Cynthia Ozick Biography
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1928. Education: New York University, B.A. (cum laude) in English 1949 (Phi Beta Kappa); Ohio State University, Columbus, M.A. 1951. Career: Instructor in English, New York University, 1964-65; Distinguished Artist-in-Residence, City University, New York, 1982; Phi Beta Kappa Orator, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985. Lives in New Rochelle, New York. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1968; Wallant award, 1972; B'nai B'rith award, 1972; Jewish Book Council Epstein award, 1972, 1977; American Academy award, 1973; Hadassah Myrtle Wreath award, 1974; Lamport prize, 1980; Guggenheim fellowship, 1982; Strauss Living award, 1982-1987; Distinguished Alumnus award, New York University, 1984; Rea award, for short story, 1986; Lucy Martin Donnelly award, Bryn Mawr College, 1991-92; PEN/Spiegel-Diamonstein award for the Art of the Essay, 1997; Harold Washington Literary award, City of Chicago, 1997; John Cheever award, 1999. D.H.L.: Yeshiva University, New York, 1984; Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1984; Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1986; Hunter College, New York, 1987; Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, 1988; Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, 1988; State University of New York, 1989; Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1990; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1991; Skidmore College, 1992; Seton Hall University, 1999; Rutgers University, 1999. Agent: Raines and Raines, 71 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10016.
Trust. New York, New American Library, 1966; London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1967.
The Cannibal Galaxy. New York, Knopf, 1983; London, Secker andWarburg, 1984.
The Messiah of Stockholm. New York, Knopf, and London, Deutsch, 1987.
The Puttermesser Papers. New York, Knopf, 1997.
The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories. New York, Knopf, 1971;London, Secker and Warburg, 1972.
Bloodshed and Three Novellas. New York, Knopf, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1976.
Levitation: Five Fictions. New York, Knopf, and London, Secker andWarburg, 1982.
The Shawl: A Story and a Novella. New York, Knopf, 1989.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Sense of Europe," in Prairie Schooner (Lincoln, Nebraska), June 1956.
"Stone," in Botteghe Oscure (Rome), Autumn 1957.
"The Laughter of Akiva," in New Yorker, 10 November 1980.
"At Fumicaro," in New Yorker, 6 August 1984.
Blue Light (produced Long Island, 1994).
Epodes: First Poems, with woodcuts by Sidney Chafetz. N.p., 1992.
Art and Ardor (essays). New York, Knopf, 1983.
Metaphor and Memory (essays). New York, Knopf, 1989.
What Henry James Knew, and Other Essays on Writers (essays).London, n.p. 1993.
A Cynthia Ozick Reader, edited by Elaine M. Kauvar. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1993.
Fame and Folly: Essays. New York, Knopf, 1996.
Quarrel and Quandary: Essays. New York, Knopf, 2000.
"A Bibliography of Writings by Cynthia Ozick" by Susan Currier and Daniel J. Cahill, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Austin), Summer 1983.
"The Art of Cynthia Ozick" by Victor Strandberg, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Austin), Summer 1983; Cynthia Ozick, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick, University Press of Kentucky, 1983; Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick, University Press of Kentucky, 1985; Crisis and Covenant: The Holocaust in American Jewish Fiction, by Alan L. Berger, State University of New York, 1985; Cynthia Ozick edited by Harold Bloom, New York, Chelsea House, 1986, and Cynthia Ozick: Modern Critical Views, by Bloom, Chelsea Publishers, 1986; The World of Cynthia Ozick: Studies in American Jewish Literature, edited by Daniel Walden, Kent State University Press, 1987; Since Flannery O'Conner: Essays on the Contemporary Short Story, by Loren Logsdon and Charles W. Mayer, Western Illinois University Press, 1987; The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick by Sanford Pinsker, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1987; Cynthia Ozick by Joseph Lowin, Boston, Twayne, 1988; Understanding Cynthia Ozick by Lawrence S. Friedman, University of South Carolina Press, 1991; Cynthia Ozick: Tradition and Invention by Elaine M. Kasuvar, Indiana University Press, 1993; Greek Mind, Jewish Soul by Victor Strandberg, University of Wisconsin Press, 1994; Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art, by Sarah Blacher Cohen, Indiana University Press, 1994; Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick by Victor Strandberg, Madison, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
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Cynthia Ozick has said that she began her first novel as an American writer and ended it six-and-a-half years later as a Jewish writer. Overarching this book, Trust, is a third cultural presence made manifest in the seductive appeal of the pagan Earth-gods, who have maintained their potency under various names from old Greek and Canaanite times to our own. Ozick's conviction regarding this insight is attested by her view of "the issue of Hellenism-versus-Hebraism as the central quarrel of the West." Nevertheless, it was the American writer Henry James who most deeply stamped his image upon her youthful imagination. She wrote her master's thesis on parable in James's fiction, and spent seven apprentice years writing a never-published novel in the Jamesian manner, followed by almost as long a period working on the neo-Jamesian Trust.
Completed on the day President Kennedy was murdered, Trust was published in 1966 to a thin but highly favorable chorus of reviews. Its Jamesian elements are immediately evident in its style ("both mandarin and lapidary," Ozick calls it), its social milieu (a wealthy American family), its masking of greed and duplicity under an elegant surface of manners, and its international theme (half the book is set in Europe, half in America). The title itself is ironic to a Jamesian degree of complexity in that lack of trust affects every relationship from the familial (husband-wife, mother-daughter) to the theological (God's covenant having been broken in the Holocaust). What revives trust in the end is the young heroine's disavowal of her decaying cultural heritage (epitomized in her mother's crassly misspent trust fund) in favor of the spontaneous gods of nature—which is to say, her reversion to the ancient pagan ethos. Her discovery of that ethos in her lost father (who had sired her as his "illegitimate issue" and then was succeeded by unsatisfactory Christian and Jewish father figures) makes up the central plot line of this immense and densely written novel. In the end, her father's apotheosis as a fertility god (which she witnesses) occasions one of the most vividly imagined sexual encounters in American literature—an imagistic rendering of sensation that is perhaps Ozick's finest (and most difficult) artistic achievement.
