Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536
Born in New York City on May 11, 1930, Stanley Elkin was raised in Chicago. His father, Philip, a highly successful traveling salesman for a costume-jewelry concern and an equally accomplished raconteur, had a pronounced influence on Elkin’s writing, in terms of both style and subject. Just as important were the elder Elkin’s fear of being thought less than he was and the four heart attacks that would cut short his career and then his life.
For all the rhetorical as well as geographical expansiveness of his fiction, Elkin stayed close to home, first by choice, later by medical necessity. He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he earned a B.A. in 1952, an M.A. in 1953, and, following a stint in the Army, a Ph.D. in 1961. It was during his military service that Elkin became interested in radio broadcasting, which figures so prominently in his third novel, The Dick Gibson Show (1971). In 1960, he joined the English faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught creative writing. Elkin began writing fiction while still a graduate student. His first published story, “A Sound of Distant Thunder,” appeared in Epoch in 1957, and his first mass-market publication, “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe,” appeared in Esquire five years later.
Also in 1962, Elkin, with financial assistance from his mother, went to Europe to write his first novel, Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964). Although the collection Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (1965) has proven his most enduring work (it has remained in print almost continuously, and many of its stories are frequently anthologized), Elkin subsequently concentrated on novellas and especially novels. He also wrote a screenplay, The Six-Year-Old Man (1968), a radio drama, The Coffee Room, a monologue for the Mid-America Dance Company, and a collection of essays, Pieces of Soap (1992).
The same year that his second novel, A Bad Man, appeared (1967), Elkin suffered his first heart attack. He was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis (MS) while in England five years later. As his maladies both worsened and multiplied (he underwent quintuple and quadruple bypass surgery in the 1980’s, was several times hospitalized for a collapsed lung, and was forced to use first a walker and then a wheelchair), the former hypochondriac managed to deal with his various ills in a manner that his longtime friend and colleague, the writer William H. Gass, called “heroic.”
Elkin may have been unable to button his shirts, but he was still able to teach and write, producing Searches and Seizures (novellas, 1973), The Franchiser (1976), The Living End (interrelated novellas, 1979), Stanley Elkin’s Greatest Hits (retrospective, 1980), George Mills (1982), Early Elkin (stories, 1985), The Magic Kingdom (1985), The Rabbi of Lud (1987), The MacGuffin (1991), and Van Gogh’s Room at Arles: Three Novellas (1993). This last appeared following a drug-induced “bout of temporary insanity” in April, 1991, an episode that left Elkin feeling not only humiliated (his other illnesses had already done that) but also, for the first time, embarrassed. Although he received numerous honors, including a National Book Critics Award for George Mills, Elkin never achieved the kind of popular and commercial success that a writer so attentive to his craft, so steeped in the popular culture, and so sympathetic to the plight of his tragicomic characters deserves.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 122
The Book of Job, Elkin claimed, “is the only book . . . because all books are the Book of Job,” and the best proofs of this assertion are the books Elkin himself has written. Thematically, they make the case for the position taken by one of William Faulkner’s characters, that “between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” Stylistically, Elkin’s books make a virtue and an art of excess, of obsession, of the extraordinariness of the ordinary, and above all of naked human need. It is an art that is at once defensive and self-assertive, a way of out-grotesquing life’s grotesquerie and all of its bad jokes, including the painful MS that Elkin painstakingly transforms into MS, or malady into manuscript.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 242
Stanley Lawrence Elkin was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 11, 1930. He grew up in Chicago and was educated at the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he earned his B.A. and M.A., and his Ph.D. in English in 1961. While still at the University of Illinois, Elkin married Joan Marion Jacobson, an artist; together they became the parents of two sons and a daughter. After serving in the armed forces for two years (1955-1957), Elkin spent several years living in London and Rome with his wife, prior to writing his first novel, Boswell (1964). A Bad Man (1967) was written on a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. His short fiction, much of it later integrated into his novels, has been collected in many anthologies.
In 1960, before earning his Ph.D., Elkin taught English at Washington University in St. Louis. He was assistant professor (1962-1966), associate professor (1966-1969), and became a full professor of English in 1969. In 1983, he became a Kling Professor of Modern Letters. He was visiting lecturer and visiting professor at several institutions, including Smith College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Yale University, and Boston University. Death is a key subject in Elkin’s fiction, as is the obverse. Perhaps his heightened sense of death and life stem from the fact that he suffered from multiple sclerosis, which was diagnosed in 1961. He died of a heart attack in St. Louis in 1995.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 246
Stanley Lawrence Elkin was born on May 11, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York. His father, a traveling salesman and noted storyteller, later moved to the Chicago area, where Elkin spent his early childhood. At the age of twenty-two, while enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Elkin married Joan Marion Jacobson, an aspiring young artist. Two years later, in 1955, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served two years in the field of radio communications. After his tour of duty, Elkin and his wife spent some time in Europe, especially Rome and London, where he began writing what would later be his first novel, Boswell. Returning to the United States, Elkin resumed his studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana, continuing his graduate work in English and working for the student magazine, Accent, which published his first short story, “Among the Witnesses,” in 1959.
Before receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1961, Elkin took a position teaching English at Washington University in St. Louis. He was visiting lecturer at institutions such as Smith College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Yale University, and Boston University. Beginning in 1983, he held the title of Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University. Elkin died of a heart attack in St. Louis in 1995, after long suffering from multiple sclerosis, first diagnosed in 1961. He was survived by his wife and three children (a daughter and two sons).
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