Helprin, Mark 1947–
Helprin, Mark 1947–
PERSONAL: Born June 28, 1947, in New York, NY; son of Morris (a motion picture executive) and Eleanor (Lynn) Helprin; married Lisa Kennedy (a tax attorney and banker), June 28, 1980; children: Alexandra Morris, Olivia Kennedy. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1969; A.M., 1972; postgraduate study at Magdalen College, Oxford, 1976–77. Politics: "Roosevelt Republican." Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Author Mail, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 15 East 26th St., New York, NY 10010.
CAREER: Writer. Hudson Institute, senior fellow; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, former instructor. Military service: Israeli Infantry and Air Force, field security, 1972–73; British Merchant Navy.
MEMBER: American Academy in Rome.
AWARDS, HONORS: PEN/Faulkner Award, National Jewish Book Award, and American Book Award nomination, all 1982, all for Ellis Island and Other Stories; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Prix de Rome, 1982; Guggenheim fellow, 1984; World Fantasy Award for Best Novella, World Fantasy Convention, 1997, for A City in Winter: The Queen's Tale; Mightier Pen Award, Center for Security Policy, 2001.
A Dove of the East and Other Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Ellis Island and Other Stories, Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte (New York, NY), 1981.
Winter's Tale (novel), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1983.
Swan Lake (children's book), illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1989.
A Soldier of the Great War (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1991.
Memoir from Antproof Case (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1995.
A City in Winter: The Queen's Tale, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, Viking (New York, NY), 1996.
The Veil of Snows, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.
The Pacific and Other Stories, Penguin (New York, NY), 2004.
Freddy and Fredericka, Penguin (New York, NY), 2005.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, of The Best American Short Stories, 1988. Contributor of numerous short stories and articles to periodicals, including New Yorker, Esquire, New Criterion, National Review, Commentary, Weekly Standard, and New York Times Magazine; contributing editor, Wall Street Journal.
SIDELIGHTS: Mark Helprin is a writer whose fiction is marked by language "more classical than conversational," observed Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, and one who shapes his short stories and novels "less to show my place in the world than to praise the world around me." Explaining his artistic distance from the sparse, clean prose of writers such as American author Ernest Hemingway, Helprin told Jon D. Markman of the Los Angeles Times, "My models are the Divine Comedy, and the Bible and Shakespeare—where they use language to the fullest." Helprin's political concerns—he pursued Middle Eastern studies in graduate school and later served in the Israeli Infantry and Air Force—figure in his newspaper and magazine articles; his books, he has often said with little elaboration, are religious.
Majoring in English as an undergraduate at Harvard, Helprin wrote short stories and sent them to the New Yorker with no luck until 1969, when the magazine accepted two at the same time. These became part of his first book, A Dove of the East and Other Stories, in which critics have noted the author's grand depictions of nature as a source of strength and healing and his concern with characters who survive loss, particularly that of loved ones.
Some critics were impressed with the wide range of settings and the graceful prose exhibited in A Dove of the East. In the Saturday Review Dorothy Rabinowitz described Helprin's stories as "immensely readable," some "quite superb," writing that his "old-fashioned regard shines through all his characters' speeches, and his endorsement gives them eloquent tongues. Now and again the stories lapse into archness, and at times, too, their willed drama bears down too heavily. But these are small flaws in works so estimably full of talent and … of character." Amanda Heller, however, complained in the Atlantic Monthly that, as a result of Hel-prin's "dreamy, antique style," the stories' "sameness of tone" becomes monotonous. "It appears that Helprin is striving for loveliness above all else," Heller commented, "a tasteful but hardly compelling goal for a teller of tales."
Duncan Fallowell allowed in the Spectator that some selections from A Dove of the East and Other Stories are "unbeatably vague," but praised Helprin for "recognising the intrinsic majesty" of seemingly meaningless events, because, as Fallowell wrote, "he is also a seeker after truth. Bits of it are squittering out all over the place, sufficiently to fuse into a magnetic centre and make one recognise that the book is not written by a fool." Dan Wakefield, even more appreciative of Helprin's work, observed: "The quality that pervades these stories is love—love of men and women, love of landscapes and physical beauty, love of interior courage as well as the more easily obtainable outward strength. The author never treats his subjects with sentimentality but always with gentleness of a kind that is all too rare in our fiction and our lives."
Helprin's first novel, Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling, further interested critics. A New Yorker reviewer found that Helprin describes the protagonist's boyhood "lyrically and gracefully" and proves himself to be "a writer of great depth and subtle humor." For Joyce Carol Oates the problem is "where to begin" in admiring a novel she described as a "daring, even reckless, sprawling and expansive and endlessly inventive 'picaresque' tale." She added: "At once we know we are in the presence of a storyteller of seemingly effortless and artless charm; and if the exuberant, extravagant plotting of the novel ever becomes tangled in its own fabulous inventions, and its prodigy of a hero ever comes to seem more allegorical than humanly 'real,' that storytelling command, that lovely voice is never lost."