Even while she was working on Trust, Ozick's fascination with the Pan vs. Moses theme (as a character in Trust calls it) gathered such force as to promulgate her next book, the collection of stories titled The Pagan Rabbi. Within the title story, Pan overcomes Moses when the rabbi couples with a dryad—in another vividly imagined sexual encounter—and then hangs himself from her tree, not in guilt but in pantheistic ecstasy. "The molecules dance within all forms … and within the atoms dance still profounder sources of divine vitality. There is nothing that is Dead," says the rabbi's last testament. Behind this heretical hunger for the world's beauty lies the chief paradox, for Ozick, of the Jewish artist. "The single most serviceable description of a Jew—as defined 'theologically'—… is someone who shuns idols," she has written; yet to create literature is to put oneself "in competition, like a god, with the Creator," so that "[art] too is turned into an idol." Ozick memorably transmutes this theme into fiction in her next book, Bloodshed, where the artist-as-idolator appears triumphant in "Usurpation (Other People's Stories)." Here the Jewish poet, so apostate as to have published a hymn to Apollo, ascends to the Olympic rather than Jewish afterworld in the end, totally rejecting his Jewish heritage. But though the God of Israel permits him to espouse the new identity, the Gentile gods do not: "Then the taciturn little Canaanite idols call him, in the language of the spheres, kike." Flight from and coerced movement back toward Jewish identity is thus the unifying theme of the four tales in Bloodshed, with the Holocaust exerting the most powerful such coercive force. In "A Mercenary" a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust tries to expunge his Jewishness by becoming United Nations ambassador for a black African nation, but he is subtly called Jew by his black aide and even by inanimate objects: his cigarette reminds him of Holocaust smoke; his "white villa on the blue coast," of the "bluish snow" and "snow-white hanging stars of Poland" during his Holocaust period. Conversely, in the title story, "Bloodshed," despair over the Holocaust prompts its Jewish protagonist to contemplate suicide, until he is rescued by a Holocaust survivor's powerful lesson that "despair must be earned."
The later stages of Ozick's career have featured two books of essays, Art and Ardor and Metaphor and Memory, which embrace a quarter-century of journal contributions. Many of these essays offer incisive insights into her imaginative writing, especially concerning the dilemmas of contemporary Jewish-American culture. Her later fiction explores those dilemmas in a transatlantic range of settings. Levitation: Five Fictions, set almost wholly in New York City, uses its title as a three-part pun for its opening story: levitation, levity, the priestly tribe of Levi. It portrays the Holocaust as an identity-defining event, levitating genuine Jews away from the pseudo-or de-Judaized Jews who remain below on ground level. The most expansive, ambitious, and original part of this collection is the Puttermesser-Xanthippe series, a new version of Pan vs. Moses. In this instance the Pan figure (Xanthippe) is a female golem chanted into existence by Puttermesser to save New York City, but in the end the Jewish lawgiver (Puttermesser has become mayor) must sorrowfully chant her charming friend back to a pile of mud after Xanthippe begins to inflame the whole city with illicit sexual hunger. An extensive sequel to this series, in which Puttermesser falls in love, has appeared in the New Yorker magazine.
The Cannibal Galaxy revives the Jamesian theme of interaction between Europe and America via a Holocaust survivor, Joseph Brill, who hopes to unite the best of both cultures in a Jewish-American educational program. Although his school, located in the Midwest, thrives financially, in the end the American culture (which may be the "cannibal galaxy") crushes out the European, in part because the high culture of Europe did not truly survive the Holocaust. The Messiah of Stockholm, the only Ozick novel set wholly in Europe, concerns the effort of Lars Andemening, a Swedish book reviewer, to verify his claim that Bruno Schulz (the real-life Polish Jew, murdered in 1942) is his father. Schulz's dichotomy between "Cinnamon Shops" and "The Street of Crocodiles"—his best known story titles—repeats itself in Ozick's novel, as Andemening in the end is stripped of his energizing illusions (the comforting refuge of "Cinnamon Shops") and left to cope with the cold barrenness of reality ("The Street of Crocodiles"). And finally, The Shawl—Ozick's little book combining the stories "The Shawl" and "Rosa"—plays off Jewish-American and Jewish-European cultures against each other, to the discredit of both. Rosa, a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw, relies on her high-class, assimilated Polish family heritage to assert her superiority over the degraded Jewish-American culture she experiences in New York and Miami. "My Warsaw is not your Warsaw," she insists to Persky, her kindly but vulgar friend in Miami who had emigrated from the impoverished Warsaw ghetto before the war. Rosa's use of magic to invoke the spirit of her infant daughter (who had been murdered at Auschwitz) comprises yet another instance of the enticement of the pagan gods, tying Ozick's latest work to early books like Trust and The Pagan Rabbi.
Although Ozick's Jewish materials—including a sprinkling of Yiddish words on many pages—can create an initial impression of opacity, her general reading audience should not find her cultural heritage more difficult to apprehend than Faulkner's or Toni Morrison's materials. Through her greatly original and powerful expression of her Jewish ethos, Ozick contributes importantly to the larger American literary tradition.