Essays and Criticism
Mark Helprin Overview
Mark Helprin is a writer whose fiction is marked by language ‘‘more classical than conversational,’’ observed Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, and one who shapes his short stories and novels ‘‘less to show my place in the world than to praise the world around me.’’ Explaining his artistic distance from the sparse, clean prose of writers such as American author Ernest Hemingway, Helprin told Jon D. Markman of the Los Angeles Times, ‘‘My models are the Divine Comedy, and the Bible and Shakespeare—where they use language to the fullest.’’ Helprin’s political concerns—he pursued Middle Eastern studies in graduate school and later served in the Israeli Infantry and Air Force—figure in his newspaper and magazine articles; his books, he has often said with little elaboration, are religious.
Majoring in English as an undergraduate at Harvard, Helprin wrote short stories and sent them to the New Yorker with no luck until 1969, when the magazine accepted two at the same time. These became part of his first book, A Dove of the East and Other Stories, in which critics have noted the author’s grand depictions of nature as a source of strength and healing and his concern with characters who survive loss, particularly that of loved ones.
Some critics were impressed with the wide range of settings and the graceful prose exhibited in A Dove of the East. In the Saturday Review Dorothy Rabinowitz described Helprin’s stories as ‘‘immensely readable,’’ some ‘‘quite superb,’’ writing that his ‘‘old-fashioned regard shines through all his characters’ speeches, and his endorsement gives them eloquent tongues. Now and again the stories lapse into archness, and at times, too, their willed drama bears down too heavily. But these are small flaws in works so estimably full of talent and . . . of character.’’ Amanda Heller, however, complained in the Atlantic Monthly that, as a result of Helprin’s ‘‘dreamy, antique style,’’ the stories’ ‘‘sameness of tone’’ becomes monotonous. ‘‘It appears that Helprin is striving for loveliness above all else,’’ Heller commented, ‘‘a tasteful but hardly compelling goal for a teller of tales.’’
Duncan Fallowell allowed in the Spectator that some selections from A Dove of the East and Other Stories are ‘‘unbeatably vague,’’ but praised Helprin for ‘‘recognizing the intrinsic majesty’’ of seemingly meaningless events, because, as Fallowell wrote, ‘‘he is also a seeker after truth. Bits of it are squittering out all over the place, sufficiently to fuse into a magnetic centre and make one recognize that the book is not written by a fool.’’ Dan Wakefield, even more appreciative of Helprin’s work, observed: ‘‘The quality that pervades these stories is love—love of men and women, love of landscapes and physical beauty, love of interior courage as well as the more easily obtainable outward strength. The author never treats his subjects with sentimentality but always with gentleness of a kind that is all too rare in our fiction and our lives.’’
Helprin’s first novel, Refiner’s Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling, further interested critics. A New Yorker reviewer found that Helprin describes the protagonist’s boyhood ‘‘lyrically and gracefully’’ and proves himself to be ‘‘a writer of great depth and subtle humor.’’ For Joyce Carol Oates the problem is ‘‘where to begin’’ in admiring a novel she described as a ‘‘daring, even reckless, sprawling and expansive and endlessly inventive ‘picaresque’ tale.’’ She added: ‘‘At once we know we are in the presence of a storyteller of seemingly effortless and artless charm; and if the exuberant, extravagant plotting of the novel ever becomes tangled in its own fabulous inventions, and its prodigy of a hero ever comes to seem more allegorical than humanly ‘real,’ that storytelling command, that lovely voice is never lost.’’
With Ellis Island and Other Stories Helprin secured his place among contemporary writers, winning for this work a PEN/Faulkner Award, a National Jewish Book Award, and an American Book Award nomination—a rare feat for a collection of short stories. Though some critics, such as Anne Duchene in the Times Literary Supplement, found that Helprin’s language sometimes overwhelms his intent, the greater critical response was laudatory. In the Washington Post Book World, Allen Wier called the collection ‘‘beautifully written and carefully structured. . . . His rich textures alone would be enough to delight a reader, but there is more: wonderful stories, richly plotted, inventive, moving without being sentimental, humorous without being cute.’’ Harry Mark Petrakis stated in the Chicago Tribune that in Ellis Island and Other Stories Helprin ‘‘reveals range and insight whether he is writing of children or adults, of scholars, tailors, and lovers. His eye is precise and his spirit is compassionate, and when we finish the stories we have been rewarded, once more, with that astonishing catalyst...
(The entire section is 2138 words.)