Read The People: And Other Uncollected Fiction Online

Authors: Bernard Malamud

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The People: And Other Uncollected Fiction

BOOK: The People: And Other Uncollected Fiction
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BY ROBERT GIROUX
 
 
 
 
 
 
My writing has drawn, out of a reluctant soul, a measure of astonishment at the nature of life.
BERNARD MALAMUD
 
 
ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON in June 1940 a lonely young writer in his twenties walked from his rooming house in Washington, D.C. to a park, haunted by the news that Paris had fallen to the Nazis. He tried to efface the gloom and despair of France’s defeat, while “sitting in the Dupont Circle park on this still Sun-. day,” by recording the quotidian signs of ordinary life passing before his eyes:
“A little girl in a red dress much too large for her wobbled across the grass after a gray kitten.”—“A woman stopped to speak intently to the man she was walking with.”—A poor man “in a shabby suit drifted across the cement walk … glanced hesitantly, then passed by.”—A flock of “pigeons flew down from the housetops to peck at scattered crumbs.” The scene’s peace and serenity were calming his nerves: “Much of the throb in my brain was gone.” But at that moment he heard cries of “Stop, thief!” and saw a fleeing man caught almost in front of him by his pursuer. A small crowd gathered and the robber, his arms pinioned behind, turned to the nearby writer. He “asked me to give him a cigarette. I got one for him and lit it. Then he asked if I thought he looked like a thief. I said no, and he nodded.”
The writer wondered why he felt no pity and attributed this to
the man’s indifferent manner; he had robbed so often that his arrest meant nothing to him. The police arrived and “the crowd broke up and I walked along Connecticut Avenue, wondering if I should be glad that the war had dulled my emotions so that I felt no pity for yet some more human misery.”
The young writer was Bernard Malamud. He sent the piece he had written to
The Washington
Post; they published it in July 1940. It has interest as one of the earliest published writings of a man who, in the decades that followed, became one of America’s foremost writers. Brief though it is, it is wholly Malamudian in feeling and themes, including the celebration of ordinary life against an unusual or tragic background.
 
 
Bernard Malamud had come to Washington in the spring of 1940 to work as a clerk in the Census Bureau. Born in Brooklyn on April 26, 1914, he was the elder of the two sons of Max and Bertha (Fidelman) Malamud, Jewish immigrants from Russia. His parents had worked hard to establish a late-night neighborhood grocery store in Brooklyn, a setting destined to become familiar in his work. The store changed locations over the years, until it settled at 1111 Macdonald Avenue, where the family lived in rooms over the store. Bertha Malamud died in 1929, when Bernard was fifteen, and Max Malamud remarried. (“After the death of my own mother,” Bernard wrote,
1
“I had had a stepmother and a thin family life.”)
Eugene Malamud, Bernard’s younger brother, was hospitalized twice for schizophrenia; he died of a heart attack at age fifty-five. Bernard’s uncle, Charlie Fidelman, a prompter at the Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side, had toured with a repertory company in Buenos Aires. He may have inspired an early story in this book, “Benefit Performance,” as well as “Suppose a Wedding,” a scene from a play published in
Idiots First.
Bern went to grammar school in Brooklyn at P. S. 181 and, after graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in 1932, entered City College, where he received his B.A. in 1936.
“I had hoped to start writing short stories after graduation from City College during the Depression,” he wrote, “but they were long in coming. I had ideas and felt I was on the verge of sustained work. But at that time I had no regular means of earning a living; and as the son of a poor man, a poor grocer, I could not stand the thought of living off him, a generous and self-denying person … . I registered for a teacher’s examination and afterwards worked a year at $4.50 a day as a teacher-in-training in a high school in Brooklyn.” He also took civil service exams for postal clerk and letter carrier. “This is mad, I thought, or I am. Yet I told myself the kind of work I might get didn’t matter so long as I was working for time to write.”
He was offered work in Washington in the spring of 1940. “I accepted at once though I soon realized the ‘work’ was a laugh. All morning I conscientiously checked estimates of drainage ditch statistics, as they appeared in various counties in the United States. Although the work hardly thrilled me, I worked diligently and was promoted after three months … . I had begun to write seriously on company time. No one seemed to care what I was doing so long as the record showed I had finished a full day’s work. After lunch I kept my head bent low while I was writing stories at my desk … . I wrote a piece for
The Washington Post,
mourning the fall of France after the German Army … was obscenely jubilant in conquered Paris. I felt unhappy, as though mourning the death of a civilization I loved; yet somehow I managed to celebrate ongoing life and related acts … . Though I was often lonely, I stayed in the rooming house night after night trying to invent stories I needn’t be ashamed of” One such story, published in this book for the first time, is “Armistice,” a fictional treatment of the fall of France as it affects an American grocer and his son.
Returning to New York in September 1940 for an evening school job, Bernard earned his M.A. in English two years later at Columbia University—he wrote his master’s thesis on Hardy’s
The Dynasts—and
thought about writing a novel. By 1943 he had finished a dozen stories, a few of which began to appear in little magazines. One of these, “The Place Is Different Now,” originally published in
American Prefaces,
he called “the forerunner
of The Assistant.”
A severe critic of his own writing, he burned the manuscript of his first completed novel,
The Light Sleeper,
“one night in Oregon because I felt I could do better.” While writing and teaching at night at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, he met Ann de Chiara and they were married in 1945. (“She had been a Catholic. I defined myself as Jewish.”) Their son, Paul, was born in 1947 and their daughter, Janna, in 1952.
When their son was two, the Malamuds moved from New York to Corvallis, Oregon, where Bernard had received an offer. to teach at Oregon State College. Also in 1949,
Harper’s Bazaar
bought the first story for which he was paid, “The Cost of Living.” While at Oregon State he worked on his novel
The Natural,
which he had begun before leaving New York. He also wrote perhaps his most famous story, “The Magic Barrel,” in a carrel in the basement of the college library. He was allowed to teach freshman composition but not literature because, he wrote, “I was nakedly without a Ph.D.”
As editor in chief of Harcourt, Brace and Company, I first heard of Bernard Malamud’s writing from two friends: Alfred Kazin told me Bern had written a novel about baseball; a year later Catharine Carver, who had taken “The Magic Barrel” for
Partisan Review,
sent me a typescript of the story in advance of publication. When Bern and I met, I told him not only how much I admired
The Natural,
into which were woven the myths and realities of America’s favorite sport, but “The Magic Barrel” as well. The story was not only wholly unlike
The Natural
in style and content, it was also unlike anyone else’s writing anywhere. The two works, as I saw it, added up to genius, and to Bern I expressed the hope that the novel might be followed by a book of stories. When we signed the contract for
The Natural,
I quoted the famous statement “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” to which Bern replied “Emerson to Walt Whitman.” I knew I had found a friend as well as a major writer.
Though it seemed unlikely at the time, fate arranged that I was to be the editor of all his books. Having moved to Farrar, Straus and Company in 1955, I regretted that Bern could not move with me. A year later he told me Harcourt had turned down his new
book, and I said I couldn’t believe they would reject his stories. “No,” he said, “it’s a novel called
The Assistant.
Would you like to read it?” Roger Straus and I were bowled over by this fine novel, which some readers consider his masterpiece.
In 1957, when
The Assistant
appeared, it won the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Bern dedicated it to his father, who had died just after the publication of
The Natural.
(“What does a writer need most? When I ask this question, I think of my father.”) In 1958 we published
The Magic Barrel,
his first collection of stories, which he dedicated to his brother, Eugene. It won the National Book Award.
In September 1961 he joined the faculty at Bennington College in Vermont, where he remained the rest of his life. “The college, an unusual place to work and learn,” he wrote, “soon became a continuing source of education for me.” In 1967 he won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as his second National Book Award, for
The Fixer.
In 1979 he received the Governor’s Award from the Vermont Council on the Arts. He served as president of the American P. E. N. from 1979 to 1981, and in 1983 he was awarded the Gold Medal for fiction by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Having written and published eight novels and four collections of stories, he died of a heart attack in New York on March 18, 1986, one month short of his seventy-second birthday.
 
