Since publishing her grounding-breaking first novel, Fear of Flying in 1973, best-selling American feminist writer Erica Jong (born 1942) has published fiction, collections of poetry, and countless articles about the lives of women, focusing on stories of sex, love, possibilities, and adventure.
Erica Jong grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, in a house of artists. Jong's mother was a portrait painter whose parents had immigrated from Odessa in Russia in the early twentieth century. Her father was a songwriter who became a businessman so he could support the family. "We had all the problems of a New York Jewish intellectual family, " Jong commented in a Washington Post interview in 1997. "It was hard to get a word in at the dinner table. When I first saw Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, I thought he was writing about me."
Always Circling Back to Writing
Jong attended New York's public High School of Music and Art in the 1950s, concentrating on art and writing. She read voraciously, especially Russian novels, and wrote poems, reading them aloud to whomever would listen. As an undergraduate at Barnard College, Jong intended to become a doctor, "to support herself while she wrote on the side, 'like William Carlos Williams"' she noted in a 1997 New York Times Book Review article. Instead, she eventually majored in writing and literature, studying with biographer James Clifford and poet Robert Pack, both of whom helped her to think of herself as a writer. "Don't worry, Erica, " Jong remembered Pack saying after she expressed worry about her zoology classes, "you're a poet." Exhibiting her typical, lifelong energy for the arts, Jong also edited the Barnard literary magazine and produced poetry programs for the Columbia University campus radio station. In 1963, she graduated from Barnard, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. She was also briefly married to her first husband, Michael Werthman, around this time.
Jong studied eighteenth-century English literature at Columbia, and received her M.A. in 1965. She married Allan Jong, a child psychiatrist, the following year. Continuing her education as a post-graduate, Jong studied poetry at Columbia's School of the Arts with Stanley Kunitz and Mark Strand. About this time, she published two books of poetry, Fruits and Vegetables and Half-Lives. "Welcome Erica Jong, " declared James Whitehead in his Saturday Review critique of Fruits and Vegetables, "and welcome the sensuality she has so carefully worked over in this wonderful book…. Clearly she has worked hard to gain this splendid and various and serious comic vision." Immersed in the world of academia, however, Jong continued her studies in the doctoral program at Columbia, intending to become a professor. "I was such an academic, " she commented in the New York Times Book Review. "I don't recognize myself when I look back. I knew exactly how to write tedious, footnoted tomes, and never suspected I would do anything else."
The Fear of Flying Phenomenon
But Jong was always drawn back to creative writing. Half way through the doctoral program, she left to try her hand at writing a novel about a woman's sexual experience. Jong once explained: "Males were writing about the bedroom. Why not women? Why not me? But we were still undiscovered country. No one had written about what goes on in a woman's head with any nakedness." Fear of Flying was published in 1973 in hardback to critical acclaim, including praise from such writers as John Updike and Henry Miller, who called it "a female Tropic of Cancer." Explicit in its descriptions of sex from a woman's point of view, it tells the story of Isadora Wing, a woman who seeks sexual and emotional fulfillment. "Isadora Wing was a creature of sexual delight, huge appetite, and no guilt whatsoever about infidelity and promiscuity, " declared a reviewer in the New York Times Book Review. Erica Jong "was the first woman to write in such a daring and humorous way about sex, " Karen Fitzgerald noted in Ms. "She popularized the idea of a woman's ultimate sexual fantasy … sex for the sake of sex."
Buoyed by initial praise, the book was received as a literary feat. "Fear of Flying is essentially a literary novel, a Bildungsroman with strong parallels to the Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and the myths of Daedalus and Icarus, " judged Emily Toth in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. But when the novel came out in paperback and was available to a more general audience, the reception changed to one of scandal. Jong once noted, "There was a media frenzy…. Here was this young woman coming out of nowhere to talk about sex … the book became (popular) for extraliterary reasons." In the America in the 1970s, Fear of Flying gave voice to many readers' experiences and emotions in a way no book had before, and despite the scandal surrounding its publication, Fear of Flying became the first of Jong's best-sellers, and perhaps the book for which she is the most well-known. The volume remains a perennial favorite, and has been translated into many languages.
