents observations on such topics as aging, love, sex, feminism, and death, and while her treatment of these topics is often serious, her tone is largely life-affirming and humorous. Jong has asserted that the common theme in all of her works is "the quest for self-knowledge," a theme that dominates her semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels Fear of Flying (1973), How to Save Your Own Life (1977), and Parachutes & Kisses (1984). These three works trace the life of Isadora Wing, a writer who travels extensively and seeks spiritual, emotional, and physical fulfillment in various relationships with men. The recipient of far more popular and critical attention than its sequels, Fear of Flying has been characterized as a bildungsroman in the tradition of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, James Joyce's Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. In Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hack-about-Jones (1980) and Serenissima: A Novel of Venice (1987), Jong employs the settings and language of eighteenth-century England and sixteenth-century Venice, respectively. Fanny is Jong's version of an eighteenth-century pornographic work by John Cleland titled Fanny Hill, and Serenissima depicts Jessica Pruitt, a twentieth-century actress who falls ill and is transported in a dream to Elizabethan England, where she becomes romantically involved with William Shakespeare. In a departure from fiction, Jong has written the biography The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (1993). Jong became close friends with Miller, who, in an early review of Fear of Flying, called the novel "a female Tropic of Cancer."
Critical reaction to Jong's works has been mixed. While some critics have focused negative attention on the raw language and sexual explicitness of her works, some have lauded Jong for crossing gender barriers and paving the way for other women writers to use language previously considered the domain of male authors. Gayle Greene has asserted: "Jong confuses liberation with sexual liberation and confuses sexual liberation with the freedom to talk and act like a man, but the bold language that so impressed readers masks a conventionality, a failure to imagine otherwise." Many critics, however, have praised Jong's masterful use of humor, her ironic and honest depiction of interactions between men and women, and her insight into society as a whole. Joan Reardon has commented: "If 'woman writer' ceases to be a polite but negative label, it will be due in great measure to the efforts of Erica Jong."
Fruits and Vegetables (poetry) 1971
Fear of Flying (novel) 1973
Half-Lives (poetry) 1973
Here Comes, and Other Poems (poetry) 1975
Loveroot (poetry) 1975
The Poetry of Erica Jong (poetry) 1976
How to Save Your Own Life (novel) 1977
At the Edge of the Body (poetry) 1979
Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones (novel) 1980
Ordinary Miracles: New Poems (poetry) 1983
Parachutes & Kisses (novel) 1984
Serenissima: A Novel of Venice (novel) 1987
Any Woman's Blues (novel) 1990
Becoming Light: Poems New and Selected (poetry) 1991
The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (biography) 1993
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[Shapiro is an American educator, poet, novelist, and critic who has served as editor of the New York Times Book Review. In the following excerpt, he provides a favorable assessment of Half-Lives, commenting on Jong's treatment of women's issues.]
To write as a woman is to write from an extreme situation: the assumption behind Erica Jong's and Adrienne Rich's recent poetry. It gives energy to their lines. And I suspect, it gives them readers they might not ordinarily have. This can be a temptation (I think it is for Erica Jong) to play to that audience. But for the most part it must mean poet touching reader, reader touching poet, in a way that can make both more alive.
Erica Jong is quick, easy, raunchy (the pose is sometimes that of a female rake) and her personality so fills her poems [in Half-Lives] that it's difficult sometimes to see around her to her meaning. There is nothing particularly feminist or ideological in this; it's part of the personality packaging some poets fall into naturally these days. It permits the reader easy access to a book through knowing the basic plot and the main character (as, for example, Diane Wakoski: men throw me off their motorbikes).
Her free verse is held together by repetitions (a line, or phrase or syntactical unit) and it is designed to move quickly, images shifting with each line, the imagination always looking for the next turn....
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[An American educator and critic, Broyard served for fifteen years as a New York Times book reviewer and feature writer. In the following review of Loveroot, he faults Jong's poetry as pretentious, commenting, "Ms. Jong is too full of herself."]
