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Bernard Malamud: Evocative Novelist, and Villager

Novelist Bernard Malamud is considered by many critics to be one of the finest American novelists of the 20th century. Born on April 26, 1914, in Brooklyn to a poor Russian Jewish immigrant family who ran a small grocery store, he attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, City College of New York, and Columbia for his Masters. His output was slow, as he was known to work painstakingly and meticulously on his novels, and the results show. Classics like The Natural and The Fixer, among his many other notable works, remain uniquely compelling windows into the lives of others, making them seem familiar, no matter how foreign they may be. Frequently categorized as a “Jewish writer,” his subject matters covered a much broader range, including ambition, alienation, and the outsider vs. the insider, which he said was nevertheless informed by his background and who he was.

Bernard Malamud, image via Creative Commons License

He taught at high schools in New York City (1940–49), at Oregon State University (1949–61), and at Bennington College in Vermont (1961–66, 1968–86). On November 6th, 1945 he married Ann De Chiara, an Italian-American Roman Catholic, despite the opposition of their respective parents.

Unsurprisingly for a 20th-century writer, Malamud made his way to Greenwich Village. For a number of years, Malamud and his family lived at 1 King Street, part of the Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District, which was then a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood (Malamud lived just around the corner from the long time home and business of Lucy and Lenny Cecere [more here]).

Malamud’s wife and son on the stoop of 1 King Street, Ca. 1949. Image via http://www.pfmalamud.net/

Some great family photos of that time from in front of 1 King Street and around the Village, including Washington Square Park can be viewed here.

1 King Street is an 1880 brownstone-faced Anglo-Italianate tenement, part of a row of three. Unfortunately, 1 King Street (the building on the right in the image below) has lost its cornice.

L to R: 5, 3, and 1 King Street

In 1952, Malamud published his first novel, The Natural. The story traces the life and baseball career of Roy Hobbs, an individual with great “natural” talent. It would become one of Malamud’s best remembered works, and was made into a 1984 movie starring Robert Redford

Robert Redford starred in The Natural, a 1984 film adaption of Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name.

Malamud won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his 1966 novel The Fixer, about antisemitism in the Russian Empire. As the NY Times reported, Malamud stated about the book: ”The suffering of the Jews is a distinct thing for me…I for one believe that not enough has been made of the tragedy of the destruction of six million Jews. Somebody has to cry – even if it’s a writer, 20 years later.”

Anthony Burgess said of Malamud that he “never forgets that he is an American Jew, and he is at his best when posing the situation of a Jew in urban American society….A remarkably consistent writer, who has never produced a mediocre novel… He is devoid of either conventional piety or sentimentality … always profoundly convincing.”

Malamud’s final, unfinished work, “The Tribe,” concerns the adventures of a Russian Jewish peddler, Yozip, among the western Native American Indians. Malamud gave few interviews, but those he did grant provided great insight, as when he told Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times: “People say I write so much about misery, but you write about what you write best.” Bernard Malamud died in his Manhattan home on March 18, 1986.

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