Gilbert Sorrentino (saw-rehn-TEE-noh) was a central figure in the literary avant-garde of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which was centered in New York but had artistic ties to other communities in the United States. His work displays fictional devices and techniques that are now associated with postmodernism. The child of a Sicilian-born father and a third-generation Irish mother, he grew up among Roman Catholics in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Sorrentino used this milieu, which he considered deadening, in his second novel, Steelwork. A precocious boy, he began his migratory travels by moving across the river to the cultural centers of Manhattan when he was eighteen.
In 1950 Sorrentino enrolled in Brooklyn College and began to write fiction, but he attended classes only one year before his education was interrupted by his being drafted into the Army Medical Corps. When he was released in 1953, he attempted to write a novel that was unsuccessful, then returned to Brooklyn College in 1955. While there, he founded a magazine, Neon, with some of his friends. From 1956 to 1960 Sorrentino edited the magazine and published the works of many prominent writers, including William Carlos Williams, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Hubert Selby, Jr., and Joel Oppenheimer. Although its readership was small, Sorrentino believed that an audience of two hundred was sufficient because in the late 1950’s the New York community of poets and writers was so close. With novelist James Joyce and poet William Carlos Wiilliams, Sorrentino shared faith in the power of the word and in its multiple technical possibilities, the motif for much of his work.
Together with LeRoi Jones, Sorrentino shared the editorship of another significant magazine of the 1960’s, Kulchur (1960-1965), whose contributors included members of the Beats, the Black Mountain School, and the New School. Sorrentino wrote numerous critical, iconoclastic pieces for Kulchur and during these years published two poetry collections: The Darkness Surrounds Us and Black and White. From 1965 to 1970 he worked at Grove Press, rising from assistant to editor. His first editing assignment was Alex Haley’s edited text, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). In these years Sorrentino published his first novel, The Sky Changes, which ignores time sequence by scrambling the past, present, and future. He also began his teaching career with a course at Columbia University.
Although critics held him in high esteem, his work was always avant-garde and experimental, and he did not gain popular attention until the publication of his novel Mulligan Stew in 1979. Literary parody is the major device of Mulligan Stew, which is considered Sorrentino’s masterpiece. It was published to rave reviews, gained popularity, and led to Sorrentino’s appointment to the faculty of Stanford University in 1982, where he taught creative writing until his retirement in 1999. In an interview with Alexander Laurence in 1994, Sorrentino spoke of his opinion about the Northern California culture in which he lived during the Stanford years. He found it antithetical and struggled with its “cuteness, its apathy, its general air of paralysis, its relentless small-townishness . . . ” San Francisco, he said, “has the air of an amateur stage production set in sinister natural surroundings.” In the same interview he castigated publishers, popular culture, the reading public, and the denigration of Italian Americans.
For all of his cavils, Sorrentino has been the recipient of many awards, including Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction in 1973 and 1987, John Dos Passos Prize for Literature in 1981, American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature in 1985, and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction in 1992.
Sorrentino has spent his life pursuing his ideal of art. He believes that as the artist works, the vision is changed, reformed, and corrupted, so that all artistic effort is essentially a drive to reach an ideal that is unattainable. Within these limitations, however, Sorrentino is an artist of unusual drive and ability and has provided his readers with new ways to think about language and literature.