When Fear of Flying ended with the runaway wife returning to scrub her infidelities in her husband's bathtub, some feminists saw Erica Jong's novel as a washout. She may have come to agree with them, for she has since divorced her second husband and written an article in Vogue magazine on the obsolescence of marriage. She has her own bathtub now, and her own bathos. She says, for example, that Loveroot, her third book of poems, was written to prove that women poets need not commit suicide.
The author leaves us in no doubt as to why some women poets did commit suicide. In a poem on Sylvia Plath and other "martyrs," she says, "Men did them in." They will not do her in, however, for she has seen through their "doom-saying, death-dealing" ways. She is in her own hands, her "big mouth / filled with poems," and I think it should be interesting to see what she does with her independence. History has many cunning corridors, as T. S. Eliot remarked, and in the history of the feminist movement Mrs. Jong's corridor probably has a cunning peculiar to itself.
She has come out of the bathtub to "teeter on the edge of the...
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[Nitzsche is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, she delineates Jong's use of parallels to the myth of Daedalus and Icarus in Fear of Flying.]
Although Erica Jong felt that her first novel, Fear of Flying (1973), was too literary for wide appeal, it rapidly became a best seller, its humor and eroticism praised on the dust jacket by John Updike and Henry Miller as well as by Hannah Greene and Elizabeth Janeway, but its literary qualities frequently ignored or even savagely castigated in reviews by such critics as Walter Clemons, Ellen Hope Meyer, Paul Theroux, Patricia S. Coyne, and Martin Amis. Characteristic of the criticisms is the following evaluation [by Hope Meyer in The Nation, January 12, 1974]: "literary it is not. Poorly constructed, too prone to phrases like 'our mouths melted like liquid,' it has a shapeless, self-indulgent plot and weak characterization, especially of the men." Such weaknesses supposedly exist because "There is no artistic distance between the author and her subject, and hence no objectivity."
Yet as a poet Jong received critical acclaim for Fruits and Vegetables (1971) and Half-Lives (1973), collections of poems whose colloquial diction and casual line lengths camouflage a tightly controlled form. Such control is achieved by the use of rhetorical figures and extended images, or conceits. As an example, in "The Man Under the Bed,"...
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[Reardon is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she describes how Fear of Flying "demonstrates the 'coming of age' of its author, the development of her style," suggesting that the novel functions as "a distinctively female idiom."]
Initial critical reaction to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying sold the book but did little to establish its considerable literary value. Particularly cutting, and more often than not, hostile, were the women who linked Jong's work to the tradition of Austen, Eliot, and the Brontes in their reviews and found the novel wanting. Ironically, the feminist critics were both negative and positive. For some, the book was trivial and did not state the case; others responded like Carol Tavris who said: "Jong has captured perfectly the dilemmas of the modern woman, the ironies of liberation and independence" [Psychology Today 8, 1975]. And still other reviewers joined Jane Crain in an unforgiving dismissal: "Taken one by one, no feminist novel really rewards critical scrutiny—they are all too steeped in ideology to pay the elementary respect to human complexity that good fiction demands" [Commentary, December, 1974]. With considerably more generosity, men tended to review the book as a good popular novel, a cut above Diary of a Mad Housewife, with the welcome addition of considerably more humor. Though Paul Theroux [New Statesman, 19 April 1974] and...
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[In the following excerpt from her Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order in Recent American Fiction by Women (1979), Mickelson provides an analysis of Jong's characterizations and use of sexual language in Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life, concluding that Jong implies male dominance and female helplessness.]
[Two] novels by Erica Jong—Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life—end with a kind of symbolic ritual baptism in celebration of the female body. In the first novel, Fear of Flying, the heroine, Isadora Wing, returns to her patient but dull husband after an unsuccessful attempt to find in Adrian Goodlove the perfect combination of friend and lover. Stripping off her clothes, she climbs into the claw-footed bathtub, immerses herself in water up to her neck and contemplates her body. "A nice body," she tells us. "Mine. I decided to keep it." It's a comforting picture which leaves the reader with a sense of well-being. At the end of the second novel, How to Save Your Own Life, Isadora, now husbandless but firmly clasped in the arms of her young lover, Josh, finally experiences orgasm with him. Paradoxically, she has up to this point been automatically responsive to her husband's mechanical embrace, but unable to achieve orgasm with Josh's more spontaneous and inspired lovemaking. In Joycean fashion, Isadora commemorates the momentous occasion by passing water....
