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 of Ernest Hemingway before coming under the influence of William Faulkner. On June 12, 1950, he married Jeanne Redpath, an artist he had met at the New School.
During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Berger worked as a librarian at the Rand School of Social Science, as a staff member of The New York Times Index, and as a copy editor for Popular Science Monthly. In this period, he wrote reviews for New Leader and Institute of Social Studies Bulletin and published his first short story, the Hemingway-influenced “Dependency of Day and Night,” in Western Review in 1952.
In 1954, the Bergers moved to Rockland County, New York, on the Hudson River so that he could devote more time to his writing while working as a freelance copy editor for publishing houses. After rejections from four publishers, Berger’s first novel, Crazy in Berlin, was published in 1958. This novel and its sequel, Reinhart in Love (1962), sold a meager forty-five hundred copies. His third novel, Little Big Man (1964), sold ten thousand copies and won the Western Heritage Award and the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, presented by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for a notable work of fiction not considered a commercial success. Berger began receiving more public attention with the release of the 1970 film version of Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dustin Hoffman.
Sales of the film rights to several of his novels allowed Berger the freedom to move about while he continued to practice his craft. He and his wife have lived in England, California, Maine, and New York. In addition, Berger has taught at the University of Kansas, Southampton College, Yale University, and the University of California at Davis. Berger retired from writing after Suspects (1996) and again after The Return of Little Big Man (1999), only to return to his craft each time.
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...
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