Erica Jong Jong, Erica (Vol. 83) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Erica Jong 1942–

American poet, novelist, and biographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Jong's career-through 1990. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 8, and 18.

Best known for her novel Fear of Flying, Jong has received both popular and critical recognition for her frank, satirical treatment of sexuality. Her works have been interpreted both as pioneering efforts in the movement toward an authentic and free expression of female sexuality and, according to an anonymous reviewer in Kirkus Reviews, as "porn with a literary veneer." Some critics have noted that attention to the risque elements of Jong's fiction has eclipsed her treatment of serious social issues in her fiction and poetry.

Biographical Information

Jong grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City. Her mother, Eda Mirsky Mann, was a painter, and her father, Seymour Mann, was a musician, composer, and importer of giftware. As an adolescent, Jong wrote and illustrated numerous journals and stories. She later served as editor of the literary magazine and producer of poetry programs for campus radio at Barnard College, from which she graduated in 1963. Jong (then Erica Mann) earned an M.A. in English literature at Columbia University in 1965, and in 1966 she married Allan Jong, a Chinese-American psychiatrist. The Jongs moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where Allan served in the military until 1969, and Erica taught at the University of Maryland Overseas Division. It was in Germany that Jong departed from writing poetry in the formal style of William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas, and began developing her own distinctive approach to treating the human condition in order to incorporate the sense of paranoia she experienced as a Jew living in Germany. It was with her poetry collection Fruits and Vegetables that Jong first gained critical attention, but it was shortly after the publication of Fear of Flying in 1973 that Jong received popular notice and became a famous writer. Jong's awards include Poetry magazine's 1971 Bess Hokin prize, the 1972 Madeline Sadin Award from New York Quarterly, and the 1972 Alice Faye di Castagnolia Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Major Works

In her poetry, Jong presents observations on such topics as aging, love, sex, feminism, and death, and while her treatment of these topics is often serious, her tone is largely life-affirming and humorous. Jong has asserted that the common theme in all of her works is "the quest for self-knowledge," a theme that dominates her semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels Fear of Flying (1973), How to Save Your Own Life (1977), and Parachutes & Kisses (1984). These three works trace the life of Isadora Wing, a writer who travels extensively and seeks spiritual, emotional, and physical fulfillment in various relationships with men. The recipient of far more popular and critical attention than its sequels, Fear of Flying has been characterized as a bildungsroman in the tradition of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, James Joyce's Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. In Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hack-about-Jones (1980) and Serenissima: A Novel of Venice (1987), Jong employs the settings and language of eighteenth-century England and sixteenth-century Venice, respectively. Fanny is Jong's version of an eighteenth-century pornographic work by John Cleland titled Fanny Hill, and Serenissima depicts Jessica Pruitt, a twentieth-century actress who falls ill and is transported in a dream to Elizabethan England, where she becomes romantically involved with William Shakespeare. In a departure from fiction, Jong has written the biography The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (1993). Jong became close friends with Miller, who, in an early review of Fear of Flying, called the novel "a female Tropic of Cancer."

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Jong's works has been mixed. While some critics have focused negative attention on the raw language and sexual explicitness of her works, some have lauded Jong for crossing gender barriers and paving the way for other women writers to use language previously considered the domain of male authors. Gayle Greene has asserted: "Jong confuses liberation with sexual liberation and confuses sexual liberation with the freedom to talk and act like a man, but the bold language that so impressed readers masks a conventionality, a failure to imagine otherwise." Many critics, however, have praised Jong's masterful use of humor, her ironic and honest depiction of interactions between men and women, and her insight into society as a whole. Joan Reardon has commented: "If 'woman writer' ceases to be a polite but negative label, it will be due in great measure to the efforts of Erica Jong."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fruits and Vegetables (poetry) 1971
Fear of Flying (novel) 1973
Half-Lives (poetry) 1973
Here Comes, and Other Poems (poetry) 1975
Loveroot (poetry) 1975
The Poetry of Erica Jong (poetry) 1976
How to Save Your Own Life (novel) 1977
At the Edge of the Body (poetry) 1979
Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones (novel) 1980
Ordinary Miracles: New Poems (poetry) 1983
Parachutes & Kisses (novel) 1984
Serenissima: A Novel of Venice (novel) 1987
Any Woman's Blues (novel) 1990
Becoming Light: Poems New and Selected (poetry) 1991
The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (biography) 1993

Harvey Shapiro (review date 25 August 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Shapiro is an American educator, poet, novelist, and critic who has served as editor of the New York Times Book Review. In the following excerpt, he provides a favorable assessment of Half-Lives, commenting on Jong's treatment of women's issues.]

To write as a woman is to write from an extreme situation: the assumption behind Erica Jong's and Adrienne Rich's recent poetry. It gives energy to their lines. And I suspect, it gives them readers they might not ordinarily have. This can be a temptation (I think it is for Erica Jong) to play to that audience. But for the most part it must mean poet touching reader, reader touching poet, in a way that can make both more alive.

