Stanley Elkin Analysis

Discussion Topics

What makes Stanley Elkin’s style so distinctive? How is a typical Elkin sentence or paragraph structured?

Elkin’s plots tend to accrete rather than develop. Locate places in his work where plot is most clearly subordinated to Elkin’s interest in language and jazzlike riffs.

Elkin’s fiction depends on his characters’ occupations: the language, rhythms, and activities of their jobs, whether franchiser or widow. How does this interest in occupation manifest itself? How does it demonstrate the author’s command of different kinds of work?

How and how well does Elkin draw his characters? How well can readers “see” them? Are they more seen or heard?

Voice—that of author and character—is especially important in Elkin’s work. What does this voice sound like? Is the voice that of Elkin, or does he modify his narrative style to fit a particular character?

Elkin’s characters have been described as obsessed. What exactly are they obsessed about? Find passages in which their obsessions and obsessiveness are especially apparent.

Elkin said on more than one occasion that “The Book of Job is the only book.” In what ways do his characters suffer? What justification is there for their suffering? What reward?

Rage and the desire for revenge often fuel Elkin’s characters. Over what do they rage? At whom do they direct their revenge?

Other Literary Forms

In addition to his short fiction, Stanley Elkin produced several novels, including Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964), The Rabbi of Lud (1987), and The MacGuffin (1991). He also wrote a screenplay, The Six-Year-Old Man (1968), a memoir, Why I Live Where I Live (1983), and a collection of essays, Pieces of Soap: Essays (1992). In addition, Elkin edited several collections of short fiction and wrote numerous reviews and works of literary criticism for scholarly journals.

Achievements

Over the course of his career, Stanley Elkin received numerous grants and awards. In 1962, he won the Longview Foundation Award, in 1965 the Paris Review prize, in 1966 a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, in 1968 a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Letters grant, in 1980 a Rosenthal Foundation Award, in 1981 a Sewanee Review award, and in 1983 a National Book Critics Circle Award. Three of his books were nominated for the National Book Award, and Van Gogh’s Room At Arles: Three Novellas (1993) was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Other literary forms

Stanley Elkin published two collections of his short fiction, Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (1965) and Early Elkin (1985); three collections of novellas, Searches and Seizures (1973), The Living End (1979), and Van Gogh’s Room at Arles (1993); one collection titled Stanley Elkin’s Greatest Hits (1980); and another of essays, Pieces of Soap (1992). He also wrote a film script, The Six-Year-Old Man (1968), and edited several collections of short fiction. Why I Live Where I Live, a memoir, was published in 1983.

Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Since their emergence in the mid-1960’s, Stanley Elkin’s novels and short fiction have been praised by critics as some of the best satiric writing in American literature. The novels tend to be darkly comedic performances of unusually articulate, marginal characters struggling to define themselves in a confusing and harsh modern world. Elkin’s writing career was generously acknowledged in the form of numerous grants and awards. In 1962 Elkin won the Longview Foundation Award, and in 1964 he received the Paris Review John Train Humor Prize. In 1966 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1968 a Rockefeller Fellowship, in 1971 a National Endowment for the Arts grant, in 1974 an American Academy grant, in 1980 a Rosenthal Foundation Award, in 1981 a Sewanee Review award, and in 1983 a National Book Critics Circle Award. Three of his books were nominated for the National Book Award, and Van Gogh’s Room at Arles was a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist.

Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bailey, Peter J. Reading Stanley Elkin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. This study of Elkin’s fiction examines Elkin’s major themes in order to counteract misreadings of him as another in a series of black humorists, especially given Elkin’s association with black humorists of the 1960’s. Each of seven chapters discusses a separate theme or thematic element in Elkin’s work. A comprehensive index follows.

Bargen, Doris G. The Fiction of Stanley Elkin. Frankfurt, Germany: Verlag Peter D. Lang, 1980. The first book-length work of criticism on Elkin. Examines his association with the literary movements of metafiction, black humor, American Jewish writers, and popular-culture novels. Bargen argues that Elkin’s work is similar in some ways to all of these but dissimilar enough to resist categorization. Her work includes an extensive biography, an interview with the author, and a comprehensive bibliography and index.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher, ed. Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. Several authors engage in a discussion of the role of humor in the writers who emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with Elkin figuring prominently in the discussion. Cohen aligns Elkin with black humorists, identifying their common traits, for example their need to laugh at the...

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