Mark Helprin Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Mark Helprin’s imagination often expands his stories, adding details and episodes seemingly unrelated to the central theme or plot. Do you think they add or detract from the work as a whole?

Helprin is a noted political adviser and commentator. Can his conservative political and social values be seen in his work?

Are Helprin’s frequent uses of light in his stories decorative, symbolic, or both?

Can you find any villains or truly evil characters in Helprin’s work?

Find and discuss some examples of Helprin’s philosophy of finding beauty in all things.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Though Mark Helprin is best known as a writer of short fiction, the genre in which he has excelled, he is also the author of several substantial novels. In 1989, Helprin switched genres to children’s literature for the writing of Swan Lake (1989), with the story taken from the ballet of the same name. It was the first of a trilogy that later would include A City in Winter: The Queen’s Tale (1996) and The Veil of Snows (1997). Two-time Caldecott winner Chris Van Allsburg provided the illustrations.

Helprin’s stories and essays on politics and aesthetics have appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New Criterion, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as a speech writer for 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole, authoring his Senate resignation speech in preparation for his candidacy.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Hailed as a gifted voice when his first book of short stories appeared, Mark Helprin confirmed such judgments with Ellis Island, and Other Stories, a volume that won the National Jewish Book Award in 1982. That same year, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded Helprin its Prix de Rome. Among his other honors are a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and nominations for both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award for Fiction. Helprin is one of the most accomplished of the younger generation of Jewish American writers, and his fiction self-consciously attempts to extend and deepen the significant contribution those writers have made to American literature since World War II.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to his novels, Mark Helprin has published short fiction; his collections include Ellis Island, and Other Stories (1981) and The Pacific, and Other Stories (2004). He has also published children’s books, including Swan Lake (1989) and The Veil of Snows (1997).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Mark Helprin’s fiction celebrates the past. Readers who are accustomed to plot-driven fiction within the conventional forms of realism often find his work challenging. Helprin writes long novels (in excess of five hundred pages), and he creates worlds in which anything can and does happen. Among the honors he has received for his work are the Prix de Rome (1982) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984). In 1982, he received the National Jewish Book Award for Ellis Island, and Other Stories, his second collection of short fiction. Publishers Weekly selected A Soldier of the Great War as one of its Best Books of 1991. In 2001, Helprin won the Mightier Pen Award from the Center for Security Policy, and in 2006, he received the Peggy V. Helmerich Award from the Tulsa, Oklahoma, City-County Library Foundation.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alexander, Paul. “Big Books, Tall Tales: His Novels Win Critical Acclaim and Hefty Advances, So Why Does Mark Helprin Make Up Stories About Himself?” The New York Times Magazine, April 28, 1991, 32-33, 65, 67, 69. This article probably comes closest to penetrating the mystique with which Helprin has surrounded himself. From stories that his mother was once a slave to others that stretch credulity even further, Helprin has fictionalized his life much as he has his books. Alexander calls Helprin a compulsive storyteller, although Helprin himself claims that he has now learned “to deal in facts—not dreams,” especially when talking to journalists. Alexander provides biographical details and discussion of much of Helprin’s work (including critical reaction to it) in addition to interview excerpts with Helprin.

Butterfield, Isabel. “On Mark Helprin.” Encounter 72 (January, 1989): 48-52. Butterfield views Helprin’s writing as following in the footsteps of American literary giants such as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon. The article focuses specifically on two stories from Ellis Island and Other Stories: “Letters from the Samantha” and “The Schreuderspitze.” Useful for the interpretative information, although no references are included.

Feldman, Gayle. “Mark...

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