Authors: Stanley Elkin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American novelist and short story writer

May 11, 1930

Brooklyn, New York

May 31, 1995

St. Louis, Missouri


Stanley Lawrence Elkin had the distinction of multiple tenancy in some of the most compelling camps of contemporary fiction: He is categorized along with writers such as Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth as a prominent contributor to the postwar Jewish American renaissance; he is often compared with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Bruce Jay Friedman, and other so-called black humorists; and he was allied with Robert Coover, William Gass, and John Hawkes by virtue of his self-conscious craftsmanship and postrealist sensibilities. Born in 1930 in Brooklyn, Elkin described his father as an energetic salesman who was always ready with a good joke or story. His father appears to be the model for Elkin’s parade of word-drunk middle-class obsessives, the “vocalized vocations,” manic drummers, and eccentric raconteurs that dominate his novels. He credited his mother for paving the way to his writing career by financing a trip to Europe that temporarily relieved him of the demands of writing his dissertation (on William Faulkner) and that enabled him to complete his first novel, Boswell.

Elkin was reared on Chicago’s South Side, where his early aptitude for writing stories led to his decision to enter the University of Illinois in Urbana, where he first majored in journalism and then in English. His extracurricular activities included contributing to the literary magazine and performing in radio dramas. He earned his B.A. degree in 1952 and his M.A. degree in 1953, the year he married Joan Marion Jacobson. His progress toward his Ph.D., which he would earn in 1961, was interrupted by service in the Army from 1955 to 1957. While he was stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia, he produced a training manual on forklift trucks and acted in local plays. Elkin resumed his teaching duties at Washington University in St. Louis, where he became a tenured professor. His honors include the Longview Foundation Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Academy grant, The Sewanee Review Prize (in 1981, for Stanley Elkin’s Greatest Hits), and the National Book Critics Circle Award (in 1983, for George Mills).

Stanley Elkin.



(Miriam Berkley)

The absurd joke of human mortality is a persistent theme in Elkin’s fiction, attributable in part to the fact that Elkin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1961. Yet the optimistic energy that pervades his writing—the effervescent play of language that is Elkin’s signature—suggests possibilities for achievement that belie the second-banana status of his protagonists. Elkin described writing as “a total bath in the self,” and all of his pitchmen are inveterate wordmongers, heroes in and of the language they sell. They are orphans, itinerants, and hangers-on, but they are exalted by their harangues, puns, metaphors, and liberal alliterations, all of which testify to a resistance movement against dull conformity or passionless accommodation. “I am a strategist, an arranger, a schemer,” his Jim Boswell confides, setting the precedent for the talent that best serves the Elkin hero: a capacity for instigation and imaginative drive.

Elkin quickly departed from the more restrained social comedies of Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers to establish a loosely episodic style in which, as Elkin himself contended, “the sentence is its own excuse for being” and the ego’s excesses are unquestioned imperatives. There is department store owner and “favor-peddler” Leo Feldman, of A Bad Man, whose imprisonment leads to a deadly struggle against Warden Fisher and the sterilization of the human spirit; there is Ben Flesh, of The Franchiser, who devotes himself to the expansion of a rather vulgar but peculiarly American poetry—a communal neon landscape; there is Dick Gibson, radio man, who infiltrates and expounds his passions through the air, and there is George Mills, who is the descendant of a thousand years worth of coat-holders and observers from the wings, cutting a comic figure at once ordinary and essential. Even the hellbound Ellerbee, a liquor store owner and contemporary Job who finds himself beleaguered by God’s own “bottom line” (which justifies human suffering according to what makes for a better story), carries the banner of shuffling human dignity in The Living End.

Elkin’s fiction features the self-indulgent, all-consuming human voice, and it is this central characteristic which crowds out some of the traditional structural concerns of the novel. Every wild, vaudevillian incident is an excuse for lush rhetoric in love with itself. The world is at once heartbreaking and crazy, like the pilgrimage to Walt Disney World of the physically grotesque and the fatally ill in The Magic Kingdom, the plots fantasized by an over-the-hill streets commissioner in the Alfred Hitchcock-inspired The MacGuffin, the monstrous and monstrously funny resentments of the two college professors in Van Gogh’s Room at Arles, or the more pointed and personal obsessions of Elkin himself in the collection of essays entitled Pieces of Soap, in which, as Helen Vendler has pointed out, Elkin’s “Pagliacci clown suit alternates with his Ancient Mariner weeds.” Rhetorical richness and furious clowning are the hallmarks of the idiosyncratic art Elkin painfully and painstakingly honed right up to Mrs. Ted Bliss, the novel he completed just before his death from heart failure in 1995.

