Published in 1961, A New Life was the third of Bernard Malamud’s novels and was written while he was a member of the English department of Oregon State College in Corvallis. During his tenure there, from 1949 to 1961, he also wrote his first two novels, The Natural (1952) and The Assistant (1957), and published The Magic Barrel (1958), a collection of short stories for which he received the National Book Award in 1959.
In a 1961 article, Philip Roth concluded that Malamud had not yet “found the contemporary scene a proper backdrop for his tales of heartlessness and heartache, of suffering and regeneration.” The publication of A New Life answered this criticism, for the novel continues Malamud’s progress toward a realistic and modern fiction that begins with his second novel. In A New Life he consciously strives to create a real place and believable people; the mythic superstructure common to his earlier works still is present, but it is more muted; and while the themes are basically the same, they are developed in a new context, a larger social setting.
While welcomed as an indication of Malamud’s growth, the book also has been criticized for attempting to accomplish too much: It is a satire of American academic life, a love story, and a picaresque novel about a seriocomic antihero. In addition, Malamud gives too much information about the functioning of a college English department, dwelling on minutiae that impede the movement of the narrative and are largely unnecessary for his satiric purposes.
In sum, A New Life is important as Malamud’s first attempt at a wholly realistic novel, and it also is a notable example of a minor literary type, the academic novel. Further, in Seymour Levin he has created a memorable seeker of the American Dream who discovers that at least part of it is false illusion.