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.
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.
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 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."