Bernard Malamud 1914-1986
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry provides criticism on Malamud's works from 1975 through 1999. See also Bernard Malamud Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 27.
Malamud is considered one of the most prominent figures in Jewish-American literature. His stories and novels, in which reality and fantasy are frequently interlaced, have been called parables, myths, and allegories and often illustrate the importance of moral obligation. Although he draws upon his Jewish heritage to address the themes of sin, suffering, and redemption, Malamud emphasizes human contact and compassion over orthodox religious dogma. Malamud's characters, while often awkward and isolated from society, evoke both pity and humor through their attempts at survival and salvation.
Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 26, 1914 to Russian Jewish immigrants. His parents, whom he described as gentle, honest, kindly people, were not highly educated and knew very little about literature or the arts. Malamud recalled, “There were no books that I remember in the house, no records, music, pictures on the wall.” Malamud attended high school in Brooklyn and received his bachelor's degree from the City College of New York in 1936. After graduation, he worked in a factory and as a clerk at the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. Although he wrote in his spare time, Malamud did not begin writing seriously until the advent of World War II and the subsequent horrors of the Holocaust. At that time, he questioned his religious identity and started reading about Jewish tradition and history. He explained, “I was concerned with what Jews stood for, with their getting down to the bare bones of things. I was concerned with their ethnicality—how Jews felt they had to live in order to go on living.” In 1949 he began teaching at Oregon State University; he left this post in 1961 to teach creative writing at Bennington College in Vermont. He remained there until shortly before his death in 1986.
Malamud's first novel, The Natural (1952), is one of his most symbolic works. While the novel ostensibly traces the life of Roy Hobbs, an American baseball player, the work has underlying mythic elements and explores such themes as initiation and isolation. For instance, some reviewers cite evidence of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail; others apply T. S. Eliot's Wasteland myth in their analyses. The Natural also anticipates what would become Malamud's predominant narrative focus: a suffering protagonist struggling to reconcile moral dilemmas, to act according to what is right, and to accept the complexities and hardships of existence. Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957), portrays the life of Morris Bober, a Jewish immigrant who owns a grocery store in Brooklyn. Although he is struggling to survive financially, Bober hires a cynical anti-Semitic youth, Frank Alpine, after learning that the man is homeless and on the verge of starvation. Through this contact Frank learns to find grace and dignity in his own identity. Described as a naturalistic fable, this novel affirms the redemptive value of maintaining faith in the goodness of the human soul. Malamud's first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel (1958), received the National Book Award in 1959. As in The Assistant, most of the stories in this collection depict the search for hope and meaning within the grim entrapment of poor urban settings and were influenced by Yiddish folktales and Hasidic traditions. Many of Malamud's best-known short stories, including “The Last Mohican,” “Angel Levine,” and “Idiots First,” were republished in The Stories of Bernard Malamud in 1983. A New Life (1961), one of Malamud's most realistic novels, is based in part on Malamud's teaching career at Oregon State University. This work focuses on an ex-alcoholic Jew from New York City who, in order to escape his reputation as a drunkard, becomes a professor at an agricultural and technical college in the Pacific Northwest. Interweaving the protagonist's quest for significance and self-respect with a satiric mockery of academia, Malamud explores the destructive nature of idealism, how love can lead to deception, and the pain of loneliness. The Fixer (1966), is considered one of Malamud's most powerful works. The winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for literature and the National Book Award, the narrative is derived from the historical account of Mendel Beiliss, a Russian Jew who was accused of murdering a Christian child. Drawing upon Eastern European Jewish mysticism, The Fixer turns this terrifying story of torture and humiliation into a parable of human triumph. With The Tenants (1971), Malamud returned to a New York City setting, where the theme of self-exploration is developed through the contrast between two writers, one Jewish and the other black, struggling to survive in an urban ghetto. Within the context of their confrontations about artistic standards, Malamud also explored how race informs cultural identity, the purpose of literature, and the conflict between art and life. Malamud further addressed the nature of literature and the role of the artist in Dubin's Lives (1979). In this work the protagonist, William Dubin, attempts to create a sense of worth for himself, both as a man and as a writer. A biographer who escapes into his work to avoid the reality of his life, Dubin bumbles through comically disastrous attempts at love and passion in an effort to find self-fulfillment. Malamud's next novel, God's Grace (1982), differs from his earlier works in scope and presentation of subject matter. Set in the near future immediately after a nuclear disaster that leaves only one human being alive, God's Grace explores the darkness of human morality, the nature of God, and the vanity and destruction associated with contemporary life.
Malamud's place as a major American novelist is secure by the accounts of most critics, though most place him with Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow as a Jewish-American novelist. Largely considered one of the foremost writers of moral fiction, Malamud is also considered a writer in the tradition of Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevski. Despite the preponderance of Jewish characters and subject matter in Malamud's works, critics argue that his stories extend far beyond Jewish literature.