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[Rogers is an English educator, editor, and critic. In the following review, he provides a positive assessment of Fanny.]
Have you met Miss Jones? The real Fanny Hill can at last stand up (or lie down, most of the time): it turns out that her true identity is that of Fanny Hackabout Jones, a foundling brought up in one of the stately homes of Wiltshire. Only, in the end, [of Fanny], it emerges that she is not who she seems. John Cleland got everything hopelessly tangled up [in his Fanny Hill; or Memoirs of a woman of Pleasure]: well, that's no surprise. Erica Jong relates Fanny's "True History" in three books, all but 500 pages, of pseudo-authentic language. Stylistic mannerisms by Fielding; plot rather by Smollett; research supervised by the late James Clifford and J. H. Plumb (not to mention a research trip to Bath, conducted by Russell Harty, "which was invaluable even though Bath did not finally appear in the novel"). The aim is to be true "to the spirit, if not the letter, of the eighteenth century." One has to say it: Erica Jong has succeeded remarkably well.
The most surprising thing about Fanny is that it really does concern the eighteenth century. Readers expecting a sequel to the adventures of Isadora Wingwill puzzle the text into convenient shapes, but the will be distorting the genuine imaginative flight-path. Sure enough, the novel has strong feminist overtones: but the sexual...
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[James is a well-known Australian editor, television commentator, and critic. In the following negative review, he finds John Cleland's eighteenth-century work Fanny Hill superior to Jong's version of Fanny.]
Not long ago there was a popular novelist called Jeffrey Farnol, who is now entirely forgotten—which, when you think about it, is as long ago as you can get. Farnol wrote period novels in a narrative style full of e'ens, dosts, 'tises, and 'twases. Men wearing slashed doublets said things like "Gadzooks!" in order to indicate that the action was taking place in days of yore. Farnol was manifestly shaky on the subject of when yore actually was, but he had a certain naïve energy and his books were too short to bore you. His masterpiece The Jade of Destiny, starring a lethal swordsman called Dinwiddie, can still be consumed in a single evening by anyone who has nothing better to do.
Erica Jong knows a lot more than Farnol ever did about our literary heritage and its social background. [Her Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones], which purports to be the true story, told in the first person, of the girl John Cleland made famous as Fanny Hill [in his Fanny Hill] draws on an extensive knowledge of eighteenth-century England. This is definitely meant to be a high-class caper. Nevertheless Jeffrey Farnol would recognize a fellow practitioner. There...
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[Bryan is an American novelist, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he notes that Parachutes & Kisses lacks plot development and comments that Jong settles for "the self-aggrandizing delusions of a literary Mae West."]
Eleven years ago in Erica Jong's best-selling Fear of Flying, Isadora Wing was 29 and twice married—first to a psychotic Columbia University graduate student and next to Bennett Wing, a Chinese-American Freudian child psychiatrist with whom she fearfully flew to a Psychiatric Congress in Vienna. There she met Adrian Goodlove, a British Laingian psychiatrist who spouted existentialist theory, playfully squeezed her, thought Jewish girls "bloody good in bed" and so mesmerized Isadora that she dumped Bennett in Vienna and took off with Goodlove on a haphazard trans-European motor trip, during which the main hazard turned out to be not Goodlove's losing battles with tumescence but his plan all the while to keep a scheduled appointment with his wife and children in Cherbourg. Isadora, feeling betrayed, winged back to Bennett, let herself into his empty hotel room, climbed into his tub and lay there not certain whether she had returned to soak in the hot water of his bath or their marriage.
