Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1914. As a boy, he enjoyed a vigorous and adventurous life in the city streets and parks. His parents, Max and Bertha Fidelman Malamud, ran a neighborhood store, which contributed to Malamud’s knowledge about the city’s ethnic groups. Malamud graduated from Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School, a school which drew its students from a variety of ethnic and socio-economic groups. He studied at City College, a long subway ride from Brooklyn to upper Manhattan, where he received his B.A. degree in 1934. In 1942, he received an M.A. degree in English literature from Columbia University, where he had taken courses in 1937 and 1938.
During the Depression, he worked in factories and briefly as a government clerk in Washington, D.C. In the 1940s, he taught evening classes at Erasmus Hall and began writing short stories. In 1945, he married Ann de Chiara, by whom he had two children — Paul in 1947 and Janna in 1952. Malamud has not revealed whether or not he had a strict Jewish upbringing, but it is clear that during his mature years he did not practice Judaism in any formal way though he remained faithful to his sense of a Jewish heritage and identity.
In 1949, during what were painfully lean years for young people who desired to make college teaching a career, Malamud was appointed an instructor of English at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) at Corvallis. Soon his stories began to appear in leading magazines, and in 1952, his first novel, The Natural, was well received, though it became well known only after the success of his next two books: The Assistant (1957) and The Magic Barrel (1958), a collection of short stories. In 1956, Malamud traveled in Europe and later he used some of his observations there for short stories. In 1959, The Magic Barrel received the National Book Award as the best work of fiction published during the preceding year.
In 1961, Malamud published his third novel, A New Life, and joined the faculty of Bennington College. Two years later, in 1963, he published Idiots First, a second collection of short stories. In 1966, appeared The Fixer, his fourth novel, which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and became a best seller. In 1969, he added three new stories to the three previously collected tales about the adventures in Italy of the expatriate American painter Arthur Fidelman and issued them all as Pictures of Fidelman. In 1971, he published his fifth novel, The Tenants.
Malamud’s fiction is usually organized around moral dilemmas and crises of growth. He combines realism and symbolism, as well as tragedy and comedy, often with the help of mythological and archetypal underpinnings. He employs fantasy that is occasionally supernatural but which more often, as in The Assistant, gives realistic happenings a quality of magic and ritual.
From his Jewish background, Malamud derives a bitter humor that often appears in the self-mockery of his characters but it is also forgiving of the self and others. His compassionate poetic sensibility blends with a sense of grace achieved through suffering. Malamud has declared that “All men are Jews,” doubtless a metaphor for the universality of alienation, suffering, and the moral compulsion for men to make the very best of their lives within the limitations and ambiguities of human existence. This moral compulsion is a religious task in that it demands an equal labor for the salvation of oneself and others; indeed, one is impossible without the other. Malamud, however, has rarely created specific Jewish social contexts, usually preferring to examine the tensions of Jews adrift in gentile surroundings.
Malamud’s first novel, The Natural, may seem an unlikely performance from an urban intellectual. It is a sports tale constructed in extraordinarily fantastic, mythological, and supernatural terms. It tells the story of a baseball hero, Roy Hobbs, driven by desire to be the best in the game, basking in the rewards of heroism while oblivious of his duties to others. Roy achieves success through skill and through some sense of sacrifice, but he abandons those people he truly loves for those who promise thrills, success, or glamour, and so he brings doom upon himself and upon those who need his loyalty. The mythological elements of the story include a magic bat, sudden death and resurrection, infertility, and the restoration of lost powers. Finally, however, Roy’s long initiation into adulthood finds him lacking in heroic qualities.
In his second novel, The Assistant, Malamud returned to the streets of his boyhood and, as if inspired by the need to derive an ultimate moral significance from kinds of suffering he once witnessed, he shows us a young man’s successful initiation to the demands and limits of life under oppressive circumstances.
The short stories in The Magic Barrel (1958) and Idiots First (1963) use a variety of modes and material. Malamud writes of cramped but aspiring city life, of painful and sometimes fruitless loyalties between friends, of the failure of imagination and charity in Americans living in Europe, and of the relations between Jews and blacks. His combination of realism and symbolism gives way to supernatural fantasy in “Angel Levine” and “The Jewbird.” Tinged with magic and ritual, this combination is best realized in the title story, “The Magic Barrel,” surely one of the finest modern American short stories. Here an ascetic young rabbinical student who is about to graduate from seminary pursues a suitable wife with the aid of a quick appearing and disappearing, photograph-bearing, tale-telling marriage broker, only to fall in love with a picture of the marriage broker’s disreputable daughter. The story vibrates throughout with the tension between truth and deception.
Between these two collections of stories appeared Malamud’s third novel, A New Life (1961), displaying traits new and old in Malamud’s fiction. The novel’s hero, S. Levin, arrives from New York City to be an instructor of freshman composition at an agricultural and technical college in the Pacific Northwest. Levin has pulled himself up from being a drunken wastrel, and now he dreams of creating spiritual awakening among the students and faculty of this so-called cow college. But, as it turns out, it is he who must and does awaken. The novel satirizes the college milieu and also Levin’s own bumptiousness, yet Malamud shows a tender regard for the transformation of Levin’s egoism and sensualism into a moral heroism. At the novel’s end he is about to marry the former wife of a shallow colleague, a woman whose sensibilities he has brought back to life through a love which is now fading. Levin faces a painful future with this woman, her adopted children, and Levin’s own child which she carries in her womb, but he accepts the necessity of suffering for others and of laboring to love this woman.
The fact of Levin’s Jewishness has little significance to the novel, but the Jewishness of the hero of Malamud’s fourth novel, The Fixer (1966), is of major importance. In this novel, Malamud deserts familiar grounds and plunges into early twentieth-century Czarist Russia. The hero of this novel is Yakov Bok, a dispossessed, ordinary, unfortunate, intelligent but uneducated Jewish workman, who breaks out of the ghetto to pose as a gentile so that he may work in areas forbidden to Jews. Falsely accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy, Bok becomes the center of a massive search for a Jewish scapegoat for the ills of Russia.
The plot unfolds two basic and related themes: the self-deception of the persecutors and the ritual projection of their terrors upon the Jews; and Bok’s gradual awareness of what it means to be a Jew. Still very much a religious skeptic, in prison Bok finds his Jewish heritage and identity ever more precious, for his persecutors demand that he confess to a crime he did not commit so they may use his confession for political and anti-Semitic persecutions. His heroic refusal to win freedom through a false confession makes his responsibilities as a Jew equal to his responsibilities as a man. At the novel’s end, though Bok remains (like the heroes of The Assistant and A New Life) in a trapped situation, he has asserted the value of his own life and human life by accepting suffering. Along with The Assistant, The Fixer demonstrates Malamud’s effective use of the Jew as both an Everyman and as the kind of saint that the unextraordinary man can become. Malamud has declared that in writing The Fixer he wished to call attention to such
large-scale social cruelties as the American treatment of the black man. In The Tenants (1971), Malamud returned to New York City, this time using the setting of the 1960s, employing a poetic fervor and a wry humor like those in The Assistant and in his New York short stories. The Tenants is a tale about two American writers: one, a Jewish novelist blocked in his creative work and lovelessly detached in his personal life; the other, an aspiring black writer, talented and warm hearted, who derives too much of his creative energy from his own hostility and bigotry. As always, Malamud’s fiction pleads for a loving recognition of the limitations and promises of human life which can help bridge the manifold alienations within and between men.