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
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.