Birstein, Ann 1927–
Birstein, Ann 1927–
PERSONAL: Born May 27, 1927, in New York, NY; daughter of Bernard (a rabbi) and Clara (Gordon) Birstein; married Alfred Kazin, June 26, 1952 (divorced, 1982); children: Cathrael. Education: Queens College (now of the City University of New York), B.A. (magna cum laude), 1948; graduate work at Kenyon School of English, 1950, and the Sorbonne, Paris, 1951–52. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.
CAREER: Writer and educator. The New School, Queens College, New York, NY, lecturer, 1953–54; City College of New York, New York, NY, writer-in-residence, 1960; Iowa Writers Workshop, Iowa City, visiting lecturer, 1966, 1972; Hofstra University, Long Island, NY, adjunct professor, 1980; Barnard College, New York, NY, adjunct professor of English, 1981–93, founder and director of the Writers on Writing program, 1988; Columbia University, New York, NY, lecturer, 1985–87. Writer in residence and visiting lecturer at various universities and colleges, including Hunter College, Kingsborough Community College, Long Island University, Smith College, Stanford University, and Stern College; conductor of writing workshops. Vogue magazine, New York, NY, film critic; MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee, former president.
MEMBER: Authors League of America, Authors Guild, PEN (former member of executive board), Phi Beta Kappa (honorary alumni member).
AWARDS, HONORS: Dodd Mead Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship, 1948; Fulbright fellow, 1951–52; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1982; Queens College Scholar.
Star of Glass (novel), Dodd (New York, NY), 1950.
The Troublemaker (novel), Dodd (New York, NY), 1955.
(Coeditor) The Works of Anne Frank, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1959.
The Sweet Birds of Gorham (novel), McKay (New York, NY), 1966.
Summer Situations (novellas), Coward (New York, NY), 1972.
Dickie's List (novel), Coward (New York, NY), 1973.
American Children (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1980.
The Rabbi on Forty-seventh Street (biography), Dial (New York, NY), 1982.
The Last of the True Believers (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 1988.
What I Saw at the Fair (memoir), Welcome Rain Publishers (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to The Open Form, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1970, and On the Job: Fiction about Work by Contemporary American Writers, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1977.
Contributor of short stories, articles, and reviews to numerous periodicals, including Mademoiselle, New Yorker, Reporter, McCall's, Book World, New York Times Book Review, Vogue, Washington Post, Connoisseur, and Confrontation. Former contributing editor, Inside.
SIDELIGHTS: "Good try, but no cigar: that actually is the predominant tone of Ann Birstein's writing, and this is precisely what makes her formidable," noted New York Times Book Review contributor Sally Beauman in her assessment of Birstein's collection Summer Situations. "Choosing a difficult area to explore—the thin line where aspirations teeter over into pretensions—she creates a world of social and sexual disappointments, where almost all her characters are wryly aware of reality's stubborn refusal to live up to their fantasies and expectations." The same tone distinguishes Birstein's novel American Children, a post-World War II "collegiate memoir … [which is] a modest success story told as circumscribed, incisive satire," commented Ann Hulbert in the New Republic. "Birstein's tone is light and gently satirical, her mode is picaresque," commented the New York Times's Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "and she writes with such fluidity that her novel seems to end only moments after it has begun."
Although she exposes the failings of her characters, Birstein also examines the genuine problems they encounter. In The Last of the True Believers, Birstein follows the career of her protagonist from young mother to faculty wife to independently successful writer. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "Birstein is a writer whose intelligence radiates through this engaging narrative. While she pokes fun at everyone involved in producing literature … this is primarily a rueful story about the loss of passion."
In addition to her fiction, Birstein has written a biography of her father, Bernard, in The Rabbi on Forty-seventh Street. Leader of a small synagogue in New York City, Rabbi Birstein opened up his congregation to the local population of actors on Broadway during the late 1920s. The synagogue became famous when stars such as Sophie Tucker, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, and others staged a benefit to support it. Birstein, who was born shortly after her father took over the temple, includes portraits of her family and friends in this biography. A New Yorker contributor observed that "Ann Birstein's memories of her father … are full of fine details." The critic added that the author's "occasional lapses into speculation about scenes she could not have witnessed violate only the letter, not the spirit, of biography." "Miss Birstein has written all of this with compassion and affection," noted Richard F. Shepard in the New York Times, "but also in a way that gives us the flavor of a novel—that is, with reasonable objectivity and sensitivity, as well as with touches of cool humor."
The author's memoir, What I Saw at the Fair, was published in 2003 and takes the reader from Birstein's childhood growