Last reviewed: June 2017
April 26, 1914
Brooklyn, New York
March 18, 1986
New York, New York
Although Bernard Malamud is a well-known spokesman of the Jewish experience in American literature, his short stories and novels transcend their ethnic origin and are really about all men and women searching for love and coping with moral responsibility. He was born on April 26, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, to Bertha and Max Malamud, who ran a grocery store. Although Malamud never talked much about his youth, he did say once in an interview that he very early took to literature and wanted to be a writer; at age nine he was writing stories.
After finishing high school, Malamud attended the City College of New York, where he received his B.A. degree in 1936. Between 1937 and 1940, he attended graduate school at Columbia University, taught evening classes at the high school he had attended, and began writing stories seriously. He received his master’s degree from Columbia in 1942 and published his first stories the following year. Malamud married Ann de Chiara in 1945 and taught evening classes at Harlem Evening High School until 1949, when he took a job at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Grave of American writer Bernard Malamud at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA.
Grave of American writer Bernard Malamud at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA.
While at Oregon, Malamud continued to write, publishing stories in the most reputable journals and magazines. His first novel, The Natural, a mythic story which is less about baseball (its ostensible subject) than about the nature of heroic figures, appeared in 1952; after receiving a fellowship to work in Europe, he published The Assistant in 1957. In spite of the success of his novels, it was in the short-story form that Malamud seemed to find his true fictional voice. His most celebrated collection, The Magic Barrel, received the National Book Award and earned for him a Ford Fellowship.
In 1961 Malamud joined the faculty at Bennington College in Vermont and published his third novel, A New Life, based on his experience as a young professor and writer while at Oregon State. For the remainder of his career, Malamud continued to write brilliant short stories as well as highly praised novels. His most ambitious, but in many ways his least complex book, The Fixer, was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1967. In the early 1980’s Malamud suffered from heart disease, and necessary surgery weakened him. He died on March 18, 1986, in his Manhattan apartment.
Although Malamud focuses on the Jewish experience in the United States, especially the ghetto experience, the Jew in his fiction is more an embodiment of the complex moral experience of universal human suffering, responsibility, and love than a realistic representative of a particular ethnic and social situation. Malamud’s short stories especially are closer to the oral tradition of parable than they are to realistic fiction. Although one can discern traces of the Yiddish tale in Malamud’s stories, one also realizes that they reflect the tight symbolic structure and ironic and distanced point of view associated with the modern short story since James Joyce.
“The Magic Barrel” is typical of Malamud’s short fiction. Thematically, it links tragedy with comedy; technically, it combines fantasy and realism. Patterned on the mythic quest structure, it focuses on an archetypal figure who makes the central character aware of his real identity behind the social mask he wears. Malamud’s short stories move inevitably toward a conclusion in which complex moral dilemmas are not so much resolved as they are frozen in a final symbolic and ironic tableau. In Malamud’s stories, readers are confronted with characters who either try to give sympathy and fail or make demands for sympathy that cannot be easily met.
Although many critics believe that Saul Bellow ranks above Malamud as the most important Jewish American writer, such a judgment holds true only if one asserts that the novel is more important than the short story. Indeed, Bellow may be the classic example of the novelist struggling to present a philosophic point of view within a sprawling realistic framework, but it is Malamud who will remain the prototype of the short-story writer struggling to embody a complex moral dilemma within a gemlike parabolic epiphany.