Author Works Long Fiction: Boswell: A Modern Comedy, 1964 A Bad Man, 1967 The Dick Gibson Show, 1971 The Franchiser, 1976 George Mills, 1982 Stanley Elkin’s the Magic Kingdom, 1983 (later published as The Magic Kingdom, 1985) The Rabbi of Lud, 1987 The MacGuffin, 1991 Mrs. Ted Bliss, 1995 Short Fiction: Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, 1966 The Making of Ashenden, 1972 Searches and Seizures, 1973 The Living End, 1979 Stanley Elkin’s Greatest Hits, 1980 Early Elkin, 1985 Van Gogh’s Room at Arles: Three Novellas, 1993 Screenplay: The Six-Year-Old Man, 1968 The Coffee Room, 1987 Nonfiction: Why I Live Where I Live, 1983 Pieces of Soap: Essays, 1992 Bibliography Bailey, Peter J. Reading Stanley Elkin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. This study of Elkin’s fiction examines Elkin’s major themes in order to counteract misreadings of him as another in a series of black humorists, especially given Elkin’s association with black humorists of the 1960s. Each of seven chapters discusses a separate theme or thematic element in Elkin’s work. A comprehensive index follows. Bargen, Doris G. The Fiction of Stanley Elkin. Frankfurt, Germany: Verlag Peter D. Lang, 1980. The first book-length work of criticism on Elkin. Examines his association with the literary movements of metafiction, black humor, American Jewish writers, and popular-culture novels. Bargen argues that Elkin’s work is similar in some ways to all of these but dissimilar enough to resist categorization. Her work includes an extensive biography, an interview with the author, and a comprehensive bibliography and index. Cohen, Sarah Blacher, ed. Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. Several authors engage in a discussion of the role of humor in the writers who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, with Elkin figuring prominently in the discussion. Cohen aligns Elkin with black humorists, identifying their common traits, for example their need to laugh at the absurdity of modern culture. Dougherty, David C. Stanley Elkin. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Dougherty discusses all of the fiction through The Rabbi of Lud, including stories and novellas, emphasizing Elkin’s almost poetic use of language and sense of vocation. The chronology, brief biography, bibliography of secondary works, and discussion of the uses and limitations of classifying Elkin as a Jewish-American writer, a satirist, a black humorist, and a metafictionist make this an especially useful work. Olderman, Raymond M. Beyond the Waste Land: The American Novel in the Nineteen Sixties. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972. Olderman’s study is the first treatment of Elkin’s fiction in the context of other emerging authors of the 1960s. He discusses Elkin and others of his generation, repudiating the image of modern society as the “wasteland” depicted in T. S. Eliot’s landmark 1922 poem. Olderman identifies a new kind of idealism emerging in contemporary fiction. Pinsker, Sanford. “Sickness unto Style.” Gettysburg Review 7 (1994): 437-445. Discusses Elkin’s collection of novellas Van Gogh’s Room at Arles and his collection of essays Pieces of Soap primarily in terms of prose style. Discusses how the Van Gogh novella focuses on pictures within pictures and is an example of impressionism in the Van Gogh manner. Pughe, Thomas. Comic Sense: Reading Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Philip Roth. Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1994. Explores the humor in each author’s fiction. The Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Summer, 1995). Special issue on Elkin, with essays by Jerome Klinkowitz, Jerome Charyn, William H. Gass, and others. Features an interview with Elkin in which he discusses the mystery in his fiction, the nature of plot, the essence of story, and his prose style. Vinson, James, ed. Contemporary Novelists. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976. A comprehensive and broad study. Vinson includes Elkin in an overview of writers from the 1960s and 1970s. The section that covers Elkin most comprehensively is the section written by David Demarest, Jr., who discusses Elkin’s place among his contemporaries.

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