Authors: Isaac Rosenfeld

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American critic and novelist

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Nonfiction:

An Age of Enormity: Life and Writing in the Forties and Fifties, 1962

Long Fiction:

Passage from Home, 1946

Short Fiction:

Alpha and Omega, 1966

Miscellaneous:

Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader, 1988

Biography

The title of Isaac Rosenfeld’s only published novel, Passage from Home, is emblematic of his life and career. Rosenfeld was always in passage from a starting point which he ultimately rejected but for which he could find no meaningful substitute. Like Albert Camus, and like his friend and fellow Chicagoan Saul Bellow, Rosenfeld sought answers to questions about how to live in a world devoid of meaning.{$I[AN]9810000822}{$I[A]Rosenfeld, Isaac}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Rosenfeld, Isaac}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Rosenfeld, Isaac}{$I[tim]1918;Rosenfeld, Isaac}

Rosenfeld was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Chicago in 1918, and although he rejected Judaism, the experience of Jewish life remained a backdrop to his writings. His concerns mirror those of several other Jewish writers, particularly Sholom Aleichem and Franz Kafka. In 1941 Rosenfeld earned a master’s degree in literature at the University of Chicago and then moved to New York to pursue a doctorate at New York University. He married his wife, Vasiliki, that same year and quickly became a part of the intellectual subculture of Greenwich Village. He began to publish and became an assistant editor of The New Republic while also contributing to other left-wing and Jewish publications such as Commentary, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, and Partisan Review. Many of the stories and essays he wrote for these periodicals are reprinted in the two posthumous collections, Alpha and Omega (short stories) and An Age of Enormity (essays). In 1943 Rosenfeld left his position at The New Republic and took a job on a barge in New York Harbor. While he did not abandon the Greenwich Village society of which he was one of the leading lights, during this period Rosenfeld came close to embracing Wilhelm Reich’s theories; Reich held that the ills of modern society are traceable to sexual repression.

In the early 1950’s Rosenfeld moved to the Midwest again and taught at the University of Minnesota. He continued a pattern of disengagement by resigning that position and returning to Chicago, where he became an instructor of literature at the University of Chicago. By this time he was the father of two children but had divorced his wife. Rosenfeld finished another novel, “The Enemy,” a Kafkaesque tale about a war commander who struggles to convince himself that what he is doing is just while at the same time trying to determine why he is doing it. This novel’s failure to be accepted by a publisher apparently disillusioned Rosenfeld so greatly that he wrote little after 1951. He died alone of a heart attack in his furnished room near the university in 1956.

The concerns and technique of Rosenfeld’s fiction can be seen in his autobiographical Bildungsroman, Passage from Home. The young protagonist, Bernard, is fascinated by two people who symbolize a rejection of the stale middle-class values by which he feels bound: his Aunt Minna, an acerbic woman who insists on living her own life free of convention, and Willy, a Gentile who had been married to Bernard’s dead cousin Martha. Bernard contrives to unite the two free spirits. They begin to live together, and after a family quarrel Bernard moves in with them. He discovers that he is not well accepted in the relationship which he helped to create, and he returns home with a renewed sense of the values of the family life he had left behind. Unfortunately, Bernard’s father does not respond well to the new sense of identity in his son, and at the end of the novel, Bernard realizes that his return home only makes him aware that he has no real home.

In a second, unpublished novel and in many of his short stories, Rosenfeld followed the lead of Kafka by creating characters who try to find homes in ideas rather than in places or with people. Perhaps the most compelling of these stories is “The Colony” (1945), which is about a newly empowered political leader in a developing country. Although the leader has doubts about the effectiveness of the ideology which his predecessor espoused, he rather whimsically begins a revolt and is swiftly imprisoned. While in his jail cell, he thinks through the consequences of his thoughts and actions but comes to no definite conclusions. The story ends with the political situation as well as the questions of the protagonist still unresolved.

Rosenfeld’s best writing appeared in the form of criticism and literary commentary, most of which was written for mass-circulation periodicals and was therefore limited to two or three pages. In these essays Rosenfeld dissects the writing of authors who fail to unite “life” (human affairs) with “truth” (the underlying meanings behind human actions) or authors who fail to reveal the true human condition but take refuge behind a tough facade which masks sentimentality. Included in this category are such obvious targets as Irwin Shaw and Herman Wouk, but Rosenfeld also dismisses such giants as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Rosenfeld admired writers such as Kafka and André Gide, who avoided easy answers to modern dilemmas. He was baffled by the figure of Mahatma Gandhi, whose successful political application of his belief in a transcendent reality confounded Rosenfeld’s naturalism. While it could be said that, too often, Rosenfeld was unable to unite “life” and “truth” in his own fiction, the life he led was an inspiration to his contemporaries.

BibliographyAtlas, James. “Golden Boy.” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1989. A good biographical sketch.Cronin, Gloria L., Blaine H. Hall, and Connie Lamb. Jewish American Fiction Writers: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1991. Includes an eleven-page section on Rosenfeld.Greenspan, Ezra. The “Schlemiel” Comes to America. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1983. Rosenfeld receives significant discussion in this examination of Yiddish literature.Kazin, Alfred. “Midtown and the Village.” Harper’s Magazine, January, 1971. Kazin gives an account of Rosenfeld’s New York days in the early 1940’s at The New Republic.Shechner, Mark. The Conversion of the Jews, and Other Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Offers a fourteen-page discussion of Rosenfeld.Shechner, Mark. “Isaac Rosenfeld’s World.” Partisan Review 43 (1976). An excellent overview of Rosenfeld’s work.Solotaroff, Theodore. “Isaac Rosenfeld: The Human Use of Literature.” Commentary 33 (1962). Provides an account of Rosenfeld’s life as well as a critical appraisal of his works. This article also appears, in a slightly different form, as “The Spirit of Isaac Rosenfeld” in Solotaroff’s collection of essays The Red Hot Vacuum (1970).
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