In How to Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong's 1977 sequel, Isadora was 32, had divorced Bennett, with his "glum face, his nervous cough, his perpetual analyzing,"...
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[In the following essay, Diot analyzes the role of humor in Jong's writings.]
In How To Save Your Own Life, a character called Kurt Hammer is thus described by the female narrator and heroine Isadora Wing—Jong's alter ego and fantasmatic persona—in the book:
Kurt Hammer has honed his underground reputation on tattered copies of his reputed-to-be pornographic novels, smuggled in through customs in the days where sex was considered unfit for print. Now that sex was everywhere in print, his royalties were fading….
She meets him in LA, she is thirty-three and he is eighty-seven, but still full of pep and punch. Isadora calls him "her literary godfather"—or sugar daddy? Friendship, affection and mutual admiration characterize their relationship: but Fear of Flying is not Tropic of Cancer, How To Save Your Own Life is not Tropic of Capricorn, nor is Parachutes and Kisses The Rosy Crucifixion. And yet, Jong doubtlessly attempted to write a female version of those erotic autobiographies; she tried her hand at what Miller-Hammer calls "the metaphysics of Sex", filled with delirious hysterical humor and satire. She created a woman's fantasmatic journey into sex, a marvelous "whoroscope"—Jong's own coined phrase for this Tropic of Virgo, or is it Virago? She is still an exception in the literary world: in a...
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[Malone is an American novelist, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he provides a mixed assessment of Serenissima.]
Who afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Erica Jong, who invokes Woolf's Orlando as an epigraph for Serenissima, in which Jessica Pruitt, jet-setting movie star (in Venice to judge a film festival) falls ill midway through the book (Liv Ullmann nurses her—"What are friends for?"), and travels backward in time to the 16th century. There she finds herself transformed into Shylock's daughter—the very role she's been cast to play (despite her 43 years) in "nothing less than a filmic fantasy based on The Merchant of Venice" conceived by a Bergmanesque Swedish genius, "undoubtedly the greatest direct of our time," as well as her former lover. (The actor playing Shylock is also an old lover, but then presumably the honor is not a rare one.)
Nor has our heroine any fear of flying off with young William Shakespeare himself, whose first gasped words as they collide in the Ghetto Vecchio are "who ever loved, who loved not at first sight?" His next are "What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." He then introduces himself as "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage." Jessica's old Hollywood pals might call this Meeting Cute with a vengeance, but as Will tells her, "Marry, come up, you jest at scars that never felt a...
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[DeMott is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, educator, and critic. Following is his mixed review of Any Woman's Blues.]
Leila Sand, the heroine of Erica Jong's [Any Woman's Blues], is a mid-fortyish, compulsively fornicating artist and celebrity who, despite occasional moments of satisfaction in the natural world or in bed, is almost continuously woebegone. She's gripped by a sadomasochistic obsession (object: an obnoxiously faithless young hustler named Darton Venable Donegal IV), her muse is deserting her and her studio is in chaos. What's more, her children (twin daughters) don't need her, and wine and weed keep punching her out.
Leila fights the blues hard, to be sure, and her struggle—waged mainly in her Connecticut country house, in SoHo and in hotels and palazzi in Venice—becomes the substance of Any Woman's Blues. Guided by her writer pal Emmie, Leila tries Alcoholics Anonymous (and provides convincing glimpses of the comic candor and heartbreak of A.A. meetings, as well as of their democratic fellowship and quasi-religious intensity). She also battles her addiction to Dart Donegal, eventually managing to lock him out for good. And, late in the book, there's a hint of oncoming redemption through the religion of art. At one point Leila "is in a state of grace. She wants to skip, to kneel before the Madonna, to invent drawings and paintings that will communicate joy to...
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[In the following review, Jackson characterizes Any Woman's Blues as "a compelling but confused novel that strains for a moral clarity beyond its grasp."]
