The Puttermesser Papers Essay - Critical Essays

Cynthia Ozick

Critical Context

Ozick’s publications, beginning with the novel Trust (1966), range among collected poems, short stories, essays, novels, and plays. They include The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), Art and Ardor: Essays (1983), The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), Metaphor and Memory: Essays (1989), Epodes: First Poems (1982), The Shawl (1989), Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing (1994), and Fame and Folly (1996). Ozick has received numerous awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Mildred and Harold Straus Living Award from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Ozick rejects the term “woman writer” as a significant category to describe her achievement, but she embraces “Jewish writer” as a category of civilization, culture, and intellect, a heritage she affirms that always informs her fiction. Many critics found her first novel, Trust (1966), unreadable because it was heavily influenced by the example of Henry James. Once she abandoned Jamesian influence, however, Ozick’s fiction became preoccupied with questions of Jewish identity, particularly the meaning of the Holocaust. In her short story “The Shawl,” she creates a powerful and moving account of life and death in a concentration camp. The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) concerns the spiritual struggles of a survivor of the Holocaust who becomes a headmaster of a school in the American Midwest. The Messiah of Stockholm (1989) raises questions of identity and authenticity important to a writer as morally serious as Ozick. It also reflects Ozick’s interest in the ways in which art can interfere with life, as it does in the third chapter, “Puttermesser Paired,” of the The Puttermesser Papers. For many of her characters, assimilation of Jewish identity to that of the dominant culture is impossible, since it entails the disappearance of what is distinctively Jewish in the characters’ makeup.