Obituaries And Tributes
William Grimes (obituary date 2 June 1995)
SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, June 2, 1995, p. A25.
[In the following, Grimes reviews Elkin's life and career, noting that "his work veered toward parody and black humor—and his highly wrought sentences formed a dense, self-contained linguistic world."]
Stanley Elkin, a stylistic virtuoso whose novels, short stories and novellas were at once lyrical, bleak and fantastic, died on Wednesday at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He was 65 and lived in University City, Mo.
The cause was heart failure, said his daughter, Molly.
Mr. Elkin, the author of Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, Searches and Seizures, The Magic Kingdom and The Franchiser, was often described as a clear-eyed realist—even though his work veered toward parody and black humor—and his highly wrought sentences formed a dense, self-contained linguistic world. Although he paid scant attention to plot and incident, his deliberately preposterous fictional situations led him to explore the pain at the heart of the human condition. His long struggle with multiple sclerosis only deepened his preoccupation with suffering and mortality. Reviewing Mr. Elkin's second novel, A Bad Man (1967), in The New York Times Book Review, the critic Josh Greenfeld called the author "at once a bright satirist, a bleak absurdist and a deadly moralist."
Mr. Elkin was born in Brooklyn, where his father was a costume-jewelry salesman, and grew up on the South Shore of Chicago, where he began writing stories in grade school. After graduating from South Shore High School, he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1952, a master's degree in 1953 and a doctorate in 1961. His dissertation dealt with religious themes and symbols in William Faulkner's novels. From 1955 to 1957 he was in the Army.
As an undergraduate, Mr. Elkin contributed stories to Illini Writers, the university's literary magazine, and acted in radio dramas on the college station.
In 1960, he became an instructor in the English department of Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught writing for the rest of his life. He became a full professor in 1969 and was named Merle King Professor of Modern Letters in 1983.
His first novel, Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964), showed Mr. Elkin's penchant for concocting absurd situations with tragic potential. It thrust an updated version of Samuel Johnson's biographer into the modern world. Fearful of death, haunted by a sense of his own mediocrity, he surrounds himself with celebrities, including a professional wrestler nicknamed the Grim Reaper, and tries to organize a club of famous people.
Mr. Elkin won widespread critical praise for his second book, Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (1966), a collection of nine stories, most of them sharply realized character sketches. Critics also admired Searches and Seizures (1973), a collection of three novellas, one of which, "The Bailbondsman," was made into the 1976 film Alex and the Gypsy.
His work often dealt in darkly comic fashion with the alienating effects of American mass culture and the mysterious power of cliche. The hero of The Dick Gibson Show (1971), a radio disk jockey who roams from station to station, is everywhere and nowhere. The Franchiser (1976) tells the exploits of Ben Flesh, who is so successful in creating a nationwide empire of franchises that by the end of the novel he cannot tell one state from another.
Flesh's enthusiasm for his products inspired one of Mr. Elkin's most memorable set-pieces:
The colors of those ice creams! Chocolate like new shoes. Cherry like bright fingernail polish. We do a Maple Ripple it looks like finegrained wood, Peach like a light coming through a lampshade. You should see that stuff—the ice-cream paints bright as posters, fifty Day-Glo colors. You scoop the stuff up you feel like Jackson Pollock.
In 1972, Mr. Elkin, who had already survived a heart attack, was found to have multiple sclerosis, an illness that, over time, restricted him to a wheelchair and forced him to abandon the pen for the computer. It also provided him a metaphor that runs through much of his subsequent work. The Magic Kingdom (1985), for example, tells the story of a group of terminally ill children who are taken on an outing to Disneyland.
His other novels include The Living End (1979), The Rabbi of Lud (1987) and The MacGuffin (1993). His novel George Mills (1982), about 40 generations of blue-collar workers named George Mills, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Several of his essays were collected in Pieces of Soap (1992), and in 1992 he published a collection of three novellas, Van Gogh's Room at Arles.
At the time of his death he had just completed a novel, Mrs. Ted Bliss, which Hyperion is to publish in September.
In addition to his daughter, of Washington, he is survived by his wife, Joan; two sons, Philip, of Creve Coeur, Mo., and Bernard, of St. Louis; a sister, Diane Brandwein of Chicago, and two grandchildren.
Marie Arana-Ward (essay date 5 June 1995)
SOURCE: "Stanley Elkin, Voice of the Little Guy," in The Washington Post, June 5, 1995, p. 2, sec. 2.
[Arana-Ward is a staff-writer at The Washington Post and former editor of some of Elkin's books. In the following tribute, she discusses Elkin's personality and his desire for a broad readership, one that included more than just other writers.]
The last time I saw Stanley Elkin, we were speeding through a late Manhattan night in a van. I was in the front next to the driver, looking out at the street ruts winter had left behind. Stanley was in an open space in the back, strapped into his wheelchair, which was, in turn, yoked to the floor. It was 1992, and we were returning from the National Book Award ceremony in a funk. It was the third time he had been nominated for the award, and the third time he had lost.
Bumping along in the dark, trussed up in his tux with a runner-up medal festooning his neck, Stanley was inconsolable. As the road got worse, I could hear his hands thwack against the armrests and his head flop from side to side. Soon he was bobbing like a balloon in the wind. "Goddamn New York potholes!" he finally roared, half in a rage, and half with diabolical glee. It was vintage Elkin—a moment that could have been pulled from the life of Bobbo Druff, city commissioner of streets and luckless hero of The MacGuffin, his novel that hadn't taken the prize that year.
Stanley Elkin died last week in St. Louis of complications arising from his 23-year struggle with multiple sclerosis. He was 65. Merle King Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University and easily one of the greatest virtuosos of the American language, he produced 10 novels, two volumes of novellas, one volume of short stories, one collection of essays, and three published scripts.
I was Elkin's editor for a time—an oxymoron if ever there was one, for Elkin's books needed no editing. They sprang full-blown from the man's head, magical riffs of irreverent wisdom. Their heroes, like him, are the powerless but shrewd, setting out into an unjust world like Brooklyn bred Don Quixotes: off to tilt at windmills with little more than a mouthful of fast talk.
For all his yearning to be known by the greater American public, however, Elkin remained a writer's writer: an artist who was envied and exalted by the literary world, but whose works went undiscovered by the common man they strived to depict. Cynthia Ozick said of him, "Stanley Elkin is no ordinary genius of language, laughter, and the irresistible American idiom; he is an ingenious genius—an inimitable sword-swallower, fire-eater, and three-ring circus of fecund wit."
Elkin was born in the Bronx and grew up in Chicago. He was the eldest son of a costume jewelry salesman, a hereditary fact that predisposed him (he always said) to looking at words as if they were glittering gewgaws ready for the stringing.
After graduating from South Shore High School in Chicago, he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he completed a BA (1952), a master's (1953) and a doctorate (1961) in English. He served in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1957. He was a visiting professor at many colleges, including Yale, Smith and the University of Iowa, but for most of his career he was an English professor at Washington...
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