My Own Ground, 1976
The Tree of Life, 1985
The Song of the Earth, 2001
A Pile of Stones, 1965
In the Reign of Peace, 1972
The Elephant and My Jewish Problem: Selected Stories and Journals, 1957-1987, 1988
Notes from the Frontier, 1968
Until the publication of The Tree of Life, Hugh Nissenson (NIH-sehn-suhn) was known primarily as an author of works in which Jews were central. His early works treat Jews in Poland before the Nazi occupation in World War II, in Israel, and in the United States. His first novel, My Own Ground, treats Jewish life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. The Tree of Life, historical fiction, and The Song of the Earth, science fiction, however, have non-Jews as their central characters.
Nissenson’s father, Charles, immigrated in 1907 from Warsaw, Poland, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he worked in a garment factory that apparently was a sweatshop. Charles eventually got a better job as a salesman. He married Brooklyn-born Harriet Dolch and moved his family to Brooklyn, where their only child, Hugh, was born. Hugh received a secular rather than a religious education. He graduated from the Fieldston School in the Bronx and from Swarthmore College in 1955. After college, Nissenson worked as a copy boy for The New York Times but quit to spend time writing fiction. He lived with his parents, so he could write without worrying about his living expenses.
As a child, Nissenson felt haunted by the Nazis. Born three months after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as Nazi dictator of Germany, Nissenson listened with his parents to Hitler’s speeches on the radio and saw Hitler in photographs and newsreels. He later remembered the American anti-Semitism that was rampant during the 1930’s and early 1940’s and especially recalled his father’s patriotism, along with his fear that fascists would take over the United States and kill all the Jews, just as they tried to do in Europe during Hitler’s reign. This fear, Nissenson claimed, led to his feeling that something murderous lay at the heart of the United States, a fear that is central to many of his works.
His father’s eloquence, along with Nissenson’s desire to be accepted as an American, led him to read extensively in American literature and eventually to become a writer. His fear of death, he said, also inspired him to write and draw. In 1957 Nissenson went to Israel and stayed two years. While there, he published his first story, “The Blessing,” in Harper’s Magazine in November, 1959. Set in Israel, it treats a father whose son dies after a long illness. The father says that he cannot attend the burial because at it, God will be blessed, and the father feels estranged from God. After the publication of this story, Nissenson’s work appeared in many magazines, including Commentary, Esquire, Playboy, Holiday, and The New Yorker. He also published a number of short-story collections.
In 1961 he returned to Israel to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s deputies who was directly involved in the attempt to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews. Nissenson’s essay, “Israel During the Eichmann Trial,” appeared in Commentary in July, 1961. After this trip, Nissenson and his wife, Mary Claster Nissenson, often visited Israel together.
My Own Ground, Nissenson’s first novel, grew in part out of hearing about his father’s experiences in the garment trade. In it, Jacob Brody, in his sixties, recalls 1912, when as an orphaned fifteen-year-old, he tried to save Hannah Isaacs, a rabbi’s daughter, from a life of prostitution. In the novel, Nissenson explores the corruption found in New York’s Lower East Side. Failing to save Hannah, Jake eventually flees to Elmira, New York, where he starts a new life and from which he writes his memoir.
Nissenson’s second novel, The Tree of Life, consists of the diary of Thomas Keene, a fictitious widower and former pastor who leaves the East when he loses his faith. He settles on the frontier in Richland County, Ohio, where he farms, bootlegs, and falls in love with and marries a young widow. His diary, kept in 1811 and 1812, talks frankly about his life, including his sexual escapades and his drunkenness. It also treats the friction between the white settlers and Delaware Indians, recounting horrible savagery on both sides. The book contains a number of Nissenson’s drawings and poems, all attributed to the fictitious Keene.
The Song of the Earth, Nissenson’s third novel, is a fictitious biography by Katherine G. Jackson, written in 2067, of John Firth Baker, the first genetically engineered visual artist, who is murdered in 2057, when he is nineteen. The book consists of extracts from Baker’s mother’s journal, Baker’s correspondence, and interviews with Baker’s friends, along with many poems by Clorene Wells and artworks by Baker and others. As in The Tree of Life, Nissenson combines his prose, poetry, and artwork, here including drawings and color paintings. The book is a nightmarish vision of the future. Baker’s mother, like Nissenson, suffers from depression. Baker is a homosexual, who, even when his paintings are selling, earns money as a male prostitute. He breaks with his mother when he discovers that she experimented with him during the first few months of his life by deliberately withholding affection. She then commits suicide. Just as he is achieving fame as an artist, Baker is murdered.
Nissenson taught writing at Yale University, Barnard College, Manhattanville College, and Auburn Theological Seminary. His books have been favorably reviewed. The Tree of Life was a finalist for the American Book Award and a PEN/Faulkner Award. The Song of the Earth was the first of his works to become a best-seller. It also won the Spectrum Award for 2002 for its depiction of homosexuality and was on the short list for the James Tiptree, Jr., Award for 2001, given for treatment of gender.