Authors: Hortense Calisher

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American author of short-story collections, novels, and nonfiction.

December 20, 1911

New York, New York

January 13, 2009

New York, New York


Hortense Calisher’s background was urbane secular-Jewish, with an often emphasized splash of the southern—her father, Joseph Henry Calisher, was from Richmond, Virginia. (Both Calisher’s father and paternal grandfather were married and started families late, as do many of her fictional males.) Her mother, Hedvig Lichstern, was a German immigrant. Born and educated in New York City (her B.A. is from Barnard College, where she studied literature and philosophy), Calisher lived there or nearby for most of her life. After graduation from college, she worked as a sales clerk, as a model, and for some years as a social worker. In 1935 she married Heaton Bennett Heffelfinger, an engineer by whom she had a son and a daughter and from whom she was divorced in 1958. In 1959 she married Curtis Harnack, also a writer, who, like her first husband, was a Gentile. In her autobiographical collection Herself, which includes thoughts on writing, on values, and on her contemporaries, she expresses a preference for Christian men. Also in Herself, Calisher obliquely mentions her children, referring once or twice to emotional problems her daughter had when reaching maturity but otherwise saying little about domestic matters. She does indicate that she spent much time traveling for the United States Information Agency in the 1950s; on a trip to the Far East she noted that Japanese writers had maintained that their own literature differed from Western literature in that they had no sense of original sin. If that is so, there is a definite Eastern quality to Calisher’s fiction.

Calisher was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952 and 1953 and received many other awards, both literary and academic. She wrote that she did not care for academic life, nor did she believe much in creative writing classes. Nonetheless, she served on the faculties of Barnard College, Sarah Lawrence College, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Bennington College, Washington University, and Brown University.

Hortense Calisher



(Library of Congress)

Although she wrote poetry in the 1930s, Calisher published none of it. She saw her first story, “A Box of Ginger,” in print in The New Yorker in 1948. Her best-known and most often anthologized story, “In Greenwich There Are Many Gravelled Walks,” is another early effort, and in it much is encapsulated that appears with variations in her other work. In this story Peter, a young heterosexual man who has driven his hysterical and sometimes nymphomaniacal mother to a sanatorium, decides to visit the apartment of an older friend who is gay. The middle-aged man is another recurring type, a remittance man whose family pays him to keep his distance; he is in the process of leaving his lover for another, who is in the room when Peter visits. The daughter of the remittance man arrives, and while conversation continues in the front room, the rejected lover jumps to his death, the replacement makes himself scarce, and Peter and the young woman get acquainted. All of this occurs in a very few pages. As Calisher has said, “A story is an apocalypse, served in a very small cup.”

Calisher’s characters are sophisticated, and they often seem to resemble the characters in Henry James’s works. They are intellectuals, certainly, but people whose approach to life is primarily aesthetic. Indeed, she often has been compared to James and to Marcel Proust, though in Herself she notes that she read these authors only after she was established. In short, her stories are ones similar to many that appear in The New Yorker, whose editors for a long time enjoyed first-refusal rights on what she wrote. Critics have commented that Calisher’s novels are essentially the same type of fiction as her short stories, only longer.

Most often, sexuality is the metaphor Calisher uses to explore the convolutions and unpredictable twists of the human psyche. Her characters have hidden curiosities that are revealed at least in part; these revelations hint at more mysteries yet unexplored, and not necessarily sexual ones. While her characters generally experience some defeat and feelings of hopelessness, Calisher’s work champions self-awareness and the principles of love. She has, especially, been praised for her insight into women’s lives, but her work could not be labeled “feminist.” Indeed, it is much broader, compassionately probing the psychology of human motivations. Calisher died in New York City on January 13, 2009.

Author Works Short Fiction: In the Absence of Angels: Stories, 1951 Tale for the Mirror: A Novella and Other Stories, 1962 Extreme Magic: A Novella and Other Stories, 1964 “The Railway Police” and “The Last Trolley Ride,” 1966 The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, 1975 Saratoga, Hot, 1985 The Novellas of Hortense Calisher, 1997 Long Fiction: False Entry, 1961 Textures of Life, 1963 Journal from Ellipsia, 1965 The New Yorkers, 1969 Queenie, 1971 Standard Dreaming, 1972 Eagle Eye, 1973 On Keeping Women, 1977 Mysteries of Motion, 1983 The Bobby-Soxer, 1986 Age, 1987 The Small Bang, 1992 (as Jack Fenno) In the Palace of the Movie King, 1993 In the Slammer with Carol Smith, 1997 Sunday Jews, 2003 Nonfiction: Herself, 1972 Kissing Cousins: A Memory, 1988 Tattoo for a Slave, 2004 Bibliography Aarons, Victoria. “The Outsider Within: Women in Contemporary Jewish American Fiction.” Contemporary Literature 28, no. 3 (1987): 378-393. This essay examines the ways in which female characters portrayed in fiction by Jewish American women reflect the position of women in a male-dominated tradition. Calisher, Hortense. “The Art of Fiction: Hortense Calisher.” Interview by Allen Gurganus, Pamela McCordick, and Mona Simpson. The Paris Review 29 (Winter, 1987): 157-187. This insightful interview with Calisher explores her various approaches to creative writing. Calisher, Hortense. Introduction to The Novellas of Hortense Calisher. New York: The Modern Library, 1997. The author explains how a novella differs from a novel. Hahn, Emily. “In Appreciation of Hortense Calisher.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 6 (Summer, 1965): 243-249. A close reading of the early fiction, identifying themes such as the friction between generations, which Calisher explores so sensitively in her stories. Noble, Holcomb B. “Hortense Calisher, Author, Dies at 97.” The New York Times, 15 Jan. 2009, Accessed 29 Mar. 2017. Calisher’s obituary. Saturday Review Talks to Hortense Calisher.” Saturday Review 11 (July/August, 1985): 77. In this biographical sketch, based on an interview, Calisher says she considers the Bible a major influence on her style and the New York environment a major force in her artistic development. Shinn, Thelma J. Radiant Daughters: Fictional American Women. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Includes an examination of the female characters in Calisher’s fiction from the short stories collected since 1951 through Mysteries of Motion in 1983. Particularly relates her fiction to contemporary American writers of the 1950’s. Snodgrass, Kathleen. The Fiction of Hortense Calisher. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993. Discusses the central dual theme of rites of passage and extradition in Calisher’s fiction. Argues that her style is not something imposed on the subject matter, but the perfect embodiment of this dual theme. The first chapter discusses twelve autobiographical stories, mostly focused on the narrator and protagonist Hester Elkin.

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