Story and Details Regarding the Magic Barrel

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Bernard Malamud 1914-1986
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry provides criticism on Malamud's works from 1975 through 1999. See alsoBernard Malamud Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 27.

Malamud is considered one of the most prominent figures in Jewish-American literature. His stories and novels, in which reality and fantasy are frequently interlaced, have been called parables, myths, and allegories and often illustrate the importance of moral obligation. Although he draws upon his Jewish heritage to address the themes of sin, suffering, and redemption, Malamud emphasizes human contact and compassion over orthodox religious dogma. Malamud's characters, while often awkward and isolated from society, evoke both pity and humor through their attempts at survival and salvation. Biographical Information

Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 26, 1914 to Russian Jewish immigrants. His parents, whom he described as gentle, honest, kindly people, were not highly educated and knew very little about literature or the arts. Malamud recalled, “There were no books that I remember in the house, no records, music, pictures on the wall.” Malamud attended high school in Brooklyn and received his bachelor's degree from the City College of New York in 1936. After graduation, he worked in a factory and as a clerk at the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. Although he wrote in his spare time, Malamud did not begin writing seriously until the advent of World War II and the subsequent horrors of the Holocaust. At that time, he questioned his religious identity and started reading about Jewish tradition and history. He explained, “I was concerned with what Jews stood for, with their getting down to the bare bones of things. I was concerned with their ethnicality—how Jews felt they had to live in order to go on living.” In 1949 he began teaching at Oregon State University; he left this post in 1961 to teach creative writing at Bennington College in Vermont. He remained there until shortly before his death in 1986. Major Works

Malamud's first novel, The Natural (1952), is one of his most symbolic works. While the novel ostensibly traces the life of Roy Hobbs, an American baseball player, the work has underlying mythic elements and explores such themes as initiation and isolation. For instance, some reviewers cite evidence of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail; others apply T. S. Eliot'sWasteland myth in their analyses. The Natural also anticipates what would become Malamud's predominant narrative focus: a suffering protagonist struggling to reconcile moral dilemmas, to act according to what is right, and to accept the complexities and hardships of existence. Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957), portrays the life of Morris Bober, a Jewish immigrant who owns a grocery store in Brooklyn. Although he is struggling to survive financially, Bober hires a cynical anti-Semitic youth, Frank Alpine, after learning that the man is homeless and on the verge of starvation. Through this contact Frank learns to find grace and dignity in his own identity. Described as a naturalistic fable, this novel affirms the redemptive value of maintaining faith in the goodness of the human soul. Malamud's first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel (1958), received the National Book Award in 1959. As in The Assistant, most of the stories in this collection depict the search for hope and meaning within the grim entrapment of poor urban settings and were influenced by Yiddish folktales and Hasidic traditions. Many of Malamud's best-known short stories, including “The Last Mohican,” “Angel Levine,” and “Idiots First,” were republished in The Stories of Bernard Malamud in 1983.A New Life (1961), one of Malamud's most realistic novels, is based in part on Malamud's teaching career at Oregon State University. This work focuses on an ex-alcoholic Jew from New York City who, in order to escape his...
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