Thomas Berger Biography


Thomas Louis Berger was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 20, 1924, the only child of Charles and Mildred Bubbe Berger. He grew up in the nearby suburb of Lockland, where his father was business manager of the local school system. Encouraged by both parents, especially his mother, young Berger read incessantly.

While in high school, Berger held jobs as hotel desk clerk and theater usher and worked in a branch of the Cincinnati Public Library. After briefly attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the University of Cincinnati, he enlisted in the Army in 1943. Berger served as a medic in England, France, and Germany, and was stationed with the Occupation forces in Berlin following the end of World War II.

Berger graduated with honors from the University of Cincinnati in 1948 and moved to New York City. He became a graduate student at Columbia University in 1950, took Lionel Trilling’s famous course in modern American literature, and began a thesis on George Orwell but never finished. He also studied at Charles Glicksberg’s writers’ workshop at the New School for Social Research, at the same time as Jack Kerouac, Mario Puzo, and William Styron. Berger had decided to become a writer when he was sixteen, having been inspired by the urbane, erudite commentators on the radio program Information Please. At the New School workshop, he wrote a story a week for three months, beginning with melancholy, maudlin, simple stories in the manner...

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Style and content are inseparable in Berger’s distinctively American novels that explore the mysteries of daily existence. His characters assert their identities through language. Speaking to his friend Reinhart in Vital Parts, Splendor Mainwaring, who defines himself in part by changing his name, says of his son, who also changes his name several times, “Raymond will say almost anything. He has discovered the technique of bold assertion, in which the content is almost irrelevant. He is American to the core: to say is to be. You and I make a distinction between rhetoric and reality.” This distinction between reality and the way in which language is used to create or distort it is the essence of Berger’s fictional world. He has said that he writes to amuse himself and looks for himself through the English language: “Language is tremendously important to me. It’s a morality and a politics and a religion. I really believe that if you write well you’re a ’good’ man.” Berger’s novels deal uniquely and entertainingly with how language and morality are intertwined.


Thomas Louis Berger was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 20, 1924, and grew up in the nearby suburban community of Lockland. Disenchanted after a short bout with college, Berger enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving from 1943 to 1946 and entering Berlin in 1945 with the first American Occupation troops; his experiences gave him some of the background for his first novel, Crazy in Berlin.

After the war, Berger returned to college, receiving his B.A. at the University of Cincinnati in 1948. He continued his studies as a graduate student in English at Columbia University (1950-1951), where he completed course work for an M.A. and began a thesis on George Orwell, which he never completed. Instead, Berger turned his attention to the writers’ workshop at the New School for Social Research. In that workshop, under the aegis of Charles Glicksberg, Berger began to write short stories. “I produced one story a week for three months, most of them melancholy in tone, maudlin in spirit, and simple of mind,” he has recounted, “Hemingway then being my model.” Berger dismisses his short fiction, explaining, “The marathon is my event, and not the hundred-yard dash.” Despite this assessment, Berger’s short fiction has appeared in magazines ranging from the Saturday Evening Post to Harper’s, Esquire, Playboy, and North American Review.

From 1948 through 1951, Berger supported his writing by...

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