 
This book includes sixteen uncollected stories by Bernard Malamud, and his unfinished novel,
The People.
He left instructions for his literary executors—Timothy Seldes, Daniel Stern, and myself—to decide what unpublished or uncollected work, if any, was to appear posthumously. After consulting with his family, we all agreed that
The People,
even though unfinished, should be made available to readers. This was not an easy decision to arrive at. He had been able to complete drafts of only sixteen of the twenty or so chapters he had projected for the novel, and we were aware of what he had said in his Bennington lecture: “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times—once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say
what it still must say.”
The People
did not have the benefit of his usual painstaking procedure. Though he had worked hard at it during the months preceding his death—indeed, he was at his writing desk working on Chapter 17 on the day he died of a heart attack—his first draft of the novel was unfinished.
In concept
The People
ranks with Malamud’s most serious work. It is a comic-tragic narrative of a persecuted and doomed people, a tribe of Indians in America’s Northwest in the post-Civil War period who put their hopes for justice in an itinerant peddler and occasional carpenter named Yozip. He resists the honor of chiefdom but finds it thrust upon him anyway, and becomes their chief under the new name of Jozip. In a sense, the genesis of
The People
dated back to the 1940s, when a friend of the Malamuds told a joke about a “Jewish Indian.” Bernard was amused, and the idea of such an unlikely character as a hero appealed to his creative imagination. Like much of his work, which often took form only years after the original conception,
The People
had a slow gestation over decades. While living and teaching in the Northwest, for example, he did research on the Nez Percé tribe, also called the Shahaptin or Chopunnish, whose territory was eastern Oregon, Washington, and central Idaho. The tribe in the novel is simply identified as the People.
It was not until 1983-84 that he began to make notes for his new novel, at a moment in his life—he had reached his seventies—when he was seeking a change of material:
I may have done as much as I can with the sort of short story I have been writing so long—the somewhat mythological, biblically oriented tales I have been writing. These become more and more difficult to do and I feel I must make a change. What I see as possible is another variation of the comic-mythological—possibly working out the Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé idea—in other words, the Jewish Indian; or the igloo piece of the race to the North Pole. Possibly both, but I must recover the voice I need. I have reached a dangerous place for a writer to be, that means I should search for a new material.
Malamud gave a reading of the opening chapters of
The People,
to standing-room-only, at the Bruno Walter Auditorium in Lincoln Center in 1985. The audience was enthusiastic and he was at ease
and showed his usual sense of humor in the question period that followed. In March 1986, the night before his death, the Malamuds were dinner guests of Roger and Dorothea Straus when he revealed that he was within three or four chapters of completing his first draft of The People. He thought the final manuscript might be ready in the fall and was sanguine about its prospects.
The People, without the fragment of Chapter 17, ends with these words: “The moaning of the Indians began as the freight cars were moving along the tracks.” The U. S. government has expropriated their lands, and despite their bravery, they are powerless to resist
a
superior force. Are we to conclude that Malamud intended to write a novel of defeat and despair? On the contrary, his notes for the subsequent chapters, which are here appended to the text, show that Jozip, despite his failure as the tribe’s chief, has refused to accept defeat. The Jewish peddler returns to his cousin in Chicago determined to become a more effective champion of the rights of the People, and enrolls in night school to study law.
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