In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bernard Malamud

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Journals and Periodicals
  • Interviews, Correspondence, Nonfiction
  • Collections and Reception
  • Themes and Threads
  • Malamud and Other Writers
  • Women in Malamud’s Works
  • The Holocaust

American Literature Bernard Malamud
Martín Urdiales-Shaw
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0224


Bernard Malamud (1914–1986) was born of Russian Jewish immigrant parents and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Erasmus Hall High School, City College (BA, 1936), and then Columbia University. A high school teacher in New York City in the 1940s, he was hired by Oregon State College (today OSU) in 1949 to teach freshman composition. From 1961 to 1966, already an acclaimed writer, he taught creative writing at Bennington College, Vermont. The long Oregon decade (1949–1961) produced his first three novels, and some of his most acclaimed short fiction—a career that granted him a significant place in the American postwar literary canon, along with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth often labeled as a “Jewish American” generation. Malamud was critically acclaimed for his stylistic mastery of language infused with poetic images, the contrast of American English and Yiddish undertones, and his rendering of understated immigrant characters, often failing Jews who embody a humanist ethos or a mythical self-transcendence. Between 1952 and 1982, Malamud published seven novels and four volumes of stories, with a remarkably broad fictional range, both in terms of genre and themes. They include romance, social realism, historical fiction and fantasy, broaching subjects as diverse as American mythmaking (The Natural [1952]), urban immigrant realities (The Assistant [1957]), a campus romance (A New Life [1961]), historical anti-Semitism (The Fixer [1966], a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner), Black-Jewish relations (The Tenants [1971]), a writerly self-reflection (Dubin’s Lives [1979]), and a post-apocalyptic dystopia (God’s Grace [1982]). The stories in the volumes The Magic Barrel (1958, a National Book Award winner) and Idiots First (1963), for most readers and critics his greatest achievement, often focus on the hardships of store life, based on his immigrant father, and feature relationships between characters who redeem each other or discover their shared humanity. These often involve folk-tale, parable-like elements from Yiddish tradition, and some of the most memorable employ magical realism or the supernatural. From the mid-1960s, Malamud’s fiction became bleaker, more despairing and solipsistic, as in the novels The Tenants (1971) and God’s Grace (1982), and the stories in Rembrandt’s Hat (1974). Malamud also reflected his Italian experience (1956–1957, on a Rockefeller Grant) in eleven stories set in Italy, six of which feature the protagonist Fidelman. These were collected as the episodic novel Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (1969). At his death in 1986, Malamud was starting work on a new novel, published in draft form in the posthumous volume The People and Uncollected Stories (1989).

General Overviews

Most overviews by American critics were published from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, often following close readings in a chronological approach in which specific novels or stories are treated on a thematically guided chapter-by-chapter basis. The first five studies––Richman 1966, Ducharme 1970, Cohen 1974, Hershinow 1980, and Alter 1981––cover Malamud’s fiction up to the 1960s or early 1980s, often following the period of greater critical acclaim and awards. A further monograph, Helterman 1985, appeared in the mid-1980s, thus covering Malamud’s later fiction up to the last finished novel God’s Grace (1982). Ochshorn 1990 and Abramson 1993 were published after Malamud’s death. A prevailing thread in general overviews involves the discussion of the Malamud hero or protagonist as a quester toward self-improvement in ethical/humanist terms against the American scene, this being the primary focus in Cohen 1974, Hershinow 1980, Ochshorn 1990, and, partially, Alter 1981. Other approaches use specific works as the basis for slightly more theoretical angles (gender, race, history).

  • Abramson, Edward A. Bernard Malamud Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993.

    The most recent of American overviews, Abramson’s reevaluation of Malamud departs from the critical debate surrounding Jewishness in Malamud’s fiction as a universal for humanity and notes the writer’s non-Jewish influences from American and European literary traditions (Hawthorne, Twain, Dostoevsky). Devotes individual chapters to each novel, using a broad, well-informed approach. A final chapter organizes the stories by themes, styles, or background.

  • Alter, Iska. The Good Man’s Dilemma: Social Criticism in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud. New York: AMS Press, 1981.

    Pursuing an unusual binary focus, this monograph sets off two chapters centered on the ethics of the Malamudian protagonist against American backgrounds (1 & 2, “The Good Man’s Dilemma”: The Natural, The Assistant, and A New Life) and four others that consider specific angles, such as women characters, Black-Jewish relations, aesthetics, and history (“The Broader Canvas,” 3–6). A brief appendix deals with Dubin’s Lives.

  • Cohen, Sandy. Bernard Malamud and the Trial by Love. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1974.

    Devoting individual chapters to the first six novels consecutively, from The Natural to The Tenants, proposes a reading of Malamud’s fiction as a “medium and testing-ground” for the individual’s needs for “self-transcendence within a myth-dominated existence shaped by the American Dream” (p. 9).

  • Ducharme, Robert E. Art and Idea in the Novels of Bernard Malamud: Toward The Fixer. The Hague: Mouton, 1970.

    Drawing on psychology and anthropology, discusses Malamud’s works comparatively through a combined focus on themes and techniques, devoting specific chapters to the mythic method, ironic perspective, fathers and sons, suffering, and history and responsibility. An appendix (“The Artist in Hell”) approaches the recently published Pictures of Fidelman (1969).

  • Helterman, Jeffrey. Understanding Bernard Malamud. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.

    Short study of Malamud’s works, book by book, except a joint chapter on The Tenants and Pictures of Fidelman. Foregrounds the moral underpinnings of Malamud’s fiction.

  • Hershinow, Sheldon J. Bernard Malamud. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

    Embracing the notion that “moral activism” underlies Malamud’s fiction, Hershinow provides a chapter-by-chapter discussion of the protagonists of seven novels (up to Dubin’s Lives) and one further chapter on the stories. The concluding section, “Malamud’s Moral and Artistic Vision,” summarizes how these Malamudian protagonists progress within a humanist ethics across his oeuvre. Uses few critical sources, relying mainly on intuitive close readings of the texts.

  • Ochshorn, Kathleen G. The Heart’s Essential Landscape: Bernard Malamud’s Hero. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

    One of the longest studies of Malamud’s oeuvre; Ochshorn draws from the Yiddish notion of mensch to focus on the “Malamud hero” as an individual who must undergo a transformation toward a larger humanity or ethics of love, an argument resonant of Cohen 1974. The approach is rather basic, grounded on chapter-by-chapter close readings of the eight novels (Fidelman included) and the three short story volumes, in chronological sequence.

  • Richman, Sidney. Bernard Malamud. Boston: Twayne, 1966.

    Earliest overview of Malamud’s work, explicitly described by its author as an “introductory . . . novel-by-novel, story-by-story” analysis (Preface, n.p.) based on close readings. This early volume, published in the Twayne United States Authors Series, covers the first three novels, up to A New Life, and the first two collections of stories, The Magic Barrel and Idiots First.

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