Authors: Bernard Malamud

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author

April 26, 1914

Brooklyn, New York

March 18, 1986

New York, New York

Identity: Jewish

Biography

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.

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By Midnightdreary (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bernard Malamud

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By John Bragg (http://read.gov/fiction/malamud.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Natural, 1952 The Assistant, 1957 A New Life, 1961 The Fixer, 1966 The Tenants, 1971 Dubin’s Lives, 1979 God’s Grace, 1982 The People, 1989 Short Fiction: The Magic Barrel, 1958 Idiots First, 1963 Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition, 1969 Rembrandt’s Hat, 1973 The Stories of Bernard Malamud, 1983 The People, and Uncollected Stories, 1989 The Complete Stories, 1997 (Robert Giroux, editor) Nonfiction: Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, 1996 (Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco, editors) Bibliography Abramson, Edward A. Bernard Malamud Revisited. Twayne, 1993. Abramson’s chapter on the short stories is a brief, general introduction, divided into such categories as fantasies, Italian stories, father-son stories, and sociopolitical stories. Echoes a familiar judgment that in his stories Malamud is a moralist in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, but that he writes with the rhythms of Yiddish and the contours of the folktale. Avery, Evelyn, ed. The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud. State U of New York P, 2001. A wide-ranging collection of essays on Malamud and his writings, including personal memoirs by his members of his family and friends. Bloom, Harold, ed. Bernard Malamud. Chelsea House, 2000. Part of the Modern Critical Views series, this collection of essays assesses the whole spectrum of Malamud’s writings. Includes a chronology of his life and a bibliography. Davis, Philip. Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life. Oxford UP, 2007. The first full-length biography of the writer. Davis, Philip. Experimental Essays on the Novels of Bernard Malamud: Malamud’s People. Edwin Mellen Press, 1995. A selection of essays examining the long fiction. Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Field, eds. Bernard Malamud and the Critics. New York UP, 1970. The Fields present a collection of critical essays that are separated into sections on the Jewish tradition; myth, ritual, and folklore; varied approaches; and specific novels and stories. Although the material is somewhat dated, this book is a valuable guide for scholars trying to review early Malamud criticism. Contains a select bibliography and an index. Giroux, Robert. “On Bernard Malamud.” Partisan Review, vol. 64, 1997, 409-13. A brief general discussion of the life and work of Malamud, commenting on his major novels and short-story collections, his reception of the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. Malamud, Bernard. Introduction to The Stories of Bernard Malamud. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983. This untitled introduction by Malamud offers an invaluable insight into the mind and theories of the writer himself. After a short literary autobiography, Malamud details his belief in form, his assessment of creative writing classes, and the reasons he loves the short story. Malamud, Bernard. “Reflections of a Writer: Long Work, Short Life.” The New York Times Book Review. vol. 93, no. 20, 1988, 15-16. This essay, originally a lecture at Bennington College, offers numerous anecdotes and details about Malamud’s life as a writer. He elaborates upon his influences, his various professions, his friends, and some of his theories. Ochshorn, Kathleen. The Heart’s Essential Landscape: Bernard Malamud’s Hero. Peter Lang, 1990. Chapters on each of Malamud’s novels and his short-story collections. Seeks to continue a trend in Malamud criticism that views his heroes as tending toward the mensch and away from the schlemiel. Includes a bibliography but no notes. Richman, Sidney. Bernard Malamud. Twayne, 1966. In the first book-length study of Malamud, Richman systematically appraises each of Malamud’s works through A New Life. Richman also provides a chapter on Malamud’s Jewishness, a select bibliography, and some personal correspondence with the writer. A must for students getting started on Malamud. Sío-Castiñeira, Begoña. The Short Stories of Bernard Malamud: In Search of Jewish Post-immigrant Identity. Peter Lang, 1998. A good study of the short fiction and its major themes. Sloan, Gary. “Malamud’s Unmagic Barrel.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 32, 1995, pp. 51-57. Argues that everything that Pinye Salzman does in “The Magic Barrel” can be accounted for in naturalistic terms; claims that the story is more dramatic and ingenious as a naturalistic story than as a supernatural fable. Smith, Janna Malamud. My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malmud. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. An intimate and extensive biography of Bernard Malmud, depicting his personal life and writing career. Watts, Eileen H. “Jewish Self-Hatred in Malamud’s ‘The Jewbird.’” MELUS, vol. 21, 1996, 157-63. Argues that the interaction of assimilated Jew and the Jewbird in the story reveals the political, social, and psychological fallout of assimilated Jew as good tenant, unassimilated Jew as bad, and Gentile as landlord.

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