Stanley May Elkin Essay - Critical Essays

Elkin, Stanley May


Stanley Elkin May 11, 1930–May 31, 1995

(Full name Stanley Lawrence Elkin) American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

For further information on Elkin's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 9, 14, 27, and 51.

Considered one of the best and most entertaining stylists in contemporary fiction, Elkin is renowned for works that transform grotesque situations and the vulgarity and alienation of mass culture into comic affirmations of humanity. His prose style is characterized by punning word-play, Jewish idioms, and a blend of formal and colloquial language that many critics have found reminiscent of a sales pitch conceived as high art. The son of a jewelry salesman, Elkin was born in New York City and raised in Chicago. He began writing stories in elementary school, evincing early the interest in literature he pursued through college and graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After serving in the United States Army between 1955 and 1957, he returned to teach literature at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and complete his dissertation on William Faulkner for the University of Illinois. Before earning his doctoral degree in 1961, however, he went to Rome and London on what he called "a mother's grant" to do most of the writing for his first novel, Boswell (1964). Elkin taught literature and creative writing at Washington University for the rest of his life, becoming a full professor in 1969 and the Merle King Professor of Modern Letters in 1983. Elkin's fiction features many first-person narrators whose obsessive personalities are expressed through intense, humorous, eloquent speech peppered with the inflections and jargon of their professions. Exemplary in this regard is the novella The Bailbondsman from Searches and Seizures (1973), in which Alexander Main, known as "the Phoenician" in the Cincinnati criminal justice community, begins to realize what it means to age: "Where are my muscles, my smooth skin? Why doesn't desire die?… Why do I have this curiosity like a game leg? How can I cross-examine the universe when it jumps my bond?" Critics note that evolving, aging, and physical decay are among the main themes of Elkin's fiction. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1972, a disease which eventually confined him to a wheelchair and the custodial care of his wife, Elkin continued to write and teach and faced his condition with humor and determination. He wrote that "As long as you've got your health you've got your naivete. I lost the one, I lost the other, and maybe that's what led me toward revenge—a writer's revenge anyway, the revenge, I mean, of style."

Principal Works

Boswell: A Modern Comedy (novel) 1964
Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (short stories) 1966
A Bad Man (novel) 1967
The Dick Gibson Show (novel) 1971
The Making of Ashenden (novella) 1972
Searches and Seizures (novellas) 1973; also published as Eligible Men: Three Short Novels, 1974, and Alex and the Gypsy, 1977
The Franchiser (novel) 1976
The Living End (novel) 1979
Stanley Elkin's Greatest Hits (short story, novella, novel fragments) 1980
The First George Mills (novel) 1981
George Mills (novel) 1982
Early Elkin (short stories) 1985
Stanley Elkin's Magic Kingdom (novel) 1985
The Rabbi of Lud (novel) 1987
The Coffee Room (novella) 1988
The MacGuffin (novel) 1991
Pieces of Soap: Essays by Stanley Elkin (essays) 1992
Van Gogh's Room at Arles: Three Novellas (novellas) 1993
Mrs. Ted Bliss (novel) 1995

∗This work contains the novella The Making of Ashenden, previously published separately and in Searches and Seizures; the short story "The Guest," previously published in Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers; and five excerpts from Elkin's novels: "Feldman & Son" is taken from A Bad Man; "Bernie Perk" from The Dick Gibson Show; "The Transient" from Boswell; "Mr. Softee" from The Franchiser; and "The Conventional Wisdom" from The Living End.

Obituaries And Tributes

William Grimes (obituary date 2 June 1995)

SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, June 2, 1995, p. A25.

[In the following, Grimes reviews Elkin's life and career, noting that "his work veered toward parody and black humor—and his highly wrought sentences formed a dense, self-contained linguistic world."]

Stanley Elkin, a stylistic virtuoso whose novels, short stories and novellas were at once lyrical, bleak and fantastic, died on Wednesday at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He was 65 and lived in University City, Mo.

The cause was heart failure, said his daughter, Molly.

Mr. Elkin, the author of Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, Searches and Seizures, The Magic Kingdom and The Franchiser, was often described as a clear-eyed realist—even though his work veered toward parody and black humor—and his highly wrought sentences formed a dense, self-contained linguistic world. Although he paid scant attention to plot and incident, his deliberately preposterous fictional situations led him to explore the pain at the heart of the human condition. His long struggle with multiple sclerosis only deepened his preoccupation with suffering and mortality. Reviewing Mr. Elkin's second novel, A Bad Man (1967), in The New York Times Book Review, the critic Josh Greenfeld called the author "at once a bright satirist, a bleak absurdist and a deadly moralist."

Mr. Elkin was born in Brooklyn, where his father was a costume-jewelry salesman, and grew up on the South Shore of Chicago, where he began writing stories in grade school. After graduating from South Shore High School, he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1952, a master's degree in 1953 and a doctorate in 1961. His dissertation dealt with religious themes and symbols in William Faulkner's novels. From 1955 to 1957 he was in the Army.

As an undergraduate, Mr. Elkin contributed stories to Illini Writers, the university's literary magazine, and acted in radio dramas on the college station.

In 1960, he became an instructor in the English department of Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught writing for the rest of his life. He became a full professor in 1969 and was named Merle King Professor of Modern Letters in 1983.

His first novel, Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964), showed Mr. Elkin's penchant for concocting absurd situations with tragic potential. It thrust an updated version of Samuel Johnson's biographer into the modern world. Fearful of death, haunted by a sense of his own mediocrity, he surrounds himself with celebrities, including a professional wrestler nicknamed the Grim Reaper, and tries to organize a club of famous people.

