My ongoing subscription to The Library of America, started last summer, has thus far yielded primarily tomes relating to the American Revolution: Washington’s writings, Hamilton’s writings, the debate around the Constitution, and the like. But a few weeks ago, the first literary volume landed, a collection of Bernard Malamud’s novels of the 1960s. As I thumbed through the slipcased volume, bound in Library of America’s trademark format (which is as resilient as a hardcover yet as comfortable in the hand as a paperback), I was reminded of a highly entertaining 2008 essay for Commentary that drove me back into Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre. In that essay, “Why Malamud Faded,” Cheryl Miller of Doublethink Magazine wondered how Malamud disappeared so quickly from the American literary scene after a long, triumphant career.
Without seriously considering other possibilities, Miller posits that Malamud’s downfall can be traced to a 1974 essay written by Philip Roth in The New York Review of Books in which Roth accused Malamud of valorizing Jewish weakness and fetishizing Jewish pain. Roth didn’t like Jewish pain, preferred to write about Jewish pleasure (liver, anyone?), and laced into Malamud for his proclivities. Miller believes that the world agreed with this essay, and sentiment permanently turned against the scribe.
Sic Transit Gloria Monumenti
Doubtless it quietly thrills Miller, herself an essayist, to think that a single essay in a New York literary journal can change American tastes overnight. What she leaves out of her treatise, though, is an explanation of mechanism: how is it possible for a single essay (by a writer renowned for his insecurities) to sour the nation on a beloved literary icon? There are plentiful examples of astute essays in respected journals about iconic writers that did nothing to so damage their careers. Indeed, in the cases of John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, and Roth himself, the best of those essays would fill volumes. With respect to Ms. Miller, I believe she overestimates the degree to which the book-buying public (as opposed to the clubby New York literary establishment) cares about the intramural bitch-fests of American letters.
I have an alternative explanation, one that William of Ockham would appreciate: Malamud faded because we all get old, we all get tired, and pretty soon our voices start sounding more like echoes than the lusty cries from a living throat.
Most of us who write, whether for love or money, at some point learn that we are most successful when we connect to an audience, and that we usually connect best with an audience we know well and understand. We know that the connection is dynamic, that it can be a spark or it can be the neuro-chemical equivalent of a fire. Writer and reader meld in shared discovery, shared understanding, and in the end know ourselves and each other better than when we started. Malamud, Saul Bellow, Neil Simon and Philip Roth all spoke to a generation of Jews who had won the right to their identity by fighting in World War Two, by being the brave remainder of a culled and bloodied nation, and by their willingness to shed in both life and work as much of what makes them different (i.e., Jewish) from mainstream America as possible.* The connection was intense, and it electrified a generation.
Malamud’s work addressed Jewish themes, even when not explicitly about Jews. In what has become in the 21st Century his best-known work, The Natural, Malamud tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a country boy baseball phenom rejected out of hand by a more sophisticated world, and just as he is about to succeed, has his opportunity for glory seemingly ripped from him by a chance encounter with death. But Hobbs has a gift, and returns in his thirties to claim his destiny, and in so doing purify the game he loves.
This was a subtly Jewish story, an allegory of the Jewish kid trying to make it in a world of Goyim and torn between the purity of his upbringing and the lure of doing what that world wants of him. More than just a multi-faceted morality tale, it was the story of the struggle endured by every Jew who has ever been tempted by assimilation. What made Malamud’s stories moving was how they spoke to and revealed something deeply Jewish, all while wrapping it in a quintessentially American story that made it broadly accessible. This was Malamud’s genre, and that of Bellow, Simon, and Wouk.
Their rejection of the strictures of their heritage made them darlings to a generation (of both Jews and non-Jews) bent on rebellion and an exploration of what our ancestors would have called the apikoros, the Epicurean lifestyle that raised the sensual over the spiritual. They thrilled non-Jews with their Jewishness, exotic yet accessible without the distasteful need to actually meet one. Malamud’s storytelling (and that of his peers) was earthier, more connected to something grounded, sensual, and elemental in each of us, much as Judaism represents for the Goy a kind of pure but forbidden paleo-Christianity. Malamud and his ilk excited Jews because we were proud to have Jews recognized as great men of words, to have our stories recognized as interesting and worthy, and we secretly hoped that if Jewish writers could be initiated into the literary salons of mainstream America while retaining even a shred of their Jewishness, there was still hope for the rest of us.
That thrilling moment passed, though, and the audience moved on. Malamud and his contemporaries had had a good run by the time their best work began finding its way onto movie screens, and a decade that took us from The Producers to Annie Hall to Brighton Beach made the exotic commonplace. A new generation of writers, spawned of the sixties and wielding their pens like hammers and protest signs, turned the literary adrenaline junkies to the New Journalism and to the first generation of post-modern novelists. Malamud would continue to write brilliantly, but our attention had been drawn by other voices.
Malamud and a New Generation
As had our values. First the Greatest Generation Jews and then the Jewish Boomers gave way to a new generation, with sensibilities that focused on forging their own rules rather than refighting their parents’ kulturkampf. Generation X Jews, finding little of pressing relevance to connect with in Malamud’s works, went looking elsewhere.
And why not? Is not Joan Didion more relevant to those of us seeking to understand life in California today than Gertrude Atherton or Helen Hunt Jackson? Young Jews today have different concerns than those of us born in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Some have rejected the bacon-cheeseburger impiety of their parents generation and sought a return to traditional observance, a world Malamud had explicitly rejected. Even more young Jews reconnected with Zionism or with a secular desire to improve the world. Malamud would have applauded their rejection of tradition, but would have been baffled by their embrace of unselfconscious crusading. And still more had tuned out Jewish voices entirely, unless a mainstream author happened to be Jewish.
So Malamud’s work passed from the literary scene not long after he passed, a writer who spoke to a a people who have evolved during a moment that had passed.
The Literary Cicada
But before we consign Malamud’s works to the Recycle bin, it is worth considering that literature is history’s plaything. Writers and stories once adored and thence discarded of often rise above their time to become granite pinnacles of the literary landscape. Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Raymond Chandler, and Evelyn Waugh are read today outside of classrooms, not because their characters or stories are about us, or because the lives they depict seem familiar, but because they offer both a window onto a certain place and time and a reflection of the timelessness of what it means to be human. When I watch my millennial son look up from The Natural with a thoughtful grin, I wonder if it is not unreasonable for us to expect that Malamud’s oeuvre is not dead, just hibernating.
One last thought.
Jewish history is neither linear nor cyclical, but a combination of both. The faith evolves along with the tribe as we each try, in our own way, to forge a better world – or at least a vine and fig tree under which to sit. And yet we appear locked into these long cycles of separation, assimilation, rejection, and persecution that has been our lot since, well, Genesis.
It is becoming painfully evident that the twin events of the Shoah and the establishment of the modern state of Israel did not end history – it merely bought us 70 years to repair the damage wrought by the Nazi extermination machine. Just when we felt we had ameliorated the circumstances that took us to the gas chambers, we find ourselves on the brink of a new era that is seeing Judaism rejected by Europe, attacked by Islam, and assailed by the horned shoots of anti-Semitism rising from the furrows in the American soil.
As we are drawn again into the vortex of our historical cycle, we should make sure to preserve the works of Malamud and his contemporaries. Who knows? Perhaps one day, their stories of a battered people seeking wider acceptance will once again hearten a generation of Jews emerging from a dark night of persecution.