Though for some years his work has been mostly politely ignored, Frederic Prokosch (proh-KAWSH) was one of the most widely read and highly praised writers of the 1930’s. Considered equally adept in prose and verse, he was lauded by established masters such as William Butler Yeats, André Gide, and Thomas Mann; he seemed on his way to becoming that rarest of twentieth century phenomena: a household poet. His production did not cease with the outbreak of World War II, but his success did. Changes in literary fashions transformed him into one of the best unknown writers of the mid-twentieth century.
Prokosch was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on May 17, 1908, the son of a professor at the University of Wisconsin and his wife, a concert pianist. When Prokosch was young, his father relocated to Austin, Texas, a year later sending the boy to be educated in private schools in Germany and Austria. The outbreak of World War I forced his return to Texas in 1915, at which time he spoke German more fluently than English. He then attended local schools wherever his father taught—Austin, Chicago, and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania—before being sent abroad again for two years of study and travel in Europe and western Asia. In 1922 he returned to attend Haverford College, graduating four years later at the age of eighteen. Two further years at the college earned for him a master’s degree. At that point, he embarked on a career as a literary scholar, doing research at the University of Pennsylvania and King’s College, Cambridge, before obtaining his doctorate at Yale University in 1932 with a dissertation on Geoffrey Chaucer. While completing his dissertation and for two years afterward, he taught and did research at Yale University and then served as instructor of English at New York University. In 1937 he returned to King’s College, ostensibly to do postdoctoral work, but by then, he had already abandoned academic life to try his fortune as a writer.
The catalyst of this change was the publication of Prokosch’s first novel, The Asiatics, in 1935. The book was a blockbuster, both for general readers and for major critics. The Asiatics defies comparison; though it shares an Oriental setting with several other popular novels of the time, thus tapping a then-topical fascination with Eastern themes, it has little else in common with any of them, including use of setting. The novel details the adventures of a young American as he drifts from Beirut to Hong Kong, engaging in opium traffic, stealing an airplane and crashing it, learning how to love and make love, and encountering Eastern modes of thinking. Exotic landscapes, picturesque vagabonds, an atmosphere of pervasive mystery, and a peculiar mixture of inevitable doom and bemused acceptance combined to fascinate readers hungry for escape. The book was an international success as well; translations were almost immediately available in the major languages, and eventually seventeen would appear. One major reason for this success may have been Prokosch’s...
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