Hortense Calisher Calisher, Hortense (Vol. 134) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hortense Calisher 1911-

(Also has written under pseudonym Jack Fenno) American short story writer, novelist, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Calisher's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 8, and 38.

Calisher is a highly regarded and accomplished prose stylist whose subtle, textured use of language elucidates the complexities of human experience. Her writing, much of which is semi-autobiographical, is often compared to that of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Edith Wharton. Calisher sees diversity as the defining element of the twentieth century, and her fiction reflects this belief. Although Calisher writes well-received novels, memoirs, and critical essays, her short fiction is generally regarded as her finest work, notably “In Greenwich There Are Many Graveled Walks” (1951) and the novellas in The Railway Police, and the Last Trolley Ride (1966). The four O. Henry awards presented to Calisher over the span of her career attest to her skill as a short story writer.

Biographical Information

Born in New York City, Calisher grew up in a comfortable, middle-class Jewish home. Her father, born during the Civil War, was from Richmond, Virginia, and her mother, more than twenty years younger than her husband, was a German immigrant. The confluence of sensibilities arising from her multigenerational family—the South, New York City, Europe, and Judaism—inform much of her work. Calisher earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Barnard College in 1932. Upon graduation, she became a social worker for the Department of Public Welfare in New York City. In 1935 Calisher married Heaton Bennet Heffelfinger, with whom she shares two children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1958 and a year later Calisher married novelist Curtis Arthur Harnack. From 1957 to 1986 Calisher was a visiting professor and lecturer at various universities throughout the United States. She was president of PEN in 1986-87 and of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters from 1987 to 1990.

Calisher began her professional writing career in 1948 by publishing stories in the New Yorker, and soon garnered critical acclaim with the publication of her first collection of short stories, In the Absence of Angels (1951). She was twice named a Guggenheim fellow, in 1951-52 and 1953-54. Calisher earned her first National Book Award nomination for the novel False Entry (1961). The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (1975) and Calisher's memoir, Herself (1972) were also nominated for the National Book Award. She was awarded the Kafka Prize at the University of Rochester for the novel The Bobby-Soxer (1986), and in 1989 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Major Works

Calisher is known for her keen observations and ability to share them vividly through image, character, and lush, distinctive language. Her early autobiographical work, sometimes called the “Hester” stories, appeared between 1948 and 1953. These stories, published primarily in the New Yorker and various collections during these years, depict her protagonist Hester's coming of age. Calisher's first published story collection, In the Absence of Angels, includes the critically acclaimed “In Greenwich There Are Many Graveled Walks.” The story contains trademark Calisher motifs and techniques—recognizable characters responding to a dark predicament not of their own making, revealed through rich prose in an intricate and carefully paced narrative. The novel False Entry draws partly on Calisher's southern roots and explores the life of a man with such a remarkable memory that he has assumed other people's identities through his knowledge of their past. In three months of writing about these experiences in his journal, he finally determines his own identity, permitting him genuine entry into the life of his beloved. His journal is written for Ruth Mannix, whose own story is told in The New Yorkers (1969), a novel admired for its realistic portrayal of New York City. The work evidences Calisher's skill in blending her knowledge of Jewish heritage, intimate familiarity with New York City, and psychological perception in her fiction. Following a pattern that continues to inform her work, Calisher subsequently alternated between short and long fiction, and published several volumes of both together. Tale for the Mirror contains a novella and twelve short stories, including “The Scream on Fifty-seventh Street,” an exploration of fear and loneliness. Extreme Magic (1964), another volume of one novella and short stories, demonstrates a growth in Calisher's range. Two stories in particular illustrate her feminine voice: “Songs My Mother Taught Me” reveals both humor and sensuality, while “The Rabbi's Daughter” explores the feminine duality of worldly achievement coupled with inner dissatisfaction.

