Stanley May Elkin Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Stanley Elkin May 11, 1930–May 31, 1995

(Full name Stanley Lawrence Elkin) American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

For further information on Elkin's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 9, 14, 27, and 51.

Considered one of the best and most entertaining stylists in contemporary fiction, Elkin is renowned for works that transform grotesque situations and the vulgarity and alienation of mass culture into comic affirmations of humanity. His prose style is characterized by punning word-play, Jewish idioms, and a blend of formal and colloquial language that many critics have found reminiscent of a sales pitch conceived as high art. The son of a jewelry salesman, Elkin was born in New York City and raised in Chicago. He began writing stories in elementary school, evincing early the interest in literature he pursued through college and graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After serving in the United States Army between 1955 and 1957, he returned to teach literature at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and complete his dissertation on William Faulkner for the University of Illinois. Before earning his doctoral degree in 1961, however, he went to Rome and London on what he called "a mother's grant" to do most of the writing for his first novel, Boswell (1964). Elkin taught literature and creative writing at Washington University for the rest of his life, becoming a full professor in 1969 and the Merle King Professor of Modern Letters in 1983. Elkin's fiction features many first-person narrators whose obsessive personalities are expressed through intense, humorous, eloquent speech peppered with the inflections and jargon of their professions. Exemplary in this regard is the novella The Bailbondsman from Searches and Seizures (1973), in which Alexander Main, known as "the Phoenician" in the Cincinnati criminal justice community, begins to realize what it means to age: "Where are my muscles, my smooth skin? Why doesn't desire die?… Why do I have this curiosity like a game leg? How can I cross-examine the universe when it jumps my bond?" Critics note that evolving, aging, and physical decay are among the main themes of Elkin's fiction. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1972, a disease which eventually confined him to a wheelchair and the custodial care of his wife, Elkin continued to write and teach and faced his condition with humor and determination. He wrote that "As long as you've got your health you've got your naivete. I lost the one, I lost the other, and maybe that's what led me toward revenge—a writer's revenge anyway, the revenge, I mean, of style."