Joanne Greenberg Greenberg, Joanne (Goldenberg) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Joanne (Goldenberg) Greenberg 1932–

(Has also written under pseudonym of Hannah Green) American novelist and short story writer.

Greenberg is best known for her autobiographical novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964). One of the first books about mental illness that is told from the viewpoint of the patient rather than the analyst, Rose Garden charts the course of Deborah Blau, a young schizophrenic caught between the real world and her own secret world, the kingdom of Yr. When Rose Garden was first released, it received little notice either from critics or the general public. Gradually, however, it started gaining popularity and today it is widely considered one of the most sensitive and revealing portraits in contemporary literature of a struggle against severe mental disorder.

Rose Garden is based on Greenberg's own experience with schizophrenia; she wrote it under the pseudonym Hannah Green in order to protect her young children from the knowledge that she had been institutionalized as a teenager. Most early reviewers rightly guessed that the book is nonfictional and considered Rose Garden more valuable as an honest account of mental illness and life in a mental institution than as a literary work of art. As Brigid Brophy noted: "Should it turn out to be a work of fiction, its value would vanish overnight." Critics generally attribute this to the inconsistency of Greenberg's approach and her sketchy characterizations. They feel that she focuses too much on Deborah's illness and the course of her therapy and does not adequately develop Deborah or her doctor as personalities in their own right. However, other critics praise her ability to describe Deborah's mental state so thoroughly that her madness becomes comprehensible and her escape into Yr appealing. Even those critics who dispute Rose Garden's literary merits generally feel that Greenberg's writing is competent enough to maintain the emotional power and the realism on which the success of the book ultimately depends. Young adult readers readily identify with Deborah's longing to escape reality and her feelings of alienation from the world.

Greenberg's other novels and short story collections have not attained such widespread popularity, but they have been well-received by critics. Although her works differ markedly from each other in terms of setting and plot, a common theme found in many of them is the alienation that results from lack of communication. Whether the result of a physical handicap, as in In This Sign (1968), or rigid adherence to religious or familial creeds, as in The King's Persons (1963) and Founder's Praise (1976), respectively, Greenberg skillfully and realistically captures the sources of alienation. Critics often praise her accurate portrayal of the diverse settings, times, and occupations which provide the background for her fiction.

(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Something about the Author, Vol. 25.)

George E. Gravel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The King's Persons] re-creates a little-known aspect of English history with an attention to the nuances of commonplace life usually lost amid the panoply of historical romances that are preoccupied with large and glamorous movements. It is centered on the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190, which came as a climax to the anti-semitism aroused during a decade of Jewish immigration resulting from similar atrocities in Paris….

This background is studied by Mrs. Greenberg through a reporting of day-to-day events … in three areas. Most prominent is the Jewish section of York, where the reader meets Rabbi Elias, the chief spokesman; Baruch, one of the wealthiest men in England; Abram and Rana, Baruch's son and wife respectively; Josce, Baruch's former partner; and Bett, attractive Christian servant-girl. A second part of the action is set at the nearby monastery and, through Brothers Lewis and Simon, it explores the diocesan decay and strife within the Church. Finally, the role of the nobility is shown chiefly through Baron Malabestia and his squire, Richard de Kuckney. A subordinate theme is the love between Abram and Bett, frustrated by their environment.

In quiet, unspectacular fashion the bulk of the book depicts the ordinary, daily relationships among these three elements of medieval society. Ultimately they build into a bloody massacre led by Malabestia that ruthlessly and treacherously slaughters the leaders of the Jews and disperses the whole Jewish community. Abram escapes but is separated from Bett and he flees finally to solitude in southern England.

The picture is sympathetic to the Jewish viewpoint, as well it might be. Yet without denying the blot on Christian history that these events constitute, one does wish that the Church were a bit more robustly counterbalanced by some representatives who practice rather than merely speak Christ's teaching…. This [novel] is a good antidote for the selfrighteously inclined; but one that also calls for adult discernment.

George E. Gravel, in a review of "The King's Persons," in Best Sellers, Vol. 22, No. 23, March 1, 1963, p. 442.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The King's Persons, Greenberg has] written a bad novel and a good book. Her plot reads like a combination of Abram's Irish Rose and a study of that tedious 20th century malaise, Lack of Communication. But if her fiction is wanting, her historiography is not. With painstaking care, she has woven each of the skeins of medieval life into a vivid tapestry that shows the loutishness and insensitivity of the baronial land-holders, the obtuseness of the peasantry, the twisted fervor of churchmen who found virtue in the wholesale slaughter of heretics, and the disturbing contrast between the warmth of Jewish communal life and the demeaning nature of usury. (p. M24)

"Pogrom in Yorkshire," in Time, Vol. LXXXI, No. 13, March 29, 1963, pp. M23-M24.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This penetrating novel [The King's Persons] is set in the Jewry of York, long established and reasonably secure…. Then in 1182, when the book opens, [the Jews] accept a large group of refugees driven from France by young King Philip…. [As] the number of local Jews is suddenly increased Gentiles feel disturbed.