Mr. Elkin won widespread critical praise for his second book, Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (1966), a collection of nine stories, most of them sharply realized character sketches. Critics also admired Searches and Seizures (1973), a collection of three novellas, one of which, "The Bailbondsman," was made into the 1976 film Alex and the Gypsy.

His work often dealt in darkly comic fashion with the alienating effects of American mass culture and the mysterious power of cliche. The hero of The Dick Gibson Show (1971), a radio disk jockey who roams from station to station, is everywhere and nowhere. The Franchiser (1976) tells the exploits of Ben Flesh, who is so successful in creating a nationwide empire of franchises that by the end of the novel he cannot tell one state from another.

Flesh's enthusiasm for his products inspired one of Mr. Elkin's most memorable set-pieces:

The colors of those ice creams! Chocolate like new shoes. Cherry like bright fingernail polish. We do a Maple Ripple it looks like finegrained wood, Peach like a light coming through a lampshade. You should see that stuff—the ice-cream paints bright as posters, fifty Day-Glo colors. You scoop the stuff up you feel like Jackson Pollock.

In 1972, Mr. Elkin, who had already survived a heart attack, was found to have multiple sclerosis, an illness that, over time, restricted him to a wheelchair and forced him to abandon the pen for the computer. It also provided him a metaphor that runs through much of his subsequent work. The Magic Kingdom (1985), for example, tells the story of a group of terminally ill children who are taken on an outing to Disneyland.

His other novels include The Living End (1979), The Rabbi of Lud (1987) and The MacGuffin (1993). His novel George Mills (1982), about 40 generations of blue-collar workers named George Mills, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Several of his essays were collected in Pieces of Soap (1992), and in 1992 he published a collection of three novellas, Van Gogh's Room at Arles.

At the time of his death he had just completed a novel, Mrs. Ted Bliss, which Hyperion is to publish in September.

In addition to his daughter, of Washington, he is survived by his wife, Joan; two sons, Philip, of Creve Coeur, Mo., and Bernard, of St. Louis; a sister, Diane Brandwein of Chicago, and two grandchildren.

Marie Arana-Ward (essay date 5 June 1995)

SOURCE: "Stanley Elkin, Voice of the Little Guy," in The Washington Post, June 5, 1995, p. 2, sec. 2.

[Arana-Ward is a staff-writer at The Washington Post and former editor of some of Elkin's books. In the following tribute, she discusses Elkin's personality and his desire for a broad readership, one that included more than just other writers.]

The last time I saw Stanley Elkin, we were speeding through a late Manhattan night in a van. I was in the front next to the driver, looking out at the street ruts winter had left behind. Stanley was in an open space in the back, strapped into his wheelchair, which was, in turn, yoked to the floor. It was 1992, and we were returning from the National Book Award ceremony in a funk. It was the third time he had been nominated for the award, and the third time he had lost.

Bumping along in the dark, trussed up in his tux with a runner-up medal festooning his neck, Stanley was inconsolable. As the road got worse, I could hear his hands thwack against the armrests and his head flop from side to side. Soon he was bobbing like a balloon in the wind. "Goddamn New York potholes!" he finally roared, half in a rage, and half with diabolical glee. It was vintage Elkin—a moment that could have been pulled from the life of Bobbo Druff, city commissioner of streets and luckless hero of The MacGuffin, his novel that hadn't taken the prize that year.

Stanley Elkin died last week in St. Louis of complications arising from his 23-year struggle with multiple sclerosis. He was 65. Merle King Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University and easily one of the greatest virtuosos of the American language, he produced 10 novels, two volumes of novellas, one volume of short stories, one collection of essays, and three published scripts.

I was Elkin's editor for a time—an oxymoron if ever there was one, for Elkin's books needed no editing. They sprang full-blown from the man's head, magical riffs of irreverent wisdom. Their heroes, like him, are the powerless but shrewd, setting out into an unjust world like Brooklyn bred Don Quixotes: off to tilt at windmills with little more than a mouthful of fast talk.

For all his yearning to be known by the greater American public, however, Elkin remained a writer's writer: an artist who was envied and exalted by the literary world, but whose works went undiscovered by the common man they strived to depict. Cynthia Ozick said of him, "Stanley Elkin is no ordinary genius of language, laughter, and the irresistible American idiom; he is an ingenious genius—an inimitable sword-swallower, fire-eater, and three-ring circus of fecund wit."

Elkin was born in the Bronx and grew up in Chicago. He was the eldest son of a costume jewelry salesman, a hereditary fact that predisposed him (he always said) to looking at words as if they were glittering gewgaws ready for the stringing.

After graduating from South Shore High School in Chicago, he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he completed a BA (1952), a master's (1953) and a doctorate (1961) in English. He served in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1957. He was a visiting professor at many colleges, including Yale, Smith and the University of Iowa, but for most of his career he was an English professor at Washington...

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Reviews Of Elkin's Recent Work

Meg Wolitzer (review date 21 March 1993)

SOURCE: "The Roaring Anger of Not Being in Charge," in The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, pp. 3, 19.

[Wolitzer is an American novelist, critic, and author of children's literature. In the following review of Van Gogh's Room at Arles, she praises Elkin's prose style, humor, and compassionate understanding of his characters.]

The cover of Stanley Elkin's 1985 novel read Stanley Elkin's The Magic Kingdom, which brings to mind titles like Stephen King's "It" and Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough. What was Mr. Elkin's book doing in that particular pantheon? His...

(The entire section is 8765 words.)