Erica Jong became well-known in the early 1970’s as a writer of sexual fiction from a woman’s perspective, and she remains an important novelist and poet of the twentieth century. She was born Erica Mann in Manhattan to second-generation Jewish parents of Polish and Russian origin with a family tradition of the arts. Although her parents were not observant Jews, during her lifetime Jong has gained a strong sense of Jewish identity. Jong attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and a B.A. degree from Barnard College. She did graduate study in eighteenth century English literature at Columbia University, earned an M.A. degree, and taught poetry at New York’s City College before abandoning an academic career for creative writing.
Jong’s first marriage, to her college lover in 1963, ended in divorce. She married Chinese American Freudian psychiatrist Allan Jong (whose last name she still bears) in 1966 and accompanied him on an army assignment to Germany. Her first published work, the collection of poems entitled Fruits and Vegetables, was followed by another book of poems, Half-Lives, and by the novel Fear of Flying, which made publishing history after its publication in 1973. Fear of Flying became a number one best-seller, and Jong gained celebrity status. The book has sold more than twelve million copies worldwide.
Fear of Flying tells the story of Isadora Wing, a poet, who goes to Vienna to attend a psychiatric conference with her psychiatrist husband. While there she meets psychoanalyst Adrian Goodlove, who seems to be the embodiment of her sexual fantasies. She accompanies him on a jaunt across Europe, but he is disappointing as a sexual partner, and Isadora finds that he has arranged to meet his wife and children in France. The novel also recounts Isadora’s mental journey back in time as she revisits scenes from the past—her first sexual experiences, her lovers, and her marriages. Left alone in Paris, she takes stock of her life and decides to reconcile with her husband—but not to grovel.
Jong was among the first to write candidly about female sexuality. Novelist Henry Miller said that as a pioneer in sexual fiction, Jong opened doors for women writers that he had opened for men. Jong’s heroines, frequently artists or writers, pursue their own selfhood even though they are drawn in two directions: toward autonomy and self-development but also toward love and self-surrender. Though exploring serious themes, Jong’s art illustrates her comic gift.
Jong’s next novel, How to Save Your Own Life, published in 1977, also featured the Isadora persona. The novel was based on Jong’s experience of separating from her husband, her trip to Hollywood in the attempt to turn her first novel into a film, and her love affair with a younger man. Jong divorced Allan Jong, and, in 1978, she married Jonathan Fast.
In 1980 Jong published Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones, an imitation eighteenth century novel that increased her literary reputation. Jong’s novel was praised for the vitality of the title character, the brilliance of the imitation eighteenth century language, and the inventiveness of the picaresque-style tale. While she was writing the novel, which includes the birth of her protagonist’s daughter, Jong herself gave birth to a daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, in 1978.
In Parachutes and Kisses, published in 1984, Jong again employed the Isadora persona, and the novel dealt with divorce and single parenthood, which Jong was experiencing at the time. (She had separated from, and subsequently divorced, Jonathan Fast.) In Serenissima: A Novel of Venice, Jong for the first time incorporated elements of fantasy in her work. Her protagonist, actress Jessica Pruitt, travels to Venice to serve as a judge in a film festival while anticipating playing Shylock’s daughter (also named Jessica) in a film version of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
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