Good men, both Christian and Jewish, explore the common ground of both their faiths, and try to bridge the remaining gap by personal friendship. But tension mounts, until a pogrom at the coronation of King Richard increases the flow of refugees….

Until she describes with great power the final massacre Miss Greenberg proceeds largely by recounting discussions between her leading characters. Although she is skilful in presenting the public opinion of the twelfth century these discussions sometimes ignore verisimilitude. In a new and ardent monastery a novice may sit on a fence by the hour, chatting with his Jewish friend; we happen to know that Ailred of Rievaulx never spoke a world of idle conversation to anyone during his whole novitiate. But these opportunities for busy men to pass hours in friendly chat are a minor flaw in a thrilling, intelligent and disturbing book.

"Fire and Sword," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3201, July 5, 1963, p. 497.

R. V. Cassill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Deborah Blau's psychosis—the focus of ["I Never Promised You a Rose Garden"]—is the flowering, in the second American-born generation, of her family's social and domestic pathology. The illness is, at the same time, an expedient, for survival amid the contradictions with which her inherited world is furnished, and an irrationally cunning search for the mental health which would be a fit culmination of a flight from the Old World to the New….

In mid-adolescence, the other world, which [Deborah] calls Yr, is ready to receive her. She has no language left to protest her half-chosen abduction into this glamorous and tormenting world except an attempt at suicide. The present drama of the novel begins when her parents are forced to interpret this bloody appeal correctly and take her to a mental hospital.

In the hospital, Deborah's symptoms get spectacularly worse…. When standard therapies are of no avail, she is transferred to a "locked ward" reserved for the most disturbed patients. Only the stalwart and wise Dr. Fried refuses to concede that her symptoms are a true index of the progress of the disease. The doctor discerns a will to survive still actively frustrating Deborah's attempts at mental and physical self-destruction. And from this tap root of hidden strength the hard work of doctor and patient at last induces a growth that desperately seeks the living weather of reality.

Hannah Green (a...

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Haskel Frankel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is difficult to appraise I Never Promised You a Rose Garden as a work of fiction, which is what Hannah Green … chooses to call it. As a novel it is flawed; as nonfiction it is a painfully memorable case history told with great honesty….

Mrs. Green never attempts to shock the reader or to sensationalize for large sales. When Deborah is driven to inflict burns upon herself with stolen cigarettes, the author relates the incident from so deep a vantage point within the patient's mind that one sees the logical illogicality which is the ever-present truth in the behavior of the disturbed.

In Dr. Fried she has conveyed a true portrait of the analyst at work—serving as a warm wall against which Deborah can throw herself mentally, always to bounce back against herself with gradually decreasing intensity. Mrs. Green's picture of the patients, their lives among themselves and in relation to the hospital staff, is also revealingly fresh.

However, the two-steps-forward, one-step-backward progression of Deborah's surfacing to life lacks that tightness which fiction requires. The chapters devoted to Deborah's family seem not so much subplot as stage waits while a Greek chorus wrings its hands. There is nothing the family can add to Deborah's history that Deborah and her analyst do not more powerfully disclose.

Nevertheless, be it fiction or non-, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is absorbing, powerful, and moving.

Haskel Frankel, "Alone in the Kingdom of Yr," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 29, July 18, 1964, p. 40.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Case-records of psychoanalysis (without the repetitions) can be fascinating. Miss Green … gives us more than that [in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden]; she tries to create the whole world of the mental hospital as the schizophrenic sees it, as the doctor sees it, as the nurses see it, and as the parents, terrified and ignorant, see it from outside.

The book is seldom naive, seldom humorous, sometimes ironical….

There is a contrast between the responsible morality expected of the staff, and the freedom of the insane, who often take advantage of it…. Miss Green is excellent when conveying relief and delight at the freedom from the propriety, freedom from lies, and most of all the freedom to call mad mad, crazy crazy. She is excellent too on the inventiveness of the insane.

But she has her failures. The parents are unconvincing; the sympathetic German woman doctor is sometimes trite and sentimental as well as sometimes profound. There are the rather predictable gradual unearthing of truths, the weakness of the father, the anti-semitism of the summer camp, [and] the jealousy and guilt towards the younger sister…. [The] author does her best to convince us of the excitement and difficulty that Deborah experiences in making friends and adjusting herself generally to the real world. But although the doctor keeps saying that she must show Deborah how exciting the real world can be (at the same time without promising her "a rose garden"), the author never quite succeeds in making it so. In fact, Miss Green is rather better at describing the terror and imaginativeness of the schizophrenic than she is at the return to normality: her normality is perilously close to dullness.