Completely dissimilar from her previous work, Journal from Ellipsia (1965) has been called both a work of science fiction and a work of feminism. In line with the central themes of Calisher's fiction, however, the novel explores what it means to be human, this time from the point of view of an alien creature. Moreover, the story involves a journey from the star Ellipsia to Earth; transportation serves as a recurring interest in Calisher's work, particularly its relation to American myth and public consciousness. In Mysteries of Motion (1983), another novel with a celestial theme, Calisher examines six human lives aboard a space shuttle. The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride, two novellas published in a single volume, share the theme of a journey undertaken to promote both self-knowledge and perception of the world. The protagonist of The Railway Police experiences an epiphany when she witnesses the removal of an indifferent vagrant from a train. She interprets this as a sign for her to dispose of all her possessions, including the wigs that have long hidden her baldness from the world. Determined to reinvent who she is, she decides to strike out and become a vagrant herself. The Last Trolley Ride concerns two octogenarian grandfathers who decide to share one last adventure—a trip around the world. Calisher's memoir, Herself, describes her own journey from the world of suburban housewife and mother to the world of letters. In a second memoir, Kissing Cousins (1988), Calisher explores her Southern roots following a death in her family. In the novel The Bobby-Soxer, Calisher examines the dark provincialism of small-town America and the ambiguity of identity, embodied in the narrator's hermaphroditic relative. In Age (1987), Calisher again employs the fictional vehicle of the journal, this time to shed light on the lives of an elderly couple. The brief, alternating entries, designed to be a defense against loneliness for the surviving spouse, reveal their reflections on life, relationships, and the prospect of living on after the death of the other. The novel In the Palace of the Movie King (1993) involves an Albania dissident filmmaker who escapes communist Albania only to encounter alienation and disillusionment in America. Calisher's In the Slammer with Carol Smith (1997), reveals the effect that involvement in a radical student movement has on a protagonist decades later. Calisher has also served as editor of Best American Short Stories, 1981 (1981) and published a novel, The Small Bang (1992), under the pseudonym Jack Fenno.

Critical Reception

Calisher is known as a “writer's writer” and an important voice in American fiction of the twentieth century, and critical response to her short stories is almost uniformly positive. Critics note that she dazzles readers with her sympathetic portrayal of everyday people, caught in moments of crisis, who attempt to exercise some control over their circumstances. Where her novels are concerned, however, response to her work is mixed. Critics have faulted her overwrought style, thinness of characterization, and lack of substantial plot. Reviewers disagree about the merits of The New Yorkers, acknowledged generally as one of her most important novels. A common contentious point among critics is the way Calisher uses language. Her short story style tends toward the terse and economical, in keeping with the genre, while her novels are far more exuberant in their expression. “Elliptical” is the word most frequently applied to her prose, and depending on the reviewer, it may mean either artful or ambiguous. Some reviewers insist that this technique reflects the complex, convoluted meanings explored in Calisher's fiction, while others simply view it as overwriting and a distraction.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the Absence of Angels (short stories) 1951

False Entry (novel) 1961

Tale for the Mirror: A Novella and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1962

Textures of Life (novel) 1963

Extreme Magic: A Novella and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1964

Journal from Ellipsia (novel) 1965

The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride (novellas) 1966

The New Yorkers (novel) 1969

What Novels Are (lecture) 1969

Queenie (novel) 1971

Herself: An Autobiographical Work (memoir) 1972

Standard Dreaming (novel) 1972

Eagle Eye (novel) 1973

The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (short stories) 1975

On Keeping Women (novel) 1977

Best American Short Stories, 1981 [editor; with Shannon Ravenel] (short stories) 1981

Mysteries of Motion (novel) 1983

Saratoga, Hot (short stories) 1985

The Bobby-Soxer (novel) 1986

Age (novel) 1987

Kissing Cousins: A Memory (memoir) 1988

The Small Bang [as Jack Fenno] (novel) 1992

In the Palace of the Movie King (novel) 1993

In the Slammer with Carol Smith (novel) 1997

The Novellas of Hortense Calisher (novellas) 1997

Lucy Johnson (review date January 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “High Polish,” in The Progressive, Vol. 26, No. 1, January, 1962, pp. 49-50.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson offers praise for False Entry.]