Erica Jong is quick, easy, raunchy (the pose is sometimes that of a female rake) and her personality so fills her poems [in Half-Lives] that it's difficult sometimes to see around her to her meaning. There is nothing particularly feminist or ideological in this; it's part of the personality packaging some poets fall into naturally these days. It permits the reader easy access to a book through knowing the basic plot and the main character (as, for example, Diane Wakoski: men throw me off their motorbikes).

Her free verse is held together by repetitions (a line, or phrase or syntactical unit) and it is designed to move quickly, images shifting with each line, the imagination always looking for the next turn. Given that technique, you don't stay with a line; there isn't time for that savoring of something made to last that has been one of the traditional pleasures of poetry. But then this poetry is designed to say that art isn't a refuge, that nothing lasts, that all a poet can do is to make lines out of her life to prove that life real, and when the lines stop...

(The entire section is 743 words.)

Anatole Broyard (review date 11 June 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An American educator and critic, Broyard served for fifteen years as a New York Times book reviewer and feature writer. In the following review of Loveroot, he faults Jong's poetry as pretentious, commenting, "Ms. Jong is too full of herself."]

When Fear of Flying ended with the runaway wife returning to scrub her infidelities in her husband's bathtub, some feminists saw Erica Jong's novel as a washout. She may have come to agree with them, for she has since divorced her second husband and written an article in Vogue magazine on the obsolescence of marriage. She has her own bathtub now, and her own bathos. She says, for example, that Loveroot, her third book...

(The entire section is 935 words.)

Jane Chance Nitzsche (essay date Winter 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Nitzsche is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, she delineates Jong's use of parallels to the myth of Daedalus and Icarus in Fear of Flying.]

Although Erica Jong felt that her first novel, Fear of Flying (1973), was too literary for wide appeal, it rapidly became a best seller, its humor and eroticism praised on the dust jacket by John Updike and Henry Miller as well as by Hannah Greene and Elizabeth Janeway, but its literary qualities frequently ignored or even savagely castigated in reviews by such critics as Walter Clemons, Ellen Hope Meyer, Paul Theroux, Patricia S. Coyne, and Martin Amis. Characteristic of the criticisms is the following evaluation [by Hope...

(The entire section is 5791 words.)

Joan Reardon (essay date May-June 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Reardon is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she describes how Fear of Flying "demonstrates the 'coming of age' of its author, the development of her style," suggesting that the novel functions as "a distinctively female idiom."]

Initial critical reaction to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying sold the book but did little to establish its considerable literary value. Particularly cutting, and more often than not, hostile, were the women who linked Jong's work to the tradition of Austen, Eliot, and the Brontes in their reviews and found the novel wanting. Ironically, the feminist critics were both negative and positive. For some, the book was trivial and did not...

(The entire section is 5931 words.)

Anne Z. Mickelson (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt from her Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order in Recent American Fiction by Women (1979), Mickelson provides an analysis of Jong's characterizations and use of sexual language in Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life, concluding that Jong implies male dominance and female helplessness.]

[Two] novels by Erica Jong—Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life—end with a kind of symbolic ritual baptism in celebration of the female body. In the first novel, Fear of Flying, the heroine, Isadora Wing, returns to her patient but dull husband after an unsuccessful attempt to find in Adrian Goodlove the perfect combination of...

(The entire section is 5450 words.)

Pat Rogers (review date 24 October 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Rogers is an English educator, editor, and critic. In the following review, he provides a positive assessment of Fanny.]

Have you met Miss Jones? The real Fanny Hill can at last stand up (or lie down, most of the time): it turns out that her true identity is that of Fanny Hackabout Jones, a foundling brought up in one of the stately homes of Wiltshire. Only, in the end, [of Fanny], it emerges that she is not who she seems. John Cleland got everything hopelessly tangled up [in his Fanny Hill; or Memoirs of a woman of Pleasure]: well, that's no surprise. Erica Jong relates Fanny's "True History" in three books, all but 500 pages, of pseudo-authentic language. Stylistic mannerisms...

(The entire section is 1254 words.)

Clive James (review date 6 November 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[James is a well-known Australian editor, television commentator, and critic. In the following negative review, he finds John Cleland's eighteenth-century work Fanny Hill superior to Jong's version of Fanny.]

Not long ago there was a popular novelist called Jeffrey Farnol, who is now entirely forgotten—which, when you think about it, is as long ago as you can get. Farnol wrote period novels in a narrative style full of e'ens, dosts, 'tises, and 'twases. Men wearing slashed doublets said things like "Gadzooks!" in order to indicate that the action was taking place in days of yore. Farnol was manifestly shaky on the subject of when yore actually was, but he had a certain naïve energy...

(The entire section is 1730 words.)

