Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) is considered one of the most prominent figures in Jewish-American literature, a movement that originated in the 1930s and is known for its tragicomic elements.
Malamud's stories and novels, in which reality and fantasy are frequently interlaced, have been compared to parables, myths, and allegories and often illustrate the importance of moral obligation. Although he draws upon his Jewish heritage to address the themes of sin, suffering, and redemption, Malamud emphasizes human contact and compassion over orthodox religious dogma. Malamud's characters, while often awkward and isolated from society, evoke both pity and humor through their attempts at survival and salvation. Sheldon J. Hershinow observed: "Out of the everyday defeats and indignities of ordinary people, Malamud creates beautiful parables that capture the joy as well as the pain of life; he expresses the dignity of the human spirit searching for freedom and moral growth in the face of hardship, injustice, and the existential anguish of life.
Malamud was born April 28, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian Jewish immigrants. His parents, whom he described as "gentle, honest, kindly people," were not highly educated and knew very little about literature or the arts: "There were no books that I remember in the house, no records, music, pictures on the wall." Malamud attended high school in Brooklyn and received his Bachelor's degree from the City College of New York in 1936. After graduation, he worked in a factory and as a clerk at the Census Bureau in Washington, D. C. Although he wrote in his spare time, Malamud did not begin writing seriously until the advent of World War II and the subsequent horrors of the Holocaust. He questioned his religious identity and started reading about Jewish tradition and history. He explained: "I was concerned with what Jews stood for, with their getting down to the bare bones of things. I was concerned with their ethnicality—how Jews felt they had to live in order to go on living." In 1949, he began teaching at Oregon State University; he left this post in 1961 to teach creative writing at Bennington College in Vermont. He remained there until shortly before his death in 1986.
Malamud's first novel, The Natural (1952), is considered one of his most symbolic works. While the novel ostensibly traces the life of Roy Hobbs, an American baseball player, the work has underlying mythic elements and explores such themes as initiation and isolation. For instance, some reviewers cited evidence of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail; others applied T. S. Eliot's "wasteland" myth in their analyses. The Natural also fore-shadows what would become Malamud's predominant narrative focus: a suffering protagonist struggling to reconcile moral dilemmas, to act according to what is right, and to accept the complexities and hardships of existence. Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957), portrays the life of Morris Bober, a Jewish immigrant who owns a grocery store in Brooklyn. Although he is struggling to survive financially, Bober hires a cynical anti-Semitic youth, Frank Alpine, after learning that the man is homeless and on the verge of starvation. Through this contact Frank learns to find grace and dignity in his own identity. Described as a naturalistic fable, this novel affirms the redemptive value of maintaining faith in the goodness of the human soul. Malamud's first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel (1958), was awarded the National Book award in 1959. Like The Assistant, most of the stories in this collection depict the search for hope and meaning within the grim entrapment of poor urban settings and were influenced by Yiddish folktales and Hasidic traditions. Many of Malamud's best-known short stories, including "The Last Mohican," "Angel Levine," and "Idiots First," were republished in The Stories of Bernard Malamud in 1983.
A New Life (1961), considered one of Malamud's most realistic novels, is based in part on Malamud's teaching career at Oregon State University. This work focuses on an ex-alcoholic Jew from New York City who, in order to escape his reputation as a drunkard, becomes a professor at an agricultural and technical college in the Pacific Northwest. Interweaving the protagonist's quest for significance and self-respect with a satiric mockery of academia, Malamud explores the destructive nature of idealism, how love can lead to deception, and the pain of loneliness. Malamud's next novel, The Fixer (1966), is considered one of his most powerful works. The winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this book is derived from the historical account of Mendel Beiliss, a Russian Jew who was accused of murdering a Christian child. Drawing upon Eastern European Jewish mysticism, The Fixer turns this terrifying story of torture and humiliation into a parable of human triumph. With The Tenants (1971), Malamud returns to a New York City setting, where the theme of self-exploration is developed through the contrast between two writers, one Jewish and the other black, struggling to survive in an urban ghetto. Within the context of their confrontations about artistic standards, Malamud also explores how race informs cultural identity, the purpose of literature, and the conflict between art and life. Alvin B. Kernan commented: "[The Tenants] is extraordinarily powerful and compelling in its realization of the view that is central to the conception of literature as a social institution: that literature and the arts are an inescapable part of society."
Malamud further addresses the nature of literature and the role of the artist in Dubin's Lives (1979). In this work, the protagonist, William Dubin, attempts to create a sense of worth for himself, both as a man and as a writer. A biographer who escapes into his work to avoid the reality of his life, Dubin bumbles through comically disastrous attempts at love and passion in an effort to find self-fulfillment. Malamud's next novel, God's Grace (1982), differs from his earlier works in scope and presentation of subject matter. Set in the near future immediately after a nuclear disaster which leaves only one human being alive, God's Grace explores the darkness of human morality, the nature of God, and the vanity and destruction associated with contemporary life. Critical reception to this work varied greatly. Some critics felt that the contrast between the serious moral fable and the protagonist's penchant for alternately conversing with God and a group of apes unique and challenging; others believed the structure of the novel did not support the seriousness and ambition of its themes. However, God's Grace, like all of his works, reveals Malamud's motivations as a writer and expresses his profound humanistic concerns. Malamud explained: "It seems to me that the writer's most important task, no matter what the current theory of man, or his prevailing mood, is to recapture his image as human being as each of us in his secret heart knows it to be."
Further Reading on Bernard Malamud
Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1986.
Detroit News, March 23, 1986.
Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1986.
New Republic, May 12, 1986.
Newsweek, March 31, 1986.
New York Times, March 20, 1986.
Times (London), March 20, 1986.
Washington Post, March 20, 1986.
Alter, Iska, The Good Man's Dilemma: Social Criticism in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud, AMS Press, 1981.
Astro, Richard, and Jackson J. Benson, editors, The Fiction of Bernard Malamud, Oregon State University Press, 1977.
Avery, Evelyn G., Rebels and Victims: The Fiction of Richard Wright and Bernard Malamud, Kennikat, 1979.
Baumbach, Jonathan, The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press, 1965.
Bilik, Dorothy Seldman, Immigrant-Survivors: Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Recent Jewish-American Literature, Wesleyan University Press, 1981.
Bloom, Harold, Bernard Malamud, Chelsea House, 1986.
Cohen, Sandy, Bernard Malamud and the Trial by Love, Rodopi (Amsterdam), 1974.