After her initial success as a novelist, Jong returned to her original genre, poetry, and published her third poetry collection, Loveroot, in 1975. Two years later, as a sequel to Fear of Flying, Jong released How to Save Your Own Life. Continuing the story of Isadora Wing and her adventures, the second book did not reach the same acclaim as the first. John Leonard, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that How to Save Your Own Life lacks the "energy and irreverence of Fear of Flying…. Whereas the author of Fear of Flying was looking inside her own head, shuffling her fantasies, and with a manic gusto playing out her hand, the author of How to Save Your Own Life is looking over her shoulder, afraid that the critics might be gaining on her." Switching back to poetry, Jong then published two more books of verse, At the Edge of the Body (1979), a collection of metaphysical poems, and Ordinary Miracles (1983), a book about childbirth based on her own experience with the birth of her daughter Molly in 1979. Jong had divorced Allan Jong by that time, and married Jonathan Fast, a writer, in 1977.
Experimenting with Forms of Writing
Jong never forgot her love of eighteenth-century English literature from her doctoral-candidate days and used her knowledge of the times in her third novel, Fanny, Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones (1980). The volume, according to Jong, was a response to the hypothetical question "What if Tom Jones was a woman?" Fanny is "a picaresque of intelligence, buoyant invention and wonderful Rabelaisian energy, " opined Michael Malone in the New York Times Book Review. The book gained Jong attention as a satirist. According to Toth, "Jong uses the eighteenth-century novel form to satirize both Fanny's century and her own." "At heart, " noted Chicago Tribune contributor James Goldman, "this novel is a vehicle for Jong's ideas about Woman and Womanhood." Ever prolific and experimental with creative forms, Jong later adapted the novel into a musical produced by the Manhattan Theater Club in New York. Fanny was followed by Jong's fourth poetry collection, Witches, published in 1981. Paintings by Joseph A. Smith illustrated this book, which was a study of the figure of the witch as a historical reality and archetype.
Soon after her divorce from her third husband, Jonathan Fast, Jong published Megan's Book of Divorce (1984), illustrated by Freya Tanz. The book originally had the title Molly's Book of Divorce, but Fast threatened court action over the title, stating that it violated a divorce decree stipulating that Jong refrain from using the name of their then-five-year-old daughter, Molly, in her works. The book was published later than expected that year, under a changed title; it was intended both for children and adults. Written from the viewpoint of a child, the volume is about what it is like to be four years old and live through parents' divorce. According to the New York Times Book Review, Megan's Book of Divorce "smoothly glosses over the considerable pain and trauma small children suffer" in divorce. The book was reissued in 1996, and Molly Jong-Fast later recorded the Audiobook version.
Isadora Wing Lives On
Later in 1984, Jong's fourth novel, Parachutes and Kisses, emerged as the third book in the Isadora Wing trilogy. In this volume, Isadora Wing is 39 and has been through three divorces. But in the typical Isadora fashion audiences had come to know and appreciate, she still has a strong appetite for sex and adventure. According to the New York Times Book Review, Isadora Wing "discovered men in their mid-20's with energy levels to match or, with luck, to surpass her own. She especially falls for men who have read her books…. Miss Wing is one long advertisement for herself." The title of the book, Parachutes and Kisses, is taken from a poem by Pablo Neruda, a poet Jong admired and of whom she sometimes wrote. Parachutes and Kisses met with some critical success, but, like How to Save Your Own Life, it was not met with nearly the same overwhelming success as Fear of Flying.
Jong's fifth novel, Serenissima: A Novel of Venice, was released in 1987, and, like her earlier novels, quickly became a best-seller. In this volume, beautiful, 40-something movie star Jessica Pruitt travels to Venice to make a movie of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. She becomes ill and somehow travels back in time to the sixteenth century. Among other adventures, Jessica meets and falls in love with a young William Shakespeare, the English author of the Merchant of Venice. In the New York Times Book Review, reviewer Michael Malone stated: "As she proved in Fanny, … Erica Jong can write a historical novel that both honors its tradition with affectionate parody and creates its own full fictional reality."