With Ellis Island and Other Stories Helprin secured his place among contemporary writers, winning for this work a PEN/Faulkner Award, a National Jewish Book Award, and an American Book Award nomination—a rare feat for a collection of short stories. Though some critics, such as Anne Duchene in the Times Literary Supplement, found that Helprin's language sometimes overwhelms his intent, the greater critical response was laudatory. In the Washington Post Book World, Allen Wier called the collection "beautifully written and carefully structured…. His rich textures alone would be enough to delight a reader, but there is more: wonderful stories, richly plotted, inventive, moving without being sentimental, humorous without being cute." Harry Mark Petrakis stated in the Chicago Tribune that in Ellis Island and Other Stories Helprin "reveals range and insight whether he is writing of children or adults, of scholars, tailors, and lovers. His eye is precise and his spirit is compassionate, and when we finish the stories we have been rewarded, once more, with that astonishing catalyst of art." Reynolds Price, writing for the New York Times Book Review, cited as particularly memorable "The Schreuderspitze," in which a photographer who has lost his wife and son in a car accident risks his life to climb a mountain in an effort to regain his spirit; the first half of the title novella, and "North Light," which Price called "a brief and frankly autobiographical recollection of battle nerves among Israeli soldiers, a lean arc of voltage conveyed through tangible human conductors to instant effect."
Winter's Tale, Helprin's second novel, held a place on the New York Times bestseller list for four months despite mixed critical opinion. Seymour Krim, writing for Washington Post Book World, described the allegorical novel as "the most ambitious work [Helprin] … has yet attempted, a huge cyclorama" with a theme "no less than the resurrection of New York from a city of the damned to a place of universal justice and hope." In Krim's view, however, the novel reveals itself to be "a self-willed fairy tale that even on its own terms refuses to convince." In the Chicago Tribune Book World Jonathan Brent called the book "a pastiche of cliches thinly disguised as fiction, a maddening welter of earnest platitudes excruciatingly dressed up as a search for the miraculous." In the opinion of Newsweek's Peter S. Prescott, "Helprin fell into the fundamental error of assuming that fantasy can be vaguer than realistic fiction."
In the view of Benjamin de Mott of the New York Times Book Review, however, neither through the unique and compelling characters nor "merely by studying the touchstone passages in which description and narrative soar highest" can the reader "possess the work": "No, the heart of this book resides unquestionably in its moral energy, in the thousand original gestures, ruminations,… writing feats that summon its audience beyond the narrow limits of conventional vision, commanding us to see our time and place afresh." Detroit News reviewer Beaufort Cranford found that the book "fairly glows with poetry. Helprin's forte is a deft touch with description, and he has as distinct and spectacular a gift for words an anyone writing today." Further, Cranford noted, "Helprin's fearlessly understated humor shows his comfort with a narrative that in a less adroit grasp might seem too much like a fairy tale."
Openers contributor Ann Cunniff, who also caught the humor in Winter's Tale, praised "the beautiful, dreamlike quality" of some passages and Helprin's "frequent references to dreams." "All my life," Helprin explained to Cunniff, "I've allowed what I dream to influence me. My dreams are usually very intense and extremely detailed and always in the most beautiful colors…. Frequently, I will dream, and simply retrace that dream the day after when I write. It's just like planning ahead, only I do it when I'm unconscious."
In 1989 Helprin collaborated with illustrator Chris Van Allsburg on Swan Lake. Michael Dirda wrote in the Washington Post Book World, "The book is so attractive—in its story, illustrations and general design—that by comparison the original ballet almost looks too ethereal." In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Dorris raved, "This is one of those rare juvenile classics that will keep you awake to its conclusion … [and] will become, I predict, among those precious artifacts your grownup children will someday request for their own children." Helprin and Van Allsburg also combined their talents in 1996's A City in Winter: The Queen's Tale and 1997's The Veil of Snows.
In A Soldier of the Great War, which Shashi Tharoor described in the Washington Post Book World as "mar-velously old-fashioned" and "a mammoth, elegiac, moving exegesis on love, beauty, the meaning of life and the meaninglessness of war," Helprin seemed to have transcended the criticism leveled at his earlier work. According to John Skow in Time, in this tale of the old Italian soldier Alessandro, Helprin has "simplified his language, though he still works up a good head of steam, and he has moderated his enthusiasm for phantasmagoric set pieces. He has also picked themes—war and loss, youth and age—that suit a large, elaborate style." Ted Solotaroff commented in the Nation that in A Soldier of the Great War Helprin takes "his penchant for life's heightened possibilities and transcendent meanings down into the vile trenches and nightmarish forests and jammed military prisons of the Italian sector of the war." Tharoor concluded: "Clearly a writer of great sensitivity, remarkable skill and capacious intellect, Helprin relishes telling stories in the grand manner, supplying details so complete as to leave the reader in no doubt about the texture of each place and the feelings of each character in it."
