Cynthia Ozick Biography

Cynthia Ozick is more than just a genre writer. Despite her expansive number of short-form and novel-length writing, Ozick’s Judaic interests have caused some critics to reductively pigeonhole her work. Certainly, her knowledge of the many different tenets and belief systems under the large umbrella of Judaism has had a tremendous impact on her career. But it is her rich depictions and unique point of view that have merged character and culture in her work. Of particular interest to her is the identity of Jewish women, which she writes about from personal experience. Faith may be an important part of her life and studies, but her learned perspective on education has been of equal significance to her writing.

Facts and Trivia

  • Ozick’s writing process is incredibly detailed and research-oriented. Some of her novels took nearly a decade to complete.
  • Ozick's parents were born in Russia, and established a pharmacy in New York City. Ozick used to help out by delivering prescriptions.
  • During her early studies, Ozick became enthralled with the writing of Henry James, whose work was highly influential on her evolution as a writer.
  • Part of Ozick’s immersion in the Jewish ideology that figures so prominently in her work comes from her father, who was a Talmudist scholar.
  • Ozick has been honored with O. Henry Awards and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Ozick made a brief foray into the theater in the early 1990s, adapting some of her work for the stage. After many false starts, one play was finally produced under the direction of the legendary Sidney Lumet.
  • David Foster Wallace once described Ozick as one of the greatest contemporary American writers.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913

Cynthia Ozick was born in New York City on April 17, 1928, the second child of pharmacist William Ozick and Celia Regelson Ozick. She was raised in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, a middle-class neighborhood, where she attended Public School 71. “At P.S. 71,” Ozick once remarked in an interview, “I was dumb, cross-eyed, and couldn’t do arithmetic.” Remembering encounters with anti-Semitic teachers and peers, she vividly recalls “teachers who hurt me, who made me believe I was stupid and inferior.”

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Regardless of her negative early educational experiences, Ozick emerged as a gifted academic. Her youth was spent devouring books, sometimes for eighteen hours a day. She attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan and New York University, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English. She then taught from 1949 to 1951 at Ohio State University, where she earned an M.A. Her thesis, “Parable in the Later Novels of Henry James,” revealed an early reverence for that late nineteenth and early twentieth century American novelist. In fact, throughout much of Ozick’s early fiction rings a distinctive Jamesian tone.

Although she knew her destiny was to be a novelist, Ozick began her literary career by composing poetry, a pursuit she interspersed with fiction and essay writing until age thirty-six but then dropped. Her primary goal, writing a great modern novel, she began immediately after acquiring her graduate degree and marrying Bernard Hollote, a lawyer. She ambitiously began writing a “philosophical” novel, taking seven years to compose some 300,000 words of an incomplete tome. “Mippel,” as she calls the unfinished work, in reference to mythical poet and visionary William Blake’s “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love” (1789), is a typically erudite allusion.

Seven years into writing “Mippel,” Ozick entered herself in a novella contest of sorts, assuming that she could complete a short piece of fiction in six weeks, then return to her novel. The novella project grew longer, however, consuming another seven years of her life, and eventually evolved into Ozick’s first published work, Trust (1966). Coinciding with its publication, Ozick gave birth to her only child, Rachel, at the age of thirty-seven. Although Ozick continued to read and write, activities she believes she does out of necessity, raising her daughter was distracting enough that she had little time to enjoy her new status as a published author.

Having always suffered from what she calls “age-sorrow,” Ozick has measured the scale of her achievements on a chronological basis. Because she assumed that she would have published something of “literary merit” by the time she was twenty-five, and because she is highly self-critical, Ozick was not then unduly impressed with her literary achievement, and she has continued to doubt the mass appeal of her writing. Although her first novel met with widespread acclaim, it occurred twelve years later than she expected, thus diminishing her personal satisfaction.

After producing only one published work after fourteen years of novel writing, Ozick turned to short stories and novellas. In 1971, she published a volume of well-received short fiction, The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories, in which she illustrated the fact that profound subject matter can exist in the shorter fiction genres. Five years later, Ozick followed with more short fiction, Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976). She did not attempt another novel until the mid-1980’s, when she published two novels, both considerably shorter than Trust. These were The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) and The Messiah of Stockholm (1987). In 1989, she published The Shawl, which includes the novella Rosa. The play Blue Light, based on The Shawl, was produced in 1994 and renamed The Shawl when it opened in New York in 1996. In 1997, Ozick published the novel The Puttermesser Papers, and, in 2004, the novel Heir to the Glimmering World appeared.

In 1983, Ozick published her first collection of essays, Art and Ardor; it was followed in 1989 by Metaphor and Memory. She next published two collections of essays on writers: What Henry James Knew, and Other Essays on Writers (1993) and Fame and Folly (1996). Quarrel and Quandry was published in 2000. She is considered one of the best essayists writing in English. Ozick is a frequent contributor of essays, poems, reviews, and translations of Yiddish poetry to many periodicals, including The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and American Poetry Review.

Ozick’s numerous awards and grants, received over several decades, give testimony to her acknowledgment as a significant literary figure. In 1966, she taught at the Chautauqua Writers’ Conference; two years later, she was one of two novelists awarded a fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). She was selected as a lecturer in the American-Israel Dialogue on Culture and the Arts at the Weizmann Institute in Israel in 1970, and in 1973, she served as O’Connor Professor at Colgate University. In 1975 and again in 1981, 1984, and 1992, she won the prestigious O. Henry Prize. She won the Epstein Fiction Award in 1977 and was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1982. In 1983, Ozick was chosen by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters to receive one of the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Awards, an annual tax-free award of $35,000 for a minimum of five years. She received the PEN/Spiegel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay in 1997, the John Cheever Award in 1999, and a National Book Critics’ Circle Award nomination for criticism in 2000. Ozick has received honorary degrees from numerous institutions, including Yeshiva University (1984), Williams College (1986), Jewish Theological Seminary (1988), Adelphi University (1988) Brandeis University (1990), Bard College (1991), and Skidmore College (1992).

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