The novel Any Woman's Blues was published three years later and one year after her marriage to attorney Kenneth David Burrows. Any Woman's Blues tells the story of Leila Sand, a mother and artist, who succeeds in ending an addictive relationship with a younger man to achieve peace and self-knowledge. The preface of the book reveals that the volume is actually the work of Isadora Wing, the character who had originally captured the imaginations of millions of readers. And "with this news comes lessons, " noted Benjamin Demott, reviewer from the jury of the 1989 National Book Awards. "If Leila (of Any Woman's Blues) is Isadora 17 years later, it follows (for moralists) that sin and abomination don't pay."
Reflecting on a Life of Writing, and Looking Forward
Two memoirs followed Any Woman's Blues: The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller in 1993 and Fear of Fifty in 1994. The Devil at Large chronicled Jong's long-standing friendship with author Henry Miller which began when Miller sent Jong a letter of praise for Fear of Flying. Miller's letter also included discussions about literary censorship and sexual politics. Fear of Fifty was lauded as a "funny, blistering mid-life memoir that assesses how far women have-or have not-traveled since the explosion of feminism in the late sixties and early seventies, " as noted on the Erica Jong Web Page. Lynn Freed, writing in the Washington Post Book World, called Fear of Fifty"a funny, pungent, and highly entertaining memoir of [Jong's] growing up, her men, her marriages, her motherhood, her writing, her successes and her failures on all fronts. And she has done so … with all her customary candor." The novel was a world-wide best-seller.
Jong published her seventh novel, Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters, in 1997. This volume is a four-generational story about a Jewish family in America, and as with many of her other novels, quickly became a best-seller. The novel was met with critical acclaim, especially in terms of the focus on Jewish identity. Many reviewers also praised Jong's heroines as examples of the changing role of women. For Jong, the writing of her books, such as Inventing Memory, has been a very personal experience. "It's a very profound self-analysis. It's like meditation, " Jong commented to Dana Micucci of the Chicago Tribune. "I try to tell a certain truth about the interior of my life and other women's lives. If you're writing the kinds of books I write, you come out a changed person."
Erica Jong has long been known as an energetic supporter of other writers, including her daughter Molly Jong-Fast. An advocate of artists' and authors' rights, she served as President of the Authors' Guild from 1991 until 1993, and she continues to serve on the advisory board as well as the advisory board of the National Writers Union. In 1996, Jong and her fourth husband, Kenneth David Burrows, helped to endow Barnard College's writing program. Jong also maintains a homepage on the World Wide Web that includes Erica Jong's Writers' Forum, a place for anyone to submit writings, on which fellow writers comment. Jong herself is a frequent participant in the discussions about fledgling writers' work.
Further Reading on Erica Mann Jong
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 18, 1981, Volume 85, 1994.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, 1978, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume 28: Twentieth-Century Jewish-American Fiction Writers, 1984.
Jong, Erica, Witches, illustrated by Joseph A. Smith, Abrams, 1981.
Templin, Charlotte, Feminism and the Politics of Literary Reputation: The Example of Erica Jong, University of Kansas Press, 1995.
Chicago Tribune, April 25, 1990, sec. 7, pp. 11-13; April 25, 1993, sec. 6, p. 3; July 31, 1994, sec. 14, p. 3; August 18, 1994, sec. 5, pp. 1-2.
Interview, July 1987.
Ms., November 1980; July 1981; July 1986; June 1987.
New York Post, August 7, 1997.
New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1977; August 12, 1973; November 11, 1973; March 5, 1978; August 17, 1980; December 27, 1981; March 8, 1984; July 1, 1984; August 5, 1984; October 10, 1984; March 3, 1985; April 19, 1987; January 28, 1990; June 10, 1992; June 21, 1992; February 14, 1993; July 24, 1994; September 20, 1996; July 20, 1997.
Saturday Review, December 18, 1971; April 30, 1977; August 1980; November 1981; December 1981.
Washington Post Book World, July 31, 1994, p. 5; February 9, 1997.
"About Erica Jong, " Erica Jong Web Page, http: //www.ericajong.com (March 19, 1998).