Isaac Rosenfeld Biography


The title of Isaac Rosenfeld’s only published novel, Passage from Home, is emblematic of his life and career. Rosenfeld was always in passage from a starting point which he ultimately rejected but for which he could find no meaningful substitute. Like Albert Camus, and like his friend and fellow Chicagoan Saul Bellow, Rosenfeld sought answers to questions about how to live in a world devoid of meaning.

Rosenfeld was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Chicago in 1918, and although he rejected Judaism, the experience of Jewish life remained a backdrop to his writings. His concerns mirror those of several other Jewish writers, particularly Sholom Aleichem and Franz Kafka. In 1941 Rosenfeld earned a master’s degree in literature at the University of Chicago and then moved to New York to pursue a doctorate at New York University. He married his wife, Vasiliki, that same year and quickly became a part of the intellectual subculture of Greenwich Village. He began to publish and became an assistant editor of The New Republic while also contributing to other left-wing and Jewish publications such as Commentary, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, and Partisan Review. Many of the stories and essays he wrote for these periodicals are reprinted in the two posthumous collections, Alpha and Omega (short stories) and An Age of Enormity (essays). In 1943 Rosenfeld left his position at The New Republic and took a job on a barge in New York Harbor. While he did not abandon the Greenwich Village society of which he was one of the leading lights, during this period Rosenfeld came close to embracing Wilhelm Reich’s theories; Reich held that the ills of modern society are traceable to sexual repression.

In the early 1950’s Rosenfeld moved to the Midwest again and taught at the University of Minnesota. He continued a pattern of disengagement by resigning that position and returning to Chicago, where he became an instructor of literature at the University of Chicago. By this time he was the father of two children but had divorced his wife. Rosenfeld...

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Atlas, James. “Golden Boy.” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1989. A good biographical sketch.

Cronin, Gloria L., Blaine H. Hall, and Connie Lamb. Jewish American Fiction Writers: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1991. Includes an eleven-page section on Rosenfeld.

Greenspan, Ezra. The “Schlemiel” Comes to America. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1983. Rosenfeld receives significant discussion in this examination of Yiddish literature.

Kazin, Alfred. “Midtown and the Village.” Harper’s Magazine, January, 1971. Kazin gives an account of Rosenfeld’s New York days in the early 1940’s at The New Republic.

Shechner, Mark. The Conversion of the Jews, and Other Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Offers a fourteen-page discussion of Rosenfeld.

Shechner, Mark. “Isaac Rosenfeld’s World.” Partisan Review 43 (1976). An excellent overview of Rosenfeld’s work.

Solotaroff, Theodore. “Isaac Rosenfeld: The Human Use of Literature.” Commentary 33 (1962). Provides an account of Rosenfeld’s life as well as a critical appraisal of his works. This article also appears, in a slightly different form, as “The Spirit of Isaac Rosenfeld” in Solotaroff’s collection of essays The Red Hot Vacuum (1970).