Hortense Calisher’s False Entry is an immensely accomplished and fascinating first novel, one that, through both its ornate style and the obsession of its major character and narrator, engulfs the reader in its world.

Hortense Calisher’s narrator is a vicarious man, one who from earliest childhood has been a watcher and listener outside the inner circle of whatever group he has lived among. He has combined his longing to belong with a self-protective reluctance to give anything of...

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Robert Kiely (review date 25 May 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On the Subject of Love,” in The Nation, May 25, 1963, pp. 447-8.

[In the following excerpt, Kiely commends Calisher's prose in Textures of Life, though finds fault in her generalizations about women.]

To read the newly published novels of Hortense Calisher and Iris Murdoch one after the other is a salutary and educational experience for anyone who tends to place contemporary female novelists together in the same hazy category. There are obvious attributes that women writers, these two included, are likely to have in common; they prefer to see a dramatic situation through the eyes of a heroine rather than a hero, and their feminine characters are...

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Emily Hahn (essay date Summer 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In Appreciation of Hortense Calisher,” in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1965, pp. 243-9.

[In the following essay, Hahn discusses Calisher's prose style, early fiction, and formative experiences, and the critical response to False Entry and Textures of Life.]

“Words are our reflex. We spend our lives putting things into words,” says the narrator in Hortense Calisher’s “Little Did I Know.” (From Extreme Magic, a collection.) She recalls how, as a girl at college, “I was drunk on language, the way you see kids get on jazz at Birdland. I ran all over the pasture, wondering how I could ever eat...

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Anne Tyler (review date 18 September 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Apocalypse In a Teacup,” in The Washington Post, September 18, 1977, p. E3.

[In the following review, Tyler offers a favorable evaluation of The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher.]

Hortense Calisher has written, at one time or another, from the viewpoint of a young girl reared expressly to be a kept woman, a man who compulsively slips into the disguises of other people’s lives, and a twirling, humming, multicolored machine from outer space. Her settings are almost always New York, but sometimes it’s New York’s Fifth Avenue and sometimes the seedy, lead-colored warehouse district way, way downtown. And at still other times, it’s the closed...

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Marge Piercy (review date 31 December 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Mysteries of Motion, in The Washington Post, December 31, 1983, p. C2.

[In the following review, Piercy offers a positive assessment of Mysteries of Motion.]

Hortense Calisher’s ninth novel, Mysteries of Motion, takes large chances under which its structure and its prose at times crumple, but the vision is extraordinary enough for us to allow for its faults and still praise both the ambition and the work highly.

Mysteries of Motion belongs to the genre of “Ship of Fools” and “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” centering on a situation in which diverse characters with diverse histories are brought together....

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Elaine Kendall (review date 21 July 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Saratoga, Hot, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 21, 1985, p. 5.

[In the following review, Kendall offers a favorable assessment of Calisher's stories in Saratoga, Hot.]

“Some stories cling to the pen as novels do,” Hortense Calisher has said, trying for more than the high or low moments of life; reaching for the essence of the life itself. The eight fictions in this collection belong to that arbitrary category, qualifying by ambitiousness of purpose rather than complexity of plot, number of characters or length alone. Although these particular tales are layered and complex, calling them novels embroils the reader in an unnecessary...

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Hortense Calisher with Gregory Fitz Gerald and Peter Marchant (interview date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hortense Calisher with Gregory Fitz Gerald and Peter Marchant (interview date Spring 1986)

SOURCE: “A Conversation with Hortense Calisher,” edited by Earl Ingersoll and Peter Marchant, in Southwest Review, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 186-93.

[In the following interview, Calisher discusses her approach to writing, her prose style, the transition between writing short fiction and novels, and her interest in space travel and transportation.]

With the publication of her first collection of stories, In Absence of Angels, in 1951, Hortense Calisher began a distinguished career that has seen the publication of a dozen and a half novels,...

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Marcia Cavell (review date 16-30 June 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pondering a Family Mystery,” in The New Leader, June 16-30, 1986, p. 20.