C. D. B. Bryan (review date 21 October 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Bryan is an American novelist, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he notes that Parachutes & Kisses lacks plot development and comments that Jong settles for "the self-aggrandizing delusions of a literary Mae West."]

Eleven years ago in Erica Jong's best-selling Fear of Flying, Isadora Wing was 29 and twice married—first to a psychotic Columbia University graduate student and next to Bennett Wing, a Chinese-American Freudian child psychiatrist with whom she fearfully flew to a Psychiatric Congress in Vienna. There she met Adrian Goodlove, a British Laingian psychiatrist who spouted existentialist theory, playfully squeezed her, thought Jewish...

(The entire section is 1082 words.)

Rolande Diot (essay date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay, Diot analyzes the role of humor in Jong's writings.]

In How To Save Your Own Life, a character called Kurt Hammer is thus described by the female narrator and heroine Isadora Wing—Jong's alter ego and fantasmatic persona—in the book:

Kurt Hammer has honed his underground reputation on tattered copies of his reputed-to-be pornographic novels, smuggled in through customs in the days where sex was considered unfit for print. Now that sex was everywhere in print, his royalties were fading….

She meets him in LA, she is thirty-three and he is eighty-seven, but still full of pep and punch....

(The entire section is 3318 words.)

Michael Malone (review date 19 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Malone is an American novelist, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he provides a mixed assessment of Serenissima.]

Who afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Erica Jong, who invokes Woolf's Orlando as an epigraph for Serenissima, in which Jessica Pruitt, jet-setting movie star (in Venice to judge a film festival) falls ill midway through the book (Liv Ullmann nurses her—"What are friends for?"), and travels backward in time to the 16th century. There she finds herself transformed into Shylock's daughter—the very role she's been cast to play (despite her 43 years) in "nothing less than a filmic fantasy based on The Merchant of Venice" conceived by a...

(The entire section is 1216 words.)

Benjamin DeMott (review date 28 January 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[DeMott is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, educator, and critic. Following is his mixed review of Any Woman's Blues.]

Leila Sand, the heroine of Erica Jong's [Any Woman's Blues], is a mid-fortyish, compulsively fornicating artist and celebrity who, despite occasional moments of satisfaction in the natural world or in bed, is almost continuously woebegone. She's gripped by a sadomasochistic obsession (object: an obnoxiously faithless young hustler named Darton Venable Donegal IV), her muse is deserting her and her studio is in chaos. What's more, her children (twin daughters) don't need her, and wine and weed keep punching her out.

Leila fights the...

(The entire section is 891 words.)

Marni Jackson (review date 19 February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following review, Jackson characterizes Any Woman's Blues as "a compelling but confused novel that strains for a moral clarity beyond its grasp."]

When Erica Jong finished writing Any Woman's Blues, her latest novel, she must have realized that there would be some debate over what the book was really about. Was it, as the helpful subtitle suggested, a "novel of obsession" about a successful woman, Leila Sand, in love with a hopeless cad named Dart Donegal? Was it about Leila's voyage from her addiction to love, sex and red wine to independence, sobriety and serenity? Or was the book simply a fictional veil cast over Erica Jong, famous author and bon vivant, as she tries...

(The entire section is 807 words.)

Gayle Greene (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Greene is an American educator, editor, and critic. In the following excerpt from her Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition (1991), she faults Jong for failing to challenge traditional patriarchal views of women and sexuality in Fear of Flying.]

Accustomed as I am to having to defend my interest in Fear of Flying, I'll state at the outset why I find it important. Sexual liberation was an essential partof the early women's movement, and Fear of Flying has been taken seriously, if not as "literature," as an expression of sexual liberation—most recently, by Susan Suleiman [in Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde, 1990] who...

(The entire section is 2230 words.)

Erica Jong with Lynn Spampinato (interview date 19 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following interview, Jong discusses her memoir Fear of Fifty, her views on feminism, and her goals as a writer.]

[Spampinato]: I read recently that you have two new books that are set to be published soon: Fear of Fifty and Twenty Forty. Would you like to tell me about them?

[Jong]: Twenty Forty is a novel I'm still working on that is set in the future, but it is nowhere near ready for publication. Fear of Fifty, my mid-life memoir, will be published this August [1994], and in it I relate the events of my life, beginning on my fiftieth birthday and moving backward in time. In this process of telling my own story, I tell the...

(The entire section is 2169 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Butler, Robert J. "The Woman Writer as American Picaro: Open Journeying in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying." The Centennial Review XXXI, No. 3 (Summer 1987): 308-29.

Discusses Fear of Flying as a picaresque novel, asserting that "Fear of Flying, like most American journey books,… boldly equates life with motion and stasis with death."

Ferguson, Mary Anne. "The Female Novel of Development and the Myth of Psyche." In The Voyage In Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, pp. 228-43. Hanover and London: University Press of New...

(The entire section is 436 words.)