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James Yaffe Biography

James Yaffe comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 1927. Education: Fieldston School, graduated 1944; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1944-48, B.A. (summa cum laude) 1948 (Phi Beta Kappa). Military Service: Served in the United States Navy, 1945-46. Career: Since 1968 member of the Department of English, currently professor of English, and since 1981 Director of General Studies, Colorado College, Colorado Springs. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts award, for drama, 1968.



The Good-for-Nothing. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Constable, 1953.

What's the Big Hurry? Boston, Little Brown, 1954; as Angry Uncle Dan, London, Constable, 1955.

Nothing But the Night. Boston, Little Brown, 1957; London, Cape, 1958.

Mister Margolies. New York, Random House, 1962.

Nobody Does You Any Favors. New York, Putnam, 1966.

The Voyage of the Franz Joseph. New York, Putnam, 1970.

Saul and Morris, Worlds Apart. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1982.

A Nice Murder for Mom. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Mom Meets Her Maker. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Mom Doth Murder Sleep. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Mom Among the Liars. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Short Stories

Poor Cousin Evelyn. Boston, Little Brown, 1951; London, Constable, 1952.

My Mother, the Detective: The Complete "Mom" Short Stories. Norfolk, Virginia, Crippen and Landru Publishers, 1997.

Uncollected Short Stories

"On the Brink," in The Queen's Awards 8, edited by Ellery Queen. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Gollancz, 1953.

"One of the Family," in The Queen's Awards 11, edited by Ellery Queen. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Collins, 1956.

"The Problem of the Emperor's Mushrooms," in All But Impossible!, edited by Edward D. Hoch. New Haven, Connecticut, Ticknor and Fields, 1981; London, Hale, 1983.

"D.I.C. (Department of Impossible Crimes)," in Ellery Queen's Book of First Appearances, edited by Ellery Queen and Eleanor Sullivan. New York, Dial Press, 1982.


The Deadly Game, adaptation of a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (produced New York, 1960; London, 1967). New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1960.

This Year's Genie (for children), in Eight Plays 2, edited by Malcolm Stuart Fellows. London, Cassell, 1965.

Ivory Tower, with Jerome Weidman (produced Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1968). New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1969.

Cliffhanger (as Immorality Play, produced Atlanta, 1983; as Cliff-hanger, produced New York, 1985). New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1985.

Television Plays:

for U.S. Steel Hour, Studio One, G.E. Theater, Frontiers of Faith, The Defenders, Breaking Point, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Doctors and the Nurses, and other series, 1953-67.


The American Jews. New York, Random House, 1968.

So Sue Me! The Story of a Community Court. New York, Saturday Review Press, 1972.


(1991) For me, to write novels has been to create characters and to combine and juxtapose those characters, involve them in confrontations, place them in situations which challenge them, strengthen them, destroy them, transform them, test their mettle—and out of a variety of such characters, to build a world. Where do I get the raw material for my characters? From my own experience, of course—mostly from my experience of the world I was born and brought up in, the world of middle-class, second-and third-generation Jews living in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, I have chosen to write about this world because I know it instinctively and subliminally, because it was part of me before I was old enough to doubt my perceptions.

But I have always tried to treat this experience not analytically or sociologically or philosophically but novelistically—that is, by imagining, and trying to re-create, the world as seen through each character's eyes. The greatest novelists, it seems to me, are those who succeed in merging their personalities with the lives and feelings of their people. This is the special ability shared by writers as different as Tolstoy and Jane Austen, Trollope and Joyce (to mention a few of my favorites). The attempt to follow their example may be presumptuous and doomed to failure, but it is also inevitable for anybody who wants to write novels.

* * *

James Yaffe is considered a leading novelist of middle-class Jewish life in America. His early collection of short stories (Poor Cousin Evelyn) and his first novel (The Good-for-Nothing) are essentially drawing room comedies set in New York. As in the novels of Jane Austen, whom Yaffe admits a special fondness for, small conflicts are closely scrutinized within a closed society—in Yaffe's case, the Jewish family, with all its attendant social hierarchies, its patriarchs, its strong-men and its failures, its pressures of shame and guilt applied by loved ones to safeguard conformity and tradition. In these earlier works, characters are simply drawn and situations directly presented, largely through dialogue.

A recurring Yaffe theme involves the "dreamer," an impractical or artistically oriented individual confronted with pressures to survive in a competitive business world of the shady deals and opportunism. In The Good-for-Nothing this conflict is represented by two brothers, apparently very different from each other, yet mutually dependent. The one is college-educated and totally ineffectual in the business world, a charming sycophant. The other, a Certified Public Accountant, supports him, but in so doing restricts his own life. As they interact, it becomes unclear which is the "good for nothing," which the success or the failure: in different ways, both are unwilling to face responsibilities or the possibility of failure. Self-righteousness and self-indulgence, like sentimentality, are both forms of escape, excuses for not taking risks.

In a later novel, Mister Margolies, this pattern of self-deception is advanced to the point where the manipulation of reality becomes a life-style. Stanley Margolies, defeated in his early attempt to become a concert pianist, yet unable to give up totally his dreams of a poetic life, withdraws into a world of fantasies. The reality of business and competition crashes in on this, and he withdraws deeper, erecting more elaborate defenses. Yaffe's "dreamers" create worlds which are both sad and poetic, but they are not the demonic Rose-gardens of the totally mad. They are the tiny fantasies of little men, dreams reinforced by sympathetic and condescending friends with whom they still retain some form of contact.

Yaffe avoids several stereotypes popular in much contemporary Jewish literature: the dominant Jewish Mother, and the Jew-Gentile confrontation, particularly in matters sexual, as an expression of, or as a means of resolving feelings of inferiority. In general, he maintains a comic narrative tone—some of the scenes are funny—and though his characters are forever lecturing each other, their messages are frequently as confused as they are. The novels themselves preach little other than a deep compassion for the small man and his hopes.

The theme of the dreamer in search of his vision makes a terrifying appearance in Nothing But the Night, which is based on the Nathan Leopold-Richard Loeb murder case of 1924, and the celebrated defense by Clarence Darrow. The case history is seen through the eyes of one of the young men, not as an investigation of the criminal mind, but as a study of a lonely and creative child. As in Chekhov, Yaffe's characters take their emotions very seriously and ponder them deeply. They are often trapped by their own visions and the pressures to succeed imposed from outside. In their struggle to hold on to their dreams, they are destroyed, transformed, and occasionally liberated. An example of the latter is presented in Nobody Does You Any Favors, which despite its 1940s cinema-sounding title is perhaps his best novel. As opposed to the earlier New York novels which suggest short stories in their structural focus on a single event, Nobody Does You Any Favors with its time span of roughly forty years allows for an extended development and growth in character. The confrontation between father and son is drawn with an understanding and passion valid beyond a scene of very special terror and insight. Certainly this novel is a significant contribution to American literature of the twentieth century.

The Voyage of the Franz Joseph represented an epic departure from his usual drawing room style. Like Nothing But the Night, it is based on an historical event, the sailing of the German liner St. Louis in 1939 with a thousand Jewish refugees searching for a homeland.

—Paul Seiko Chihara

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