[In the following review, Cavell offers a generally positive assessment of The Bobby-Soxer, though she finds shortcomings in the disorienting quality of the writing.]

The themes of Hortense Calisher’s latest novel will be familiar to readers of her earlier works: how we live each other’s lives, discovering ourselves and them in the process (her short stories are full of such wonderfully strange identifications); the intimate interconnectedness between persons and events that is revealed only in time, through reflection and dialogue; the present as a tale whose telling thus...

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Hortense Calisher with Allan Gurganus, Pamela McCordick, and Mona Simpson (interview date Winter 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hortense Calisher with Allan Gurganus, Pamela McCordick, and Mona Simpson (interview date Winter 1987)

SOURCE: “The Art of Fiction C: Hortense Calisher,” in Paris Review, No. 105, Winter, 1987, pp. 157-87.

[In the following interview, Calisher discusses her early life, diverse family influences, literary beginnings, and the themes, preoccupations, and creative processes behind her writing.]

Hortense Calisher was born in Manhattan in 1911. She writes with great affection and authority about New York then and now—a city as textured, compact and allusive as her best prose. On the page, her memories of her upper-bourgeois childhood always...

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James Yuenger (review date 6 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Age: Laying Bare Life's Fears, Triumphs,” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 6, 1987, p. 3.

[In the following review, Yuenger offers a positive evaluation of Age.]

For more than 40 years, Hortense Calisher’s pen has served as a scalpel slicing through to the emotional underside of American life and quietly, deftly laying bare its inevitable inconsistencies, its fears and its small triumphs.

Now, aged 75, after 15 novels and a well-received autobiography (Herself) that have placed her firmly in the pantheon of nonblockbuster literary gods who can be depended on for a steady stream of solid craftsmanship, she has written what...

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Sylvie Drake (review date 13 December 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Charting the Frontier Called Age,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 13, 1987, p. 11.

[In the following review, Drake offers an unfavorable assessment of Age.]

What to make of this slender novel/novella by Hortense Calisher? It is as fragile and paradoxical as the state of its protagonists, a spunky pair—he a poet, she an architect—who are confronting the last frontier: the uncharted territory of age.

These two, Rupert and Gemma, have made a pact in their 70s to keep separate journals of their life together. The journals are to be read only when one of them dies, which means only the survivor gets to read both. It’s a...

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Eleanor J. Bader (review date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Triumph of Age,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter, 1989, p. 7.

[In the following excerpt, Bader offers a tempered assessment of Age.]

“I suppose most couples the age of Rupert and me are not expected to be still compelled by sex,” writes Hortense Calisher. But Gemma and Rupert (he, seventy-three and she, seventy-seven) have little time for the supposed-to-bes and the process of graceful aging. Thirty-five years into their marriage, they still surprise and baffle one another. Sometimes their anger comes through, but more often, joy, reveling in one another’s being—physically, yes, but also emotionally and intellectually. Whether our...

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Kathleen Snodgrass (essay date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Coming Down from the Heights,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 554-69.

[In the following essay, Snodgrass examines the related themes in Textures of Life, Queenie, and Eagle Eye, drawing attention to the movement from ideal to real and symbolic to literal in each.]

Like many a beginning writer, Hortense Calisher drew first on her own life history, but, as she relates in her memoir Herself, “suddenly after less than a dozen close-to-autobiographical stories, their process is over; I want out, to the wider world” (H, 42).1 However much the stories, novellas, and novels...

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Seymour Krim (review date 8 January 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Friends for Life: A Writer Remembers,” in Washington Post Book World, January 8, 1989, p. 7.

[In the following review, Krim offers a favorable evaluation of Kissing Cousins.]

Any writer who asks to review a new Hortense Calisher has obviously got big self-destruction problems. This latest Kissing Cousins is only a veritable sliver, a mere 100 or so pages, and yet so masterful/mistressful is Calisher with her fertile, fine-pointed pen that the result can depress a fellow practitioner for weeks. Why you say? Because very few in our trade can compete with the resources, the promiscuous deposits of literary gold, that “Hotense” (as her southern...

