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Hortense Calisher Biography

Hortense Calisher comments:

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1911. Education: Hunter College High School, New York; Barnard College, New York, A.B. in philosophy 1932. Career: Adjunct professor of English, Barnard College, 1956-57; visiting professor, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1957, 1959-60, Stanford University, California, 1958, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1962, and Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1963-64; writer-in-residence, 1965, and visiting lecturer, 1968, Univeristy of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; adjunct professor of English, Columbia University, New York, 1968-70 and 1972-73; Clark Lecturer, Scripps College, Claremont, California, 1969; visiting professor, State University of New York, Purchase, 1971-72; Regents' Professor, University of California, Irvine, Spring 1976; visiting writer, Bennington College, Vermont, 1978; Hurst Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, 1979; National Endowment for the Arts Lecturer, Cooper Union, New York, 1983; visiting professor, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1986; guest lecturer, U.S.-China Arts Exchange, Republic of China, 1986. President, PEN, 1986-87; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1987-90. Lives in New York City. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1952, 1955; Department of State American Specialists grant, 1958; American Academy award, 1967; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967; Kafka prize, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Achievement award, 1989. Litt.D.: Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1980; Grinnell College, Iowa, 1986; Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, 1988. Member: American Academy, 1977. Agent: Candida Donadio and Associates, 231 West 22nd Street, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.



False Entry. Boston, Little Brown, 1961; London, Secker and Warburg, 1962.

Textures of Life. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Secker andWarburg, 1963.

Journal from Ellipsia. Boston, Little Brown, 1965; London, Secker and Warburg, 1966.

The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride. Boston, Little Brown, 1966.

The New Yorkers. Boston, Little Brown, 1969; London, Cape, 1970.

Queenie. New York, Arbor House, 1971; London, W.H. Allen, 1973.

Standard Dreaming. New York, Arbor House, 1972.

Eagle Eye. New York, Arbor House, 1973.

On Keeping Women. New York, Arbor House, 1977.

Mysteries of Motion. New York, Doubleday, 1983.

The Bobby-Soxer. New York, Doubleday, 1986.

Age. New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.

The Small Bang (as Jack Fenno). New York, Random House, 1992.

In the Palace of the Movie King. New York, Random House, 1993.

In the Slammer with Carol Smith. New York, Marion Boyars, 1997.

The Novellas of Hortense Calisher. New York, Modern Library, 1997.

Short Stories

In the Absence of Angels. Boston, Little Brown, 1951; London, Heinemann, 1953.

Tale for the Mirror: A Novella and Other Stories. Boston, LittleBrown, 1962; London, Secker and Warburg, 1963.

Extreme Magic: A Novella and Other Stories. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1964.

The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher. New York, Arbor House, 1975.

Saratoga, Hot. New York, Doubleday, 1985.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Gig," Confrontation, 1986.

"The Evershams' Willie," in Southwest Review (Dallas), Summer1987.

"The Man Who Spat Silver," (novella) in Confrontation (41), Summer/Fall 1989.

"The Nature of the Madhouse," in Story (Cincinnati), Spring 1990.

"The Iron Butterflies," in Southwest Review, Winter 1992.

"Blind Eye, Wrong Foot," in American Short Fiction (10), Summer1993.


What Novels Are (lecture). Claremont, California, Scripps College, 1969.

Herself (memoir). New York, Arbor House, 1972.

Kissing Cousins: A Memory. New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.

Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1981. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.


Critical Studies:

In Don't Never Forget by Brigid Brophy, London, Cape, 1966, New York, Holt Rinehart, 1967; article by Cynthia Ozick in Midstream (New York), 1969; "Ego Art: Notes on How I Came to It" by Calisher, in Works in Progress (New York), 1971; article by Kathy Brown in Current Biography (New York), November 1973; interview in Paris Review, Winter 1987; "Three Novels by Hortense Calisher" by Kathleen Snodgrass, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Austin), Winter 1989, and The Fiction of Hortense Calisher by Snodgrass, University of Delaware Press, 1994.

(1972) False Entry and The New Yorkers are connected novels; either may be read first; together they are a chronicle perhaps peculiarly American, according to some critics, but with European scope, according to others. Journal from Ellipsia was perhaps one of the first or the first serious American novel to deal with "verbal" man's displacement in a world of the spatial sciences; because it dealt with the possibility of life on other planets it was classed as "science fiction" both in the USA and in England. The Dublin Times understood it; its review does well by it. It also satirizes male-female relationships, by postulating a planet on which things are otherwise. In category, according to some, it is less an ordinary novel than a social satire akin to Erewhon, Gulliver's Travels, Candide, etc. The Railway Police and The Last Trollery Ride—the first is really a long short story of an individual, the second a novella built around an environs, a chorale of persons really, with four main parts, told in the interchanging voice of two men.