"Calling Mad Mad," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3259, August 13, 1964, p. 721.

Brigid Brophy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hannah Green is—almost literally—a naturalist, in that she analyses neither by the creative method of the artist nor in the anatomist's or evolutionist's sense. Hers is a purely descriptive, and to that extent external, account of a natural phenomenon, even though the phenomenon itself is a subjective feeling—what it feels like to be insane….

[I Never Promised You a Rose Garden] makes the impression of being only nominally a novel; should it turn out to be a work of fiction, its value would vanish overnight. In this context, it is almost a mark of the author's honesty that the short passages where the narrative leaves Deborah—usually to follow the parents home and enter into their...

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Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This group of twelve excellent short stories [Rites of Passage] is all the more remarkable for its being not only artistically "beautiful" but morally and spiritually beautiful as well. Though Miss Greenberg hardly writes of people with happy problems—her characters include the deaf, the wives and mothers of the deaf, the epileptic, isolated farmers who have eased into insanity, young women hemmed in by banal, crushing circumstances, aging men impatient to die and get it accomplished—she is able through her almost miraculous sense of the complexities of the human predicament to make each person, hopeful or hopeless, demonstrate for us a way of surviving.

And yet that sounds...

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Roger Sale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[All but one of the stories in "Rites of Passage"] are just stories, instances where the energy and trust have gone into seeing how the story can best be told and not into the characters and events themselves. The exception is the title story, about a boy who feels he has been denied the opportunity to become a man because he has been raised by maiden relatives and who leaps at a chance to prove himself by going to work on a farm. The farmer turns out to be old, broken down, paranoiac about other farmers he is sure are out to destroy him and take his land, especially about his neighbor, Koven, who he imagines to be spying on him, poisoning his stream, digging potholes in his road etc.…


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Victor Howes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Joanne Greenberg's stories concern special cases, strangers in a crowd, people cut off by loneliness and misunderstanding from the abrasive but corrective contacts of their fellows….

Sometimes Mrs. Greenberg's stories veer toward tragedy, sometimes toward the comic. Happy endings are not outside her purview, though her best and longest story, the title story, "Rites of Passage" starts happily and takes a sudden sinister bend. It is a powerful tale, involving a "Macbeth"-like folie a deux, demonstrating yet once more the principle of division of responsibility, where one partner wills the illicit act, and the other performs it.

Mrs. Greenberg's locales are mainly rural, her...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While [I Never Promised You a Rose Garden] was generally received well critically as a didactic work concerning mental illness, many reviewers had reservations about its value as fiction…. It soon became publicly known that the novel is not entirely fiction, of course, and in the years following these initial reviews, as the book phenomenally grew in popularity, relatively little attention was paid to it as anything other than a highly readable case history. And yet there is much evidence, both from the novel itself and from Greenberg's other works, that the book is an attempt at a coherent novel and not merely fictionalized autobiography.

In Rose Garden, Greenberg has tried to...

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James R. Frakes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Few experiences are more calculated to shrivel a reviewer's heart than to read a publisher's blurb describing a new novel as "an American saga…." So it's a pleasure to discover that ["Founder's Praise"] triumphs over the epithet.

Of course, there's still the problem of the "three generations," but Joanne Greenberg … keeps the lines clear and the relationships functional throughout. And the historical sweep never calls exhausting attention to itself, World War I passing in a single paragraph. But the Dust-Bowl years are dwelt on obsessively, mote by relentless mote. And rightly so, for out of the death of the land in this southeastern Colorado farming community blossoms the "vision of the...

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Paul Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [High Crimes and Misdemeanors, a] collection of ten short stories, Joanne Greenberg seems eager to make things go bump in the daytime. Take the case of Aunt Bessie, a nice Jewish woman who one day stops believing in God. Watched by a cautiously admiring niece, Bessie goes on to renounce faith in banks, germs and electricity, although her unplugged television set somehow still carries whatever programs she wants to watch. Only when Bessie decides that all natural laws, including gravity, are myths does she receive her alarmingly literal comeuppance. Her niece finds her floating like a balloon about the house, being hectored and scolded by mysteriously televised rabbis. She pleads her disbelief, to no avail....

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Hilma Wolitzer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The stories in High Crimes and Misdemeanors have a strong connecting theme—spiritual questing and questioning. Men and women consider not only the existence of a deity, but their own existential purpose, their own capacities for good and evil. Greenberg pursues this theme with startling invention and with an effective blend of mischief and melancholy….

In "Flight Pattern," a temporarily earthbound malakh (angel) longs for the "appetites and surprises" in the life of his human companion, Ben. "'Don't envy us,'" Ben advises. "'We are usually very lonely.'" And adds later, "'Don't you know that we can't shut our ears to sound or our minds to a constant bombardment of thoughts and...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Joanne Greenberg wrote a novel which was popular with young adult readers (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden), [High Crimes and Misdemeanors] is not for most adolescent readers. The plots and characters have little with which these readers will relate….

