Author of eight novels and numerous short stories,
Bernard Malamud preferred to view himself as a universal writer who ďhappened
to be Jewish, also American.Ē Malamudís diverse subjects, varied readers, and
prestigious national awards underscore his status as a major twentieth century
writer and a prominent American Jewish author.
consistently transformed the raw materials of his life into imaginative
fiction. Born in 1914 to Max and Bertha Malamud, hard-working Russian Jews who
ran a Brooklyn grocery (the setting for The Assistant), the author attended
Erasmus High School, received a B.A. from City College and an M.A. from
Columbia University. After teaching evenings in New York City high schools for
several years, Malamud moved to Oregon with his wife Ann and their young son
Paul. For a decade he taught at Oregon State University in Corvallis, the
subject of his academic satire, A New Life. During that period, he published
some of his finest fiction: The Natural, an allegorical baseball story made
into a film; The Assistant, and The Magic Barrel, a short story collection that
won the National Book Award.
1961 Malamud accepted a teaching position at Bennington College that allowed
him to spend the warm months in Vermont and the winters in New York City. The
move was also conducive to his writing. The Fixer, somewhat based on Russian
persecution of Mendel Beiliss, a Jew, won both a National Book Award and a
Pulitzer Prize. Within the next decade, Malamud published Pictures of Fidelman,
a series of stories connected by an Italian setting and Jewish American protagonist,
The Tenants, a bleak encounter between an African American and Jewish American
writer, and Rembrandtís Hat, a short story collection. Dubinís Lives, which
appeared in 1979, includes a variety of familiar settings (Vermont, New York,
and Italy) as well as characters and themes.
his last completed novel, Godís Grace (1982), is his gloomiest, with its
postĖnuclear war setting and cast of island primates, it contains a reflective,
tormented Jew who struggles to understand and to control his grim environment.
In fact, though the settings and situations of Malamudís works vary, his
bumbling, suffering, at times comic, heroes resemble each other. Whether a
Jewish grocer, college professor, novelist, artist, fixer or even Italian
assistant or black angel, all are students of life who learn the importance of
being human. In Malamudís fiction, a good Jew is a good man. Malamudís world is
peopled with Jews and non-Jews in frequently surprising ways. In The Fixer, a
Jewish spy betrays an embattled prisoner, while a Russian guard attempts to
save him. In The Assistant, a Jew transforms a gentile into a good person and
therefore into a good Jew.
Malamudís fiction reflects his immigrant Jewish background and American
experience, above all it reveals a unique imagination which can mingle history
and fantasy, comedy and tragedy. A combination of such elements seems to
characterize The People, the novel Malamud was composing when he died. In
contrast to his later, more pessimistic works, The People, published
posthumously in 1989, unites a lonely Jewish immigrant with a needy Indian
tribe in what promises to be a mutually beneficial association.
without The People, Malamudís legacy is enormous. A leader of the post-World
War II Jewish literary renaissance, Malamud changed the landscape of American
literature, introducing mainstream America to marginal ethnic characters, to
immigrant urban settings, to Jewish-American dialect and, most important, to a
world with which Americans could empathize. Something of a magician, Malamud
transformed the particular into the universal so that poor Jews symbolized all
individuals struggling to survive with dignity and humanity.