Thomas Berger Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How is violence essential to Thomas Berger’s work?

In what ways is Berger commenting on the typical lives of ordinary Americans?

Berger’s novels are often inspired by other literary works or genres. In what ways are such novels commentaries on fiction itself?

Berger has denied that his novels are parodies. In what ways is he right or wrong?

How is language the central element of Berger’s novels?

How are Berger’s novels examples of “pure fiction,” in which storytelling is more important than character and theme?

How does the character of Carlo Reinhart evolve in the course of Berger’s novels?

Compare the ways in which the American West is presented in Little Big Man and The Return of Little Big Man.

Thomas Berger Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Thomas Berger has published numerous articles, reviews, and short stories in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Harper’s, and Playboy. He has written four plays, two of which, The Burglars: A Comedy in Two Acts (pb. 1988) and Other People, have been published; Other People was also produced in 1970 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Berger’s radio play At the Dentist’s was produced by Vermont Public Radio in 1981.

Thomas Berger Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Thomas Berger is one of the most productive, most respected, and most challenging literary figures in the United States. His novels, including the highly acclaimed Little Big Man and critically and popularly successful works such as Who Is Teddy Villanova? and Neighbors, seem sure to earn for him a lasting place in American letters. His Reinhart series is one of the most singular and significant accomplishments of postwar American literature, forming as it does both a sociological epic and an index to the changing face of the American novel in the second half of the twentieth century. The Reinhart series stands—along with John Updike’s Rabbit novels and Phillip Roth’s Zuckerman novels—as one of the most noteworthy and respected multivolume narratives in postwar American fiction. Acknowledged as a masterful prose stylist, Berger writes novels that are aggressively intelligent without being ostentatiously “difficult,” works that are often hilariously funny without losing their serious bite.

In 1970, Richard Schickel correctly identified Berger as “one of the most radical sensibilities now writing in America” and bemoaned the fact that Berger had not received the recognition he deserved. More than a decade later, Thomas R. Edwards intensified this complaint with the charge that the failure to read and discuss Berger’s work is no less than “a national disgrace.” Reviewing Neighbors for the Chicago Tribune, Frederick Busch may have best summed up Berger’s stature as a novelist when he said, “This is a novel by Thomas Berger, and everything he writes should be read and considered.” In 2003, award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem, in his introduction to the reprint of Berger’s Meeting Evil, added his voice to those of the readers, reviewers, and critics who celebrate Berger as “one of America’s three or four greatest living novelists.”

Thomas Berger Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Landon, Brooks. Thomas Berger. Boston: Twayne, 1989. First book-length study of Berger draws from the author’s correspondence with Berger to support the thesis that the interpretation of Berger’s novels is the study of his style. Begins with a brief overview of Berger’s career and then analyzes, by conceptual grouping, Berger’s first fifteen novels.

Lethem, Jonathan. Introduction to Meeting Evil, by Thomas Berger. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Presents a brilliant analysis of Berger’s career, discussing his unique strengths as a writer and his place in American letters.

Madden, David W. Critical Essays on Thomas Berger. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995. Solid collection includes a valuable overview of Berger criticism by the editor, a lengthy interview with Berger, and the text of Berger’s play Other People. Gerald Weales’s 1983 essay “Reinhart as Hero and Clown,” reprinted here, is perhaps still the best single discussion of the Reinhart books available.

Malone, Michael. “Berger, Burlesque, and the Yearning for Comedy.” Studies in American Humor 2 (Spring, 1983): 20-32. One of the most instructive essays in the two-volume Studies in American Humor special issue on Berger, this piece offers a persuasive analysis of Berger’s complexity that also considers why his achievements have not been better celebrated. Malone claims that whatever the novel form, Berger writes comedy, as opposed to comic novels.

Stypes, Aaron. “Thomas Berger and Sheer Incongruity.” South Dakota Review 32 (Winter, 1994): 34-43. An interesting discussion of Berger’s place in American literature and the sources of his comedy.

Wallace, Jon. “A Murderous Clarity: A Reading of Thomas Berger’s Killing Time.” Philological Quarterly 68 (Winter, 1989): 101-114. Offers superb analysis of the philosophical implications of Berger’s use of sources in Killing Time. Wallace is one of the few critics to recognize the interpretive importance of Berger’s style.

Wilde, Alan. “Acts of Definition: Or, Who Is Thomas Berger?” Arizona Quarterly 39 (Winter, 1983): 314-351. Instructive essay on Berger’s work offers a phenomenology that recognizes the inseparability for the author of the concepts of freedom and self-definition. Wilde finds in Berger’s novels, however, a “fear of otherness” that just as easily may be termed “fascination.”