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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible Bernard Malamud (1914-1986)

[7855] Jack Delano, Children Studying in a Hebrew School in Colchester, Connecticut (1940), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-042452-D].

In Saul Bellow’s eulogy to Bernard Malamud, he writes that “a language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us. Malamud in his novels and stories discovered a sort of communicative genius in the impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York. He was a mythmaker, a fabulist, and a writer of exquisite parables. . . . The accent of hard-won and individual emotional truth is always heard in Malamud’s words.” Along with Bellow, Malamud is one of the most important contributors to the body of Jewish American writing coming out of the 1950s. Like Bellow, he captured the cadences of the speech and manners of the newly immigrated, working-class Jews and used reality and myth to “convey the most intimate details of existence.”

Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn and graduated from Erasmus High School and the City College of New York. He received his M.A. from Columbia University in 1942 and taught at high schools in New York City as well as at Oregon State University and Bennington College. By 1950 his short stories had started to appear in Partisan Review and Commentary, and his first novel, The Natural (1950), a fable about an injured baseball hero gifted with miraculous powers, added the realm of the mythic to the already popular American pastime. His second novel, The Assistant (1957), tells the story of a young gentile hoodlum and an old Jewish grocer. The Fixer (1966), the story of a Jewish handyman unjustly imprisoned in Czarist Russia for the murder of a Christian boy, won the Pulitzer Prize.

In the 1960s, Malamud tackled a subject central to Jewish experience and literature of the era: Jewish and African American relations. During the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish-black relations became increasingly strained as competition for inner-city housing became even greater than before. As anthropologist Karen Brodkin points out in How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America, Jews had just begun to make the transition into being considered “white” during the 1950s and 1960s; one consequence of this transformation was that many Jews tried to distance themselves from other, less “white” ethnic groups, often in racist and unappealing ways. In The Tenant (1960), Malamud plays one minority’s experience against another’s. Inter-ethnic tensions are also central to Jo Sinclair’s path-breaking novel The Changelings (1955) and Saul Bellow’s controversial Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970). These novels by Malamud and others provide an important counternarrative to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Malamud’s later works include Dubin’s Lives (1979) and God’s Grace (1982) as well as an important body of short fiction.

Teaching Tips

  • Before reading “The Magic Barrel,” organize a student discussion on the problems of dating and finding a mate. Why is finding a date or a mate so difficult? What qualities do most students want in a date or a mate? What are the qualifications parents would set for the “perfect date” or mate? What mechanisms or customs did people use to find dates or mates in the past? What mechanisms do we use now? Do they work?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In what ways does Salzman in “The Magic Barrel” almost seem magical himself? Where does Malamud allude to Salzman’s magical qualities? Why might Malamud want to include a sense of “magic” in this tale?
  2. Comprehension: Why doesn’t Malamud use a first-person narrator in “The Magic Barrel,” as Roth does in “Defender of the Faith” and as Paley does in “A Conversation with My Father”? What are the advantages of an omniscient teller for this particular story?
  3. Comprehension: Malamud was sometimes accused of sentimentalizing the ethnic experience in America. Is “The Magic Barrel” sentimental? What elements of the story complicate any answer to this question?
  4. Context: Like Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” gives us a glimpse of a society in transition and of an individual quarreling with the traditional values that support his social identity. Compare the endings of the stories: what remains uncertain for both of the protagonists?
  5. Exploration: Read aloud a sampling of the dialogue in “The Magic Barrel.” What is your impression of its cadences, its sound? Are we listening to a conversation in American English? In translated Yiddish? Are we hearing voices in transition, as well as a tale of social values and personal identity? How can you tell?
  6. Exploration: Several times, Malamud reminds readers of the long-standing suffering associated with being Jewish. Where does this suffering come from, historically and culturally, and why does it continue to exist? Why would this sense of cultural suffering be reinforced, especially after World War II?

Selected Archive Items

[7194] Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City Views. Financial District, Framed by Brooklyn Bridge (1934),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G612-T01-21249].
River and New York City skyline. Bernard Malamud grew up and was educated in Brooklyn. Some of his work deals with Jewish and African American relations in the 1950s and 1960s.

[7855] Jack Delano, Children Studying in a Hebrew School in Colchester, Connecticut (1940),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-042452-D].
Novelist and short-story writer Bernard Malamud focused on the traits and language of recently immigrated and working-class Jews.

[8855] Eric Sundquist, Interview: “Becoming Visible” (2003),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media.
Professor Eric Sundquist discusses the means by which Jewish Americans became assimilated into American culture.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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