(Masterpieces of American Literature)

A New Life continues Malamud’s treatment, begun in The Natural and refined in The Assistant, of the search for self-definition. This most picaresque of his works follows the struggles of S. Levin, a young professor from New York who hopes to redeem what he perceives as a failed life through relocation to a technical college in the Northwest. Set in the 1950’s, the novel substitutes the mythic placelessness of Malamud’s earlier novels with a Stendhalian realism replete with topical allusions to the Cold War, McCarthyism, and liberalism versus loyalty oaths.

The novel is actually two books in one. On one level, A New Life functions as a satire on academic life. Amid a world of drab parties, hateful faculty meetings, and dull classes, Malamud introduces a cast of mentally crippled faculty members whose only goal seems to be to hang onto their jobs no matter what sacrifices of intellectual or moral principle must be made. The students are no better; they find little interest in things intellectual and see no ethical problem with cheating to pass their classes. On the second, and more important, level, Malamud deals with his ever-present theme of the quest. The characters and incidents that Levin encounters at Cascadia College are the obstacles in his mythic journey to self-discovery. As in all Malamud’s novels, the hero must ultimately make a choice that will determine his destiny. In A New Life this choice involves, as always, a definition of freedom. To complete his quest, Levin must come to terms with the suffering involved in gaining true freedom.

Malamud’s satirical pen is sharp, with barbs directed both at the academic establishment and at his hero’s excessive idealism. From Levin’s arrival in Eastchester, the home of Cascadia College, it is apparent that this former drunkard and professed liberal is out of his element in the stifling atmosphere of this land-grant institution devoted to giving its students a practical education. He is told flatly that the liberal arts (which he believes “feed our hearts”) have no place in the school’s conservative English department, devoted to drilling students with the anachronistic chairman’s text, The Elements of Grammar.

Against this backdrop Levin encounters a series of disillusionments as he attempts to shape a new life filled with success in his academic career and a oneness with the beauties of the natural world. Be it teaching, departmental...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Seymour Levin of New York City (“formerly a drunkard”) comes to Easchester, in the northwestern state of Cascadia, to join the faculty of Cascadia College as an instructor in English. He arrives at the small town looking forward to a new life in a halcyon rural setting, but the first of many disillusionments that this bearded, onetime high school teacher experiences is his discovery that Cascadia is a science and technology school, having lost the liberal arts “shortly after the First World War” to its rival sister institution at the state capital. What is more, most of his colleagues, he is dismayed to learn, enjoy teaching composition, do not at all miss literature, and spend most of their time in such nonacademic activities as golfing, fishing, riding, and even painting houses. The action of the novel, which spans an academic year from Levin’s arrival in the fall to his forced departure the next spring, develops on two levels, the personal and the professional, which become increasingly intertwined and ultimately are indistinguishable.

The plot on the personal level focuses on an affair that Levin has with Pauline Gilley, wife of the director of composition; she previously has been involved with Levin’s predecessor and pursues Levin until he finally yields. Overcome by guilt (which manifests itself in strange postintercourse pain), Levin finally attempts to end the affair, but she persists, and when Gilley eventually learns about it, he cries to Levin that he loves Pauline and the next day writes that if Levin promises “not to see [her] again, or otherwise interfere in our lives. . . . I am willing to let you stay on for one last year.” Before Levin can reply,...

(The entire section is 692 words.)