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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 1-16
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Prospects for the Study of Bernard Malamud
The Pennsylvania State University and
Eileen H. Watts
Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia
Bernard Malamud (1914-86) is a giant in American and Jewish American literature of the twentieth century. From the beleaguered Lower East Side grocery store of The Assistant, to the New York City tenements of the "New York" stories and The Tenants, to the New England setting of Dubin's Lives and the Western academic setting of A New Life, to an America of a postnuclear holocaust in God's Grace, Malamud has used the United States as his primary canvas. He has, secondarily, created some international landscapes with the Fidelman stories, set in Italy; "Man in the Drawer," set in the Soviet Union; and The Fixer, set in Czarist-era Russia. His characters grapple with major aspects of the modern American scene: struggling immigrants, grinding poverty, the quest for identity, Jewish-Gentile relations, racism, civil rights, Jewish-Black relations, the Holocaust, infidelity, interracial marriage, Russian and Soviet politics, nuclear devastation, mercy, and, of course, baseball. Furthermore, Malamud conveys these elements of twentieth-century American life through richly textured fable, allegory, and history, painted with humor and humanity.
This article provides an overview of Malamud's work, considers trends in past and current criticism, and includes a discussion of new possibilities for critical inquiry. In addition, it provides descriptions of the three collections of Malamud archives at the Library of Congress, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and Oregon State University at Corvallis, and some suggestions for the scholarly work these holdings make possible.
Bernard Malamud contributed to American literature eight novels, fifty-five short stories, and scores of interviews, essays, lectures, and speeches. The novels are The Natural (1952), an account of baseball player Roy Hobbs's quest to attain mythic heroic status; The Assistant (1957), the story of grocer Morris Bober's suffering and assistant Frank Alpine's redemption; A New Life (1961), a tale of transplanted English professor S. Levin's attempts at a new life in a fictional Western university; The Fixer (1966), a narrative loosely based on the Mendel Beilis case, [End Page 1] concerning the trials of Yakov Bok; Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (1969), an episodic tale of failed artist Arthur Fidelman (in Italy) finding his humanity; The Tenants (1971), a story in which black writer Willie Spearmint is pitted against Jewish writer Harry Lesser in a doomed racial clash; Dubin's Lives (1979), an account of biographer Dubin's attempts to discover his own life; and God's Grace (1982), a postnuclear-holocaust animal fable in which the lone human survivor, Calvin Cohn, seeks to salvage humanity.
The short stories were originally collected in The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963), Rembrandt's Hat (1973), The Stories of Bernard Malamud (1984), and The People and Uncollected Stories (1989). Bernard Malamud: The Complete Stories was published in 1997. Twenty-seven interviews conducted with Malamud between 1958 and 1986 have been gathered in Lasher's Conversations with Bernard Malamud (1991), and twenty-six essays, lectures, and interviews represent Malamud's writings and discussions about writing in Cheuse and Delbanco's Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work (1996). To friends and colleagues, Malamud contributed extensive and vigorous correspondence, most of which remains uncollected, with one exception: Malamud's epistolary friendship with artist Rosemarie Beck. This correspondence, introduced and edited by Joel Salzberg, is titled "The Rhythms of Friendship in Life and Art: The Correspondence of Bernard Malamud and Rosemarie Beck" (1997).
The rhythms of nearly fifty years of scholarly interpretation, approaches, criticism, and reviews have been gathered in six annotated bibliographies (three book-length, three article-length). This veritable magic barrel of criticism catalogues the burgeoning books, journal articles, chapters, and reviews generated by Malamud critics since 1952. The book-length bibliographies are Rita N. Kosofsky's Bernard Malamud: An Annotated Checklist (1969) and Bernard Malamud: A Descriptive Bibliography (1991), which contains an...