Eva Hoffman Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eva Hoffman 1945-

(Born Ewa Wydra) Polish-born American autobiographer, novelist, travel writer, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hoffman's career through 2003.

Hoffman is best known for her autobiography, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989), which articulates her experiences as a Polish immigrant caught between divergent cultures and languages. Much of Hoffman's writing is concerned with her immigrant past and with the historical and political conflicts in Eastern Europe. In Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe (1993), Hoffman examines the fall of state-sponsored communism in Eastern Europe and its impact on working-class citizens throughout Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Her subsequent works evince a preoccupation with how history influences the present, exploring the legacy of European anti-Semitism, the oppression of women under communism, and the Holocaust.

Biographical Information

Hoffman was born in Krakow, Poland, on July 1, 1945, to Boris and Maria Wydra. Her parents were Holocaust survivors who escaped persecution with the help of fellow Poles who hid them from the Nazis. Disillusioned with the anti-Semitism prevalent in postwar Poland, the Wydras decided to immigrate to Canada, moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1959. Before leaving Poland, Hoffman was a skilled pianist and considered pursuing a professional career. In Canada, however, she did not find the same encouragement for her talent and chose to study literature. She immigrated to the United States in 1963 to attend Rice University, where she received a B.A. in 1967. Hoffman took graduate courses in literature at Yale University from 1967 to 1968 before entering Harvard University, where she received a Ph.D. in literature in 1974. In 1971 she married Barry Hoffman, whom she later divorced. Hoffman held teaching positions as an assistant professor of literature at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, from 1975 to 1976, and at Tufts University from 1976 to 1977. In 1982 she began working for the New York Times, serving as the “Week in Review” editor and “Arts and Leisure” deputy editor until eventually becoming an editor for the New York Times Book Review in 1987. Hoffman has also contributed articles and essays to such publications as Atlantic Monthly and Yale Review, among others. She has won several awards for her work, including fellowships from the Danforth Foundation, the Carnegie Mellon Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies, as well as the Jean Stein Award for nonfiction in 1990.

Major Works

Lost in Translation traces Hoffman's maturation through her childhood in Poland, her adolescence in Canada, and her adulthood in America. During her attempts at cultural assimilation, Hoffman was consumed with feelings of alienation, largely due to her difficulties with language. Though she felt inarticulate and clumsy in her second language, English, she also found her ability to speak Polish diminishing because of disuse. Even after Hoffman mastered the technical aspects of English, she experienced a continuing sense of disjunction between the words and the emotions and experiences behind them. Hoffman wrote Exit into History after traveling through six newly liberated Eastern European nations—Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria—during 1990 and 1991. After the fall of eastern bloc communism in 1989, each of these countries experienced radical economic, political, and social upheaval. Hoffman creates her narrative through hundreds of conversations with average, working-class citizens, encouraging them to speak openly about their hopes and fears for the future. A number of recurring themes emerge throughout her discussions, including the effect of free-market economies on the newly-emerging democracies and the now-diminished role of the Communist Party. In Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (1997), Hoffman explores the controversial topic of Polish anti-Semitism and Poland's alleged complicity in the Holocaust. Using both documented and anecdotal evidence, she traces the historical relationship between Poles and Jews from 1648 until World War II, concluding that if the two societies had been more fully integrated, the Poles might have felt more of a compulsion to assist the Jews. Hoffman uses the town of Bransk, the site of a former Jewish settlement, as a representation of Polish opinions during World War II and finds that the citizens have widely divergent reactions to the fate of their former Jewish neighbors. In 2001 Hoffman published her first fictional work, The Secret, a science fiction novel set in the year 2020. The plot revolves around a girl named Iris Surrey who has a very close relationship with her mother, Elizabeth. After her mother's boyfriend leaves, disturbed by the pair's unnatural closeness, Iris discovers that she is not really Elizabeth's daughter, but rather a clone created from Elizabeth's DNA. After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust (2004) continues Hoffman's examination of the legacy of the Holocaust, focusing on the troubles faced by the children of Holocaust survivors. The work combines Hoffman's own experiences with broad psychoanalytic insights to create a portrait of how post-war emigration, racism, and feelings of victimhood and responsibility all have a profound impact on this “second generation” of Holocaust victims.

Critical Reception

Much of the critical commentary regarding Lost in Translation has concerned its relationship to the overall body of American immigrant literature. Several reviewers have noted a distinct similarity between Hoffman's work and Mary Antin's 1912 autobiography The Promised Land. Lost in Translation has been generally praised for its stirring portrayal of the immigrant experience, with many applauding Hoffman's skillful and unique portrayal of cross-cultural alienation. Commentators have noted that Hoffman's preoccupation with language has resulted in the development of her own unique and lyrical prose style. Ivan Sanders has stated that, “Eva Hoffman's obsession with words has paid off handsomely. Her language is crisp and precise when summing up essential experience, and richly evocative when lingering on detail. She guides her narrative with the sure hand of a complete writer, alternating between essayistic meditations, recollection and sharply etched description.” However, some critics have faulted Lost in Translation, arguing that Hoffman's remembrances are overly sentimental and nostalgic. Andrew Clifford has commented that, “there is little in the book which lives up to its title's promised ideological mediation and flux.” Exit into History has received a more mixed critical assessment, with some noting that Hoffman's position as an American outsider makes it difficult for her to understand or articulate the politics of Eastern Europe. However, several reviewers have lauded Hoffman's courage in tackling the controversial subject matter of Shtetl, commending her well-researched and balanced presentation. Eunice Lipton has asserted that, “Shtetl is a daring and generous book, measured in style, passionate in intent.”