As the title states, Greenberg's short stories deal with crimes and misdemeanors…. Whether realistic or fantastic, the stories all comment on contemporary life with an emphasis on Modern American Jewish life.

One does not have to be Jewish, however, to enjoy the writing style and the delightful characters Greenberg has created. She skillfully uses both first and third person narration, strong dialog, realistic...

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Sanford Pinsker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The ten stories of High Crimes and Misdemeanors often dazzle and always delight. They are worthy companions to the stories in Miss Greenberg's earlier collection, Rites of Passage (1972), full of the moral concern and magical twists we have come to associate with Greenberg's best work.

At least half of these most recent stories are intriguing additions to that slippery category known as American-Jewish fiction. In her stories, Jewishness is less a cultural condition than it is an unacknowledged spiritual realm. In short, she takes Jewish ideas—and more important, the Jewish God—seriously. "Certain Distant Suns" begins on a note that one would never find in a story by, say, Philip...

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Ruth R. Wisse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A] convincing study of an American Jewish family in transition … is Joanne Greenberg's A Season of Delight…. [Mrs. Greenberg] has often written on Jewish subjects, and this latest work is satisfyingly mature.

Grace Dowben, its heroine, has lived for years in the Pennsylvania town of Gilboa…. Though she has other satisfactions and other worries, her own sense of responsibility for the perpetuation of [the Jewish] people runs as the unbroken theme of her life—and of this book. Even her flare-up of love for a young man in town is bound up with the desire to reawaken him as a Jew.

It should be said that the best parts of the book have nothing to do with the Jewish theme....

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Norma B. Williamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In A Season of Delight Mrs. Greenberg takes a woman who could fit about half a dozen popular stereotypes and exposes the unique human being beneath. Grace Dowben is a middle-aged Jewish housewife, attempting to deal with the pain and sense of loss engendered by the finality of her children's leaving home…. Her delight in her Jewish heritage is sharpened when a young man of Jewish parentage, but agnostic upbringing, joins the unit, and Grace teaches Ben the traditions rejected by her son and daughter. In time, however, Grace discovers that Ben is much more to her than a substitute for her lost son…. Mrs. Greenberg clearly believes in traditional values, along with such old-fashioned themes as good and evil,...

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Meg Elliott Garber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A middle-aged woman, Grace, marriage secure and happy, nest empty. A young man, Ben, 20 years younger, single, a thoughtful stranger. These are the characters who meet as paramedics on a small town ambulance, are drawn to each other, and finally grow to love each other during A Season of Delight. Joanne Greenberg has masterfully created these real people along with a host of secondary characters to play out this complicated portrayal of emotions. A Season of Delight is neither a garish, contrived plot of illicit love nor a simplistic, unrealistic romance. It is a thoughtful narrative of a woman given to self reflection….

The book is excellent, but I cannot imagine a teenager having...

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Robert C. Small

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Eric, a handsome, shallow, charming man in his early twenties causes a terrible automobile accident, he is changed by the event and by his shock at the easy sentence he receives. Drunk and stoned, he kills all of the Gerson family, including three children, except the mother Helen. Later during his probation, he encounters Helen and despite the tragedy that he has caused, they fall in love and marry…. [Years later,] Helen and the … [children of this second marriage] are killed in a car wreck. After his grief has lifted a bit, Eric begins to wonder whether or not Helen may have arranged their first encounter, their marriage, and the second accident in order to satisfy her fierce sense of justice….


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Susan Dooley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What Greenberg is writing about in her gentle and perceptive book [The Far Side of Victory] is how hard it is to know the people you love—and how that knowledge, once gained, must be tenderly held….

[The Far Side of Victory] is Eric's book as he probes the mind and life of the woman he has come to love, a woman as closed as he is open. Shut into darkness by the poverty and ugliness of her childhood, she teaches him that, "There was, there must be even now, a secret race, a whole foreign race of children who yearn for school because it isn't home, whose vacations are dreaded and who watch the warming days of May creep over the desk tops with sinking hearts, made lonelier still, more...

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Gregory Maguire

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Far Side of Victory is dramatic] and engaging from the start…. [The] writing is clear and worth savoring. The development of a strange but powerful romance between Eric and Helen, the eventual break with their former lives, and their professional establishment in a community small enough to need them and large enough to give them room to heal are all described with patience and restraint…. Mysterious and suspenseful but rewarding in its characterization and its analysis of small-town politics and society, the book provides a subtle and complex treatment of love and growth. (p. 740)

Gregory Maguire, in a review of "The Far Side of Victory," in The Horn Book...

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