When Erica Jong finished writing Any Woman's Blues, her latest novel, she must have realized that there would be some debate over what the book was really about. Was it, as the helpful subtitle suggested, a "novel of obsession" about a successful woman, Leila Sand, in love with a hopeless cad named Dart Donegal? Was it about Leila's voyage from her addiction to love, sex and red wine to independence, sobriety and serenity? Or was the book simply a fictional veil cast over Erica Jong, famous author and bon vivant, as she tries to give up everything she urged women to pursue in her first novel, Fear of Flying? Only one thing is clear by the end of the novel: Alcoholics Anonymous must surely be the new church of the 1990s if even Jong's high-flying heroines are now finding their salvation in AA meetings instead of midnight trysts.
Jong's fictional alter ego is a 39-year-old painter with a weakness for too much wine and all the wrong men. "I lived for sex, for falling in love with love," confesses Leila. Her drug of choice is the fickle young Dart, who makes her life miserable: "All I can do is listen for the crushed gravel under Dart's motorcycle wheels, which seem to ride right over my heart." Dart ruins her concentration—and he does not...
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[Greene is an American educator, editor, and critic. In the following excerpt from her Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition (1991), she faults Jong for failing to challenge traditional patriarchal views of women and sexuality in Fear of Flying.]
Accustomed as I am to having to defend my interest in Fear of Flying, I'll state at the outset why I find it important. Sexual liberation was an essential partof the early women's movement, and Fear of Flying has been taken seriously, if not as "literature," as an expression of sexual liberation—most recently, by Susan Suleiman [in Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde, 1990] who describes it as "a significant gesture, both in terms of sexual politics and in terms of … sexual poetics," praises its "freshness and vitality" of language, and calls it a "fictional counterpart" to such books as Our Bodies, Our Selves (1973) and Shere Hite's Sexual Honesty, By Women for Women (1974), which similarly reclaim female bodies and sexuality for females. I confess to having liked the novel when it first appeared, though it does not bear up to rereading and I don't finally share Suleiman's enthusiasm. But as the only instance of feminist metafiction I know of to sell ten million copies, it was important as a vehicle for the dissemination of feminist ideas and for the controversy it sparked, and it deserves attention as...
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[In the following interview, Jong discusses her memoir Fear of Fifty, her views on feminism, and her goals as a writer.]
[Spampinato]: I read recently that you have two new books that are set to be published soon: Fear of Fifty and Twenty Forty. Would you like to tell me about them?
[Jong]: Twenty Forty is a novel I'm still working on that is set in the future, but it is nowhere near ready for publication. Fear of Fifty, my mid-life memoir, will be published this August , and in it I relate the events of my life, beginning on my fiftieth birthday and moving backward in time. In this process of telling my own story, I tell the story of my generation, which I refer to as "The Whiplash Generation," because we were raised to be Doris Day, grew to young womanhood wanting to be Gloria Steinem, and now we're raising our daughters in the age of Princess Diana and Madonna. So I think we've been buffeted about in our views and opinions of love, of marriage, of motherhood, of feminism, and of course, of femininity itself. I think we are really a remarkable generation. So I tell my own story (very personally and very humorously), as a way of telling the story of my generation.
What made you decide to write Fear of Fifty at this point in your career?
I think there's a sort of natural progression, which is, when you hit...
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Butler, Robert J. "The Woman Writer as American Picaro: Open Journeying in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying." The Centennial Review XXXI, No. 3 (Summer 1987): 308-29.
Discusses Fear of Flying as a picaresque novel, asserting that "Fear of Flying, like most American journey books,… boldly equates life with motion and stasis with death."
Ferguson, Mary Anne. "The Female Novel of Development and the Myth of Psyche." In The Voyage In Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, pp. 228-43. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1983.
Discusses how Fear of Flying and other novels "show women successfully developing, learning, growing in the world at large."
Friedman, Edward H. "The Precocious Narrator: Fanny and Discursive Counterpoint," in his The Antiheroine's Voice: Narrative Discourse and Transformations of the Picaresque, pp. 203-19. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
Examines Fanny according to the tradition of the picaresque novel.
Guy, David. "The Devil's Inamorata." New England Review 15, No. 4 (Fall 1993): 184-91.
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