Until the publication of The Tree of Life, Hugh Nissenson (NIH-sehn-suhn) was known primarily as an author of works in which Jews were central. His early works treat Jews in Poland before the Nazi occupation in World War II, in Israel, and in the United States. His first novel, My Own Ground, treats Jewish life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. The Tree of Life, historical fiction, and The Song of the Earth, science fiction, however, have non-Jews as their central characters.
Nissenson’s father, Charles, immigrated in 1907 from Warsaw, Poland, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he worked in a garment factory that apparently was a sweatshop. Charles eventually got a better job as a salesman. He married Brooklyn-born Harriet Dolch and moved his family to Brooklyn, where their only child, Hugh, was born. Hugh received a secular rather than a religious education. He graduated from the Fieldston School in the Bronx and from Swarthmore College in 1955. After college, Nissenson worked as a copy boy for The New York Times but quit to spend time writing fiction. He lived with his parents, so he could write without worrying about his living expenses.
As a child, Nissenson felt haunted by the Nazis. Born three months after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as Nazi dictator of Germany, Nissenson listened with his parents to Hitler’s speeches on the radio and saw Hitler in photographs and newsreels. He later remembered the American anti-Semitism that was rampant during the 1930’s and early 1940’s and especially recalled his father’s patriotism, along with his fear that fascists would take over the United States and kill all the Jews, just as they tried to do in Europe during Hitler’s reign. This fear, Nissenson claimed, led to his feeling that something murderous lay at the heart of the United States, a fear that is central to many of his works.
His father’s eloquence, along with Nissenson’s desire to be accepted as an American, led him to read extensively in American literature and eventually to become a writer. His fear of death, he said, also inspired him to write and draw. In 1957 Nissenson went to Israel and stayed two years. While there, he published his first story, “The Blessing,” in...
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