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Kathleen Snodgrass (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Calisher's ‘Monologuing Eye,’” in The Fiction of Hortense Calisher, University of Delaware Press, 1993, pp. 107-17.

[In the following essay, Snodgrass examines Calisher's authorial perspective and trademark prose style, drawing attention to the opposing aspects of “old world” realism and modern sensibility in her work.]

Calisher’s reviewers invariably dive into the same adjectival pool and surface with a handful of epithets—“Jamesian,” “convoluted,” “dense,” and “elliptical”—when characterizing her distinctive style. Whether admiringly or hostile, they often call attention to Calisher’s “fondness for the...

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Carolyn See (review date 11 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lights, Camera, Confusion,” in Washington Post Book World, February 11, 1994, p. 2.

[In the following review, See offers a tempered assessment of In the Palace of the Movie King, noting a lack of plot or progression in the book.]

Reading In the Palace of the Movie King is like doggedly climbing an escalator that keeps going down. There’s no forward movement, no plot, and since Hortense Calisher is such an accomplished novelist, with such a long and distinguished career, you have to assume that’s her choice: She’s through with plot or straightforward story. She’s doing something else, and if you can’t get it, that’s your problem,...

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Irving Malin (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of In the Palace of the Movie King, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 216-7.

[In the following review, Malin comments on Calisher's prose style and offers a positive assessment of In the Palace of the Movie King.]

Calisher has not received the critical attention she deserves because she writes in a complex, distinctive way. Her sentences are twisted, skewed, ambiguous. The declarative questions itself; pronouns become “ghostly.” The style is paradoxically clear and indeterminate. Her new novel, in effect, is an ambitious, subtly detailed meditation on place, language, art, and politics. The plot is...

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Kathleen Snodgrass (review date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On Hortense Calisher,” in Iowa Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 185-7.

[In the following review, Snodgrass offers a favorable evaluation of In the Palace of the Movie King.]

Paul Gonchev, the hero of Hortense Calisher’s twelfth novel, In the Palace of the Movie King, is one of her most elusive and intriguing characters. Like so many of her protagonists, he clearly sees the psychic enclosure he has devised for himself, all the while blind to the costs it exacts. In this novel, however, the boundaries are literal as well as metaphorical. Sixteen years before the novel begins, the Russian-born Gonchev leaves his adopted Japan for the...

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Francis King (review date 25 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “What a Marvel!,” in The Spectator, May 25, 1996, pp. 32-4.

[In the following review, King offers a favorable assessment of Age.]

A past president of the American PEN Center and of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a recipient of a life-time achievement award of the National Endowments for the Arts, Hortense Calisher is a writer widely known and admired in the States. That this delicate and subtle novella has had to wait eight years for its appearance in this country is an indication that, inexplicably, she is far less well known and admired over here.

More than 40 years have elapsed since an American colleague in...

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Bruce Allen (review date 1 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Find Hortense,” in The Nation, December 1, 1997, pp. 34-6.

[In the following review, Allen provides an overview of Calisher's literary career and offers a positive evaluation of In the Slammer and The Novellas of Hortense Calisher.]

Hortense Calisher, who was born in 1911 and has been producing highly original and frequently highly acclaimed fiction for half a century, is the odd-woman-out of the contemporary American literary pantheon. There’s no entry for her in the most recent Britannica, and not so much as a mention in Frederick Karl’s numbingly comprehensive American Fictions: 1940–1980, published in 1983. One looks in vain...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Baranczak, Stanislaw. “The Small, Battered Desk.” The New Criterion 1, No. 6 (February 1983): 31–3.

Written in response to Calisher's essay “The Long, Shining Table,” Baranczak argues that Calisher oversimplifies and misunderstands East European writing in her article.

Barrett, William. “Alone with the Page.” The New Criterion 1, No. 6 (February 1983): 33.

Barrett responds to Calisher's intimation in her essay “The Long, Shining Table,” that the oppressed conditions under which Eastern European writers work is enviable.

Calisher, Hortense. “Hortense Calisher...

(The entire section is 474 words.)