Arthur A(llen) Cohen 1928–
American novelist, critic, theologian, editor, and publisher.
Cohen is considered a leading contemporary Jewish-American literary figure. His novels and scholarly works of nonfiction explore the difficulty of following a traditional Judaic ethos in an increasingly secular America. In his works Cohen exhorts his fellow Jews to practice a more devout life and set aside the materialistic aspects of American Judaism. Built on themes of particular concern to American Jews, Cohen's works have nonetheless been praised as successful depictions of the full range of modern life.
Cohen's early writings were primarily works of Jewish theology. These include The Natural and Supernatural Jew (1963), in which Cohen attempted to reconcile Jewish tradition with existentialism. His first novel, The Carpenter Years (1967), is the story of a Jew who leaves his family and his religion to adopt the lifestyle of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in Langham, Pennsylvania. When his Jewish son comes to Langham, the man must confront both his religious past and the family he left behind. The Carpenter Years examines the pressures on the modern Jew to forsake his past and the need to come to terms with his tradition. Although some critics found intriguing Cohen's attempt to develop the novel as a device for moral investigation, most argued that the work was overly didactic and that much of the plot was improbable.
Over the next decade Cohen wrote both fiction and nonfiction, including what has been called his best novel, In the Days of Simon Stern (1973). The story of a post-World War II messiah who sets up a haven for victims of the Holocaust in New York City's Lower East Side, this work was praised as an intellectual examination of belief and survival. Another novel, A Hero in His Time (1975), tells the tale of a Soviet Jewish poet who comes to the United States and is pressured by his government to deliver a poem that contains a coded KGB message. While some critics viewed the novel as an exercise in farce and praised its engaging humor, others considered it a more serious work in its examination of politics and art.
Acts of Theft (1979), Cohen's next novel, does not deal overtly with Judaism. Instead, it is the story of a European sculptor living in Mexico who steals pieces of pre-Columbian art to sell to collectors. Cohen was praised for providing insight into the creative process and for examining the idea that art is necessarily derived from previously established concepts, thus constituting a form of thievery.
In his recent novel An Admirable Woman (1983), Cohen narrates the story of a fictional Jewish scholar who has fled to the United States from Nazi Germany. Although the protagonist is fictional, Cohen has stated that she was inspired by the famed German scholar Hannah Arendt.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 28.)