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Johanna Kaplan Biography

Johanna Kaplan comments:

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1942. Education: The High School of Music and Art, New York; University of Wisconsin, Madison; New York University, B.A. 1964; Columbia University Teachers College, M.A. in special education 1965. Career: Since 1966 teacher of emotionally disturbed children in New York public schools at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. Awards: Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1973; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1973; Jewish Book Council Epstein award, 1976; Wallant award, 1981; Jewish Book award, 1981; Smilen-Present Tense award, 1981. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022.



O My America! New York, Harper, 1980.

Short Stories

Other People's Lives. New York, Knopf, 1975.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Not All Jewish Families Are Alike," in Commentary (New York), January 1976.

"Family Obligations," in Forthcoming (New York), March 1983.

"Close Calls," in Commentary (New York), May 1986.

"Christmas Party," in City Journal (New York), Winter 1995.


(2000) What I aim for in my work, both for my readers and for myself, is that self-transcendent state we all remember from the ecstasy of reading in childhood. In other words, a deep plunge into the world of otherness—not at all surreal or magical otherness, but rather an intense imaginative joining with lives going on about us which we might otherwise only guess at: a face glimpsed from a bus window, a transaction overheard in a store. Who are these people is what I want to know; what are their lives really like? Such (gossipy) wonderings instigate my fiction. I think it's also fair to say that I am concerned with the ways in which the past, specifically Jewish history, has a way of peeking and poking through to the everyday present.

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By all the laws of literary logic, Johanna Kaplan should not have a career at all, much less an increasingly successful one. She began publishing short fiction about American-Jewish life in the early 1970s, at a time when the tapestry of American-Jewish life seemed threadbare, when sheer exhaustion had taken its toll on imaginative transformations of American-Jewish material, when critics and reviewers alike outraced themselves to say "Enough already!" Other People's Lives proved how wrong the nay-sayers had been. In this collection of five short stories and a novella, Kaplan made us aware, once again, of how vital, how dynamically alive, renderings of the American-Jewish milieu could be—especially if one had Kaplan's ear for speech rhythms and an instinctive grasp of our time, our place. Here, for example, is a snippet from the title story:

When your mother wrote that book [a character hectors a disaffected daughter], it was the Age of Conformity. And I'm not just talking about gray flannel suits! What I'm talking about is all those people who got caught up—they couldn't help themselves—in the whole trend and sway and spirit of the times. Not that I got trapped into it even then. Because it always seemed escapist and reactionary to me. And that's all that was going on—the flight to the suburbs! Your own lawn. Your own house. Your own psyche. Your own little garden—and for some people, not so little! And that, Julia darling, was what your mother was up against! Forget the city and live in the trees! And these were genuinely progressive people, not just ordinary shtunks!

Kaplan's congenial turf is the ordinariness of ordinary New York Jewish life. You walk into her stories as if through a crowded living room—never as an invited, "formal" guest, but, rather, as some distant cousin catching up on family gossip. It is a world where one's childhood is fixed forever in the mind of an aunt, even when that "child" is now an adult, and a psychiatrist to boot:

"Naomi!" the aunt said, jumping up from a green plastic chair that could easily have come from the office of a dentist with no eye for the future.

"I know," Naomi said. "My panti-hose are crooked. I'll go to the ladies' room and fix them."

" When did I—"

"All right, then, I'll go to the men's room and fix them …"

But that much said about the comic ironies, the delicately shaded satire of Kaplan's stories, what lasts in these fictions are the complex privacies that simmer just beneath the surface. In "Sour or Suntanned, It Makes No Difference," for example, a ten-year-old protagonist who hates, absolutely hates, the regimen and artificiality of a summer camp ("at flag lowering you joined hands and swayed … in swimming you had to jump for someone else's dripping hand…. There was no reason to spend a whole summer hugging them"), is confused, and frightened, by the part she must play in a camp production directed by a visiting Hebrew playwright. The story's concluding sentence, brilliantly written and hauntingly evocative, might stand for many of the stories in Other People's Lives: "standing there on the stage, a little girl in braids and a too-long dress who would end up not dead, Miriam promised herself that never again in her life would anyone look at her face and see in it what Amnon did, but just like the girl who could fake being dead, she would keep all her aliveness a secret."

O My America! extended the range and depth of Kaplan's fiction. It is, on one level, the story of Ezra Slavin, a crusty, unremitting social critic who dies at an anti-war rally in 1972. As an obituary puts it:

From very early in his career, Mr. Slavin was harshly critical of the anomic trends of urban, mechanized American life, yet his vision of the city as a place of "limitless, tumultuous possibility" was a lyrical, even celebratory one. "I have had a lifelong affair with the idea of America," Mr. Slavin once said. "And when people find that difficult to believe, I remind them of that flintier vision which is bound to result when love is unrequited."

That, one might say, is the "official," the pundit's, version of Ezra Slavin and what he stood for. O My America!, on the other hand, is that life told in flashback by his daughter Merry, one of his six children and part of what can only be called a complicated, free-form and exasperatingly extended "family."

The result is a canvas large enough for Kaplan to pour in a satiric history of immigrant Jewish life, to sketch minor characters by the dozen and to deepen the connections between American Jews and contemporary versions of the American Dream. Even more impressive, O My America! opened new possibilities for American-Jewish fiction, at a time when its dimensions seemed limited to pale retellings of Borsht Belt jokes or to pale imitations of major writers like Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. Even the most skeptical reviewers admitted that if Kaplan's fiction were the norm, there would be plenty of American-Jewish novels to kick around, for some time to come.

—Sanford Pinsker

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