Helprin produced yet another expansive, picaresque novel with the mysteriously titled Memoir from Antproof Case, which was published in 1995. The story is the memoir of an elderly narrator who relates his fantastic and vivid life in a document he keeps locked inside an ant-proof case. While packing a pistol and hiding from his enemies in Brazil, the narrator describes his early life near New York City, his stay in a Swiss insane asylum, his involvement in World War II, his marriage to a wealthy heiress, and his employment with—and scheme to steal from—a powerful investment brokerage. While telling his life's story, the narrator divulges an odd obsession: the hatred of coffee, including the substance itself as well as the people who drink it. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Adam Begley described the novel thusly: "More odd mysteries than the anti-coffee mania await unraveling; lyrical passages brim with high-toned literary prose; broad comic riffs announce themselves with take-my-wife subtlety; and tall tales sprout magically at every turn, fed by a steady stream of flamboyant exaggeration."
Critics were positive in their appraisal of Memoir from Antproof Case, commending the author's trademark high-wire prose styling and his creation of another unusual, colorful, and rambling narrative. Terry Teachout, writing in the Washington Post Book World, called the novel "long, extravagant, daring, occasionally tedious but more often impressively compelling." Similarly, New York Times Book Review contributor Sven Birkerts remarked that the story "is rendered with great anecdotal charm and is embroidered throughout with vivid descriptions and delightful reflections." Not all reviewers' comments were positive; Begley, for instance, noted a "lurching Ping-Pong pattern" in the novel in which "suspense alternates with silliness," and Teachout declared that certain elements of Memoir from Antproof Case are "exasperating in the extreme." However, Teachout concluded, while "Helprin is a bit of a blowhard,… he is also one of the most ambitious novelists of our day."
In addition to his nine fictional works, Helprin wrote articles for the Wall Street Journal from 1985 to 2000. "Many people would probably be surprised to know that the same man who writes political commentary for the Wall Street Journal cites as his motto a line from Dante's Inferno that translates 'Love moved me, and makes me speak,'" remarked American Enterprise reviewer, John Meroney. Helprin also came to the political forefront in 1996, when word leaked out that he was the author of presidential candidate Bob Dole's strong resignation speech from the U.S. Senate. Meroney quoted from the speech: "I will run for President as a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man." Dole's speech was "an unusually lyrical oration by the Kansas solon's dry standards," commented Salon.com contributor Mark Schapiro, who continued by noting that "Helprin's soaring words were widely credited with at least temporarily recharging Dole's languishing presidential campaign."
In 2001 Helprin was awarded the Mightier Pen Award by the Century for Security Policy. The Center's president and chief executive officer, Frank Gaffney, Jr., stated that Helprin is "one of the most important writers at work today." "Helprin's creative flair is tempered by intelligence, wisdom, and experience," noted John Elvin in Insight on the News in reference to Helprin's receipt of the Mightier Pen award.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900–1998, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 32, 1985.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1985, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Encyclopedia of American Literature, Continuum (New York, NY), 1999.
Modern American Literature, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
American Enterprise, July, 2001, John Meroney, interview with Helprin, p. 14.
Atlantic Monthly, October, 1975.
Boston Globe, July 12, 1995, Michael Kenney, "Waging a War after All," p. 41.
Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1981; November 12, 1989.
Chicago Tribune Book World, March 29, 1981; October 9, 1983; October 23, 1988; November 12, 1989.
Commentary, June, 1981, pp. 62-66.
Detroit News, February, 23, 1982; March 14, 1982; October 9, 1983.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 7, 1984; October 6, 1984.
Harper's, November, 1977.
Insight on the News, May 14, 2001, John Elvin, "A Mightier Pen for a Master Wordsmith," p. 35.
Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1984.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 25, 1983; May 5, 1991; May 14, 1995, p. 2.
Nation, June 10, 1991.
New Statesman, February 13, 1976.
Newsweek, September 19, 1983.
New Yorker, October 17, 1977.
New York Review of Books, February 23, 1978; August 15, 1991.
New York Times, January 30, 1981; March 5, 1981, Michiko Kakutani, "The Making of a Writer," p. 17; September 2, 1983.
New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1975; January 1, 1978; March 1, 1981; September 4, 1983; March 25, 1984; May 5, 1991, Thomas Keneally, review of A Soldier of the Great War, pp. 1-2; April 9, 1995, p. 3; January 4, 1998, review of The Veil of Snows, p. 20.
Openers, fall, 1984.
Publishers Weekly, February 13, 1981.
Saturday Review, September 20, 1975.
School Library Journal, February, 1999, review of A City in Winter (audiobook), p. 68; May, 1999, Tricia Finch, review of Veil of Snows (audiobook), p. 70.
Spectator, April 24, 1976.
Time, July 6, 1981; October 3, 1983; November 13, 1989; May 20, 1991.
Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 1981; November 25, 1983.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 9, 1996, p. 10.
Village Voice, May 28, 1991.
Washington Post Book World, February 22, 1981; September 25, 1983; November 5, 1989; May 5, 1991; March 26, 1995, p. 3.
Mark Helprin Bibliography, http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/staff/kamorgan/helprin-bib.html/ (May 11, 2003).