Bernard Malamud Biography

Bernard Malamud is the Chekhov of the urban Jewish milieu. Like the elegant short stories of the great Russian author, Malamud’s writings were deeply rooted in social concerns. He was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and the experiences of hard-working immigrants were particularly important to him. Linguistically, Malamud depicted this world using a mélange of English and Yiddish, giving his stories a unique and powerful rhythm. The language further served as a commentary on the cultural mosaic that was (and still is) New York. Within this often-bleak landscape, Malamud saw glimmers of hope and possibility. In doing so, he managed to create honest depictions of the Jewish immigrant experience with lyrical touches that suggested the potential the future might hold.

Facts and Trivia

  • Although Malamud is not particularly known for sports writing or anything resembling Americana, one of his most-loved works is the baseball story The Natural.
  • Malamud earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his book The Fixer. It was turned into an Oscar-nominated film starring Alan Bates the following year.
  • Like many writers, Malamud began his career writing short stories, which were later published in collections. He put out dozens of shorts throughout his career and won an O. Henry Award in the late 1960s.
  • As a professor, Malamud taught at Oregon State University and Bennington College.
  • For the past twenty years, the PEN/ Malamud Award has recognized achievement in short-form writing. Notable recipients include celebrated novelist John Updike and the prolific Joyce Carol Oates.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1083

Bernard Malamud was born on April 26, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York. The older of two sons of Max and Bertha (Fidelman) Malamud, who had emigrated from Russia in the early twentieth century and ran a grocery store, he enjoyed a relatively happy childhood. Both Yiddish and English were spoken in the Malamud household, and a great emphasis was placed on the cultural aspects of Judaism. Malamud’s early years were spent going to the Yiddish theater on Manhattan’s Second Avenue and reading novels by such favorites as Horatio Alger. Doubtless his later writings were influenced also by his father’s stories of life in czarist Russia.

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Malamud’s father and teachers encouraged young Bernard to develop his obvious talent for storytelling. One of his most cherished gifts he received at age nine; it was the multivolume Book of Knowledge encyclopedia that his father gave him after the boy’s recovery from pneumonia. Many of his boyhood nights were spent in the back room of the family store, putting on paper the stories he made up to amuse his friends. He would later confess a lifelong love for short fiction even over the novel, because, as he said “if one begins early in life to make up and tell stories, he has a better chance to be heard out if he keeps them short.” His interest in literature continued through high school at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, where he was an editor of the literary magazine and was involved in dramatic productions.

In 1936 Malamud graduated with a B.A. from City College of New York. He had written a few stories while in college, and after graduation he continued to write in the little spare time he had from jobs in a factory, a variety of stores, and as a clerk with the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. While working on an M.A. at Columbia University, he taught English at Erasmus Hall Evening High School, devoting his days to studying and writing. He continued his teaching at Erasmus for several years after receiving his graduate degree in 1942.

In 1945, Malamud married Ann de Chiara. His father was quite upset by Malamud’s marrying a gentile but was later reconciled—on the birth of the couple’s son, Paul. During the 1940’s, Malamud’s stories appeared in several noncommercial magazines, a fact that made him happy even though he received no payment. In 1949, he sold “The Cost of Living” to Pearl Kazin at Harper’s Bazaar. In that same year, he and his family left New York for Corvallis, Oregon, where he had accepted a position at Oregon State University.

A lifelong city dweller, Malamud was overwhelmed by the vastness of the Pacific Northwest. Although it took him a while to get his bearings, the change of scenery and lifestyle permitted him a new perspective on his life and his writing. In those early years at Oregon State he developed a weekly routine that allowed much time for writing: He taught three days a week and wrote four. This disciplined approach helped him zero in on those things about which he really yearned to write. His teaching was not totally satisfying because, without a Ph.D., he was allowed to teach composition but not literature. His most gratifying teaching came during a night workshop in the short story, which he offered for townspeople who wanted to take a writing course. Malamud later admitted that he did not care what he taught as long as he had time to write. Some of his fondest memories of those early days at Oregon State were of his wife pushing the baby stroller as she handed him lunchtime sandwiches through the window of the Quonset hut where he wrote and taught. During those years, his work appeared in such noted magazines as Partisan Review and Commentary in addition to Harper’s Bazaar.

In 1952 his first novel, The Natural, appeared to mixed reviews. Some critics were put off by what they saw as an obscure use of symbolism, while others applauded its masterful use of fable and its art of ancient storytelling in a modern voice. In 1956, the Partisan Review made Malamud a fellow in fiction and recommended him for a Rockefeller Grant, which allowed him to take a leave of absence from Oregon State to spend a year in Europe. In 1957, his next novel, The Assistant, was published. More Jewish in its characters and theme than The Natural, this work firmly established him as a major American writer. Malamud was presented with the Daroff Memorial Award and the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters for his second novel.

In 1958, thirteen of Malamud’s previously published short stories appeared in his first collection, The Magic Barrel. Including such notable short stories as “The Magic Barrel,” “Angel Levine,” and “The Last Mohican,” the collection strengthened Malamud’s position as a major Jewish voice in American letters. The Magic Barrel won a National Book Award in 1959. A fellow in the Ford Foundation’s humanities and arts program from 1959 to 1961, Malamud wrote his third novel, A New Life (1961). Also in 1961 he left Oregon State to take a position in language and literature at Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught for more than twenty years, with the exception of a two-year visiting lectureship at Harvard University from 1966 to 1968.

In 1963, he published another collection of short stories, Idiots First, followed by his fourth novel, The Fixer, in 1966. The Fixer, which won him a second National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize in 1967, was researched by a trip to Russia and six months of uninterrupted study.

From 1969 until his death in 1986, Malamud continued to publish both novels and short stories. His works include Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (1969), a collection of stories about one character; The Tenants (1971), a novel about the conflicts between an old Jewish writer and a young black one; Rembrandt’s Hat (1973), another collection of stories; Dubin’s Lives (1979), a novel about a writer at midlife; God’s Grace (1982), a novel; The Stories of Bernard Malamud (1983), another collection; and a host of stories published separately in prestigious magazines.

Additional awards and honors included Vermont’s 1979 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Brandeis Creative Arts Award (1981), and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal in Fiction (1983). From 1979 to 1981 Malamud was president of the PEN (International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists) American Center. He died in Manhattan on March 18, 1986.

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