I usually find myself alternating a "larger" work with a smaller one, a natural change of pace. Textures of Life, for instance, is an intimate novel, of a young marriage, very personal, as Journal is not. After the latter, as I said in an interview, I wanted to get back to people. The New Yorkers was a conscious return to a "big" novel, done on fairly conventional terms, descriptive, narrative, leisurely, and inclusive, from which the long monologue chapters of the two women are a conscious departure. Its earlier mate, False Entry, has been called the only "metaphysical" novel in the America of its period—I'm not sure what that means, except perhaps that the whole, despite such tangible scenes as the Ku Klux Klan and courtroom episodes, is carried in the "mind" of one man. It has been called Dickensian, and in its plethora of event I suppose it is; yet the use of memory symbols and of psyche might just as well be French (Proust and Gide)—by intent it does both, or joins both ways of narration. The New Yorkers is more tied to its environs in a localized way; part of its subject is the environs.

Queenie is a satire, a farce on our sexual mores, as seen through the eyes of a "modern" young girl. As it is not yet out at this writing, I shall wait to be told what it is about.

(1986) Standard Dreaming: short novel narrated through the consciousness of a surgeon who believes the human race may be in process of dying off. Herself: the autobiography of a writer, rather than of the total life. Included are portions of critical studies, articles, etc., as well as several in toto (including one on the novel and on sex in American literature), and commentary on the writer's role in war, as a feminist, critic and teacher. Eagle Eye: the story of a young American non-combatant during and after the Vietnam War. Just as Queenie, in the novel of that name, confided in her tape-recorder, Bronstein addresses his computer. In 1974 some critics were bemused at this; time has changed that. The Collected Stories: preface by author begins with the much-quoted "A story is an apocalypse, served in a very small cup." On Keeping Women: Herself had broken ground in some of its aspects of what feminists were to term "womanspeak." I was never to be a conventional feminist; conventional thought is not for writers. But I had always wanted to do a novel from within the female feelings I did have from youth, through motherhood and the wish for other creation. This is that book. Mysteries of Motion: as in Journal from Ellipsia I continue concern for the way we live daily with the vast efforts and fruits of the scientists, and the terrors, without much understanding. Begun in 1977, before shuttles had flown or manmade objects had fallen to earth from orbit, this story of the first civilians in space is I believe the first novel of character (rather than so-called "science fiction") to be set in space. Because of that intent, the lives of all six people before they embark are an essential part of the story. What may happen to people, personality—and nations—in the space race, is what I was after. Though I researched minimally—just enough to know the language, or some of it—one critic commented that its technical details could not be faulted. I imagined, rather than tried to be faithful to the momentary fact. And again, time has caught up with it, sadly so in the matter of "star wars." Saratoga, Hot: short works, called "little novels." Writing novels changes the short-story pen—the stories become novelistic, or mine do. The intent was "to give as much background as you can get in a foreground." The Bobby-Soxer: the story of the erotic and professional maturing of a young girl of the 1950s, as narrated by the woman she has become, it is also a legend of American provincial life, akin to the early novellas.

I have just completed a short novel called Age, and am resuming work on a novel set in Central Europe and the United States.

(1991) The working title of the book I refer to above as "a novel set in Central Europe and the United States" is In the Palace of the Movie King. I've been at work on this longer book in the background behind the shorter works that have emerged since the last longer work (Mysteries of Motion). It is certainly a more overtly political novel than any of the others, although that concern has been present in my work since the first stories.

This time the scene is Central Europe versus the U.S., as seen through the eyes of a filmmaker, Russian in origin, who grew up in Japan. Part of my interest has also been to see the U.S. as the visually obsessed nation it has fast become—through the eyes of a man who sees the world visually, rather than verbally. I hope thereby to free the book from what I think of as the de Tocqueville syndrome.

I am currently working on a shorter novel, set in England, where I have lived from time to time.

(1995) The "shorter work," set in England, is the novel, The Small Bang, published psuedonymously under the name Jack Fenno, to distinguish it from the other novel shortly to be published. As its title indicates, it poses the "small" bang that is human life against the "big bang" world views of the physicists. In the publisher's catalogue it is billed as a "mystery;" I wrote it as a novel purely, any novel being in a sense a "mystery" until its end.

On In the Palace of the Movie King: there comes a time for many of us when we feel seriously separated from the international intrigue that is happening all around us—and from the national picture also. Yet our domestic lives, urban or suburban or land-based, are always on that edge. I came to feel that I ought to be writing of what I thought of as "the long adventure"—that panorama, with documents, which would move through what we've been too trained to think of as the "thriller" novel. At the same time I must unite this with the domestic scene.

That's a nineteenth-century ambition, from the books I cut my teeth on: Dickens, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, and in my teens, the Russians. I miss their scope—if not necessarily their size. A sentence can embody the long view. But a novel so conceived will concentrate along that axis. What will the reader allow me to do for our twentieth century time? Meanwhile—my century feeding me what I ought to be seeing—in both the subtle and monumental. I was seeing the whole metaphor of "the third world." Censorship, yes, torture for the dissident, death because one differs. But the crux of it: they—the citizens of that third world I happen to know best, Middle Europe—they were locked in. My country was not. Is not.

The Gonchevs, the couple I wrote about, emerged through those mists, along with a vision of the whole wide-screen planet we are now. The time is just before that savage Balkan conflict we are now witnessing. When Gonchev, an apolitical man entirely, is shipped to the U.S.A. and cast in the role of "dissident," my own land emerges, as seen through his eyes. One strains like the devil not to be "author," authoring. There the emigrants and transcontinentals I've known all my life surely helped.

At times Gonchev's story is taken to be satirical, even hilarious. That's a relief.

* * *

Many readers first encounter Hortense Calisher through her widely anthologized short stories, then anticipate her novels. After reading them, however, they may come away vaguely unsatisfied though seldom quite dissatisfied. She is too gifted a writer for that.

It seems impossible for Calisher to write poorly: she is a master of language. Precise, powerful verbs give scenes life and immediacy. In "The Woman Who Was Everybody" an overqualified department store employee reluctantly faces the day: "She swung sideways out of bed, clamped her feet on the floor, rose and trundled to the bathroom, the kitchenette." Calisher's imagery is bountiful, original, and appropriate. In the same story, "the mornings crept in like applicants for jobs." Equal to language, Calisher has evidently observed and experienced how truth is revealed in the course of living and can reconstruct these epiphanies readily in characters.

Then why, since hers are among the best American short stories of this century, are Calisher's novels less successful? At least two reasons are likely. One is that it is impossible to sustain in the long form the power she packs into the short form. The small cast, limited setting, single problem of the short story let her build the work to a final revelation which suggests that, for better or worse, a life will never be quite the same again. This is the classic short story.

Calisher novels often merely elongate the story format. Substituting for traditional plot and subplot, there are series of revelations related to the central situation. (A young couple disclose aspects of themselves as they cope with an ill child in Textures of Life. Another couple, from the novella Saratoga, Hot actually reveal more about their horsey social set than themselves.) Whether the reader can sustain interest in longer works whose internal logic is random and whose continuity needs occasional propulsion by fortuitous revelation is a question. Certainly that does work in The New Yorkers often called her most successful novel, an indulgent insight into family life. Ill-advised timing and treatment may have undercut Calisher's satirical novel, Queenie. The late 1960s were not laughing times and for many the new sexual freedom which Queenie fumbles toward was no laughing matter. What may be her least successful novel, Mysteries of Motion, distracts as much as discloses since six lives are revealed, and on a space journey at that. Better a bus ride in Brooklyn.

That more modest approach to setting is exactly what makes her short stories seem instantly relevant to our ordinary lives, that and the fact that each story—however brief—is also a life history of sorts. Calisher examines that life at a time of crisis and the reader comes away instructed in valuable experience. In the classic "One of the Chosen" a successful Jewish lawyer, Davy Spanner, always popular in his college days, has believed lifelong that he never needed the support of fraternity life and had comfortably rejected the early overtures of the campus societies. At a class reunion, a gentile classmate blurts out the unsettling truth that Spanner would never have been offered a serious membership bid.

Calisher's long interest in psychology and the supernatural is evident. Her life spans Freudianism and beyond, but psychology—eclectic and non-systematic—as it appears in her work at times is close to fantasy, at other times follows accepted dogma. "Heartburn" centers on the power of suggestion; "The Scream on 57th Street" treats fear. Both "work" just as her general grasp of family relationships seems valid, however it was acquired. On the other hand,Standard Dreaming, Calisher's unfortunate excursion into a dream world of searching characters, could be taken for a parody of surrealism.

Calisher's short stories and novellas may initially appear to be peopled by fully-rounded characters, but an overview of the stories reveals a high proportion of well-done types: the educated misfit, the eccentric family member, the young innocent, the at-odds mother-daughter (or husband-wife), the displaced southerner, the would-be radical. And type is all they need to be since hers are not primarily stories of character, but of complex situation, the result of long processes of cause and effect told in hints and subtleties. Where the Calisher protagonists have been, are now, and where they are probably going—or not going, depending on their revelations—is their story. Exactly who they are is incidental. Their external descriptions are often vivid, even witty, but their tastes and temperaments are revealed only to the degree that they serve the tale. If we flesh them out ourselves, it is a tribute to their creator's ability to write so that we read creatively.

The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, an enduring treasury of major works in her best genre, allows ready comparison of early and late works and reveals the consistency of Calisher's vision, even such traits as a vein of humor, a thread of the absurd, and a persistent interest in the power of the mind to direct fate. Similarly, The Novellas of Hortense Calisher gave readers an opportunity to savor some old treasures—Tale for the Mirror, Extreme Magic, Saratoga, Hot, The Man Who Spat Silver, The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride—along with the previously unpublished Women Men Don't Talk About. Also in the late 1990s, Calisher published Age, an epistolary novel centering on Gemma, an architect, and Robert, four years her junior. She also produced In the Slammer with Carol Smith, whose title character has just been released from prison after a long sentence. Carol's imprisonment was not the result of a crime she actually committed, but rather the outcome of being at the wrong place at the wrong time—or more specifically, a poor black woman who fell in with wealthy white revolutionaries during the early 1970s.

Calisher is an eminently serious and concerned writer, despite the fatuous, the incompetents, the ditsy relatives, and the rattled authority figures who clamor for their share of attention in her works. Their truths are as true as anyone else's, Calisher suggests, and their numbers among us may be greater than we want to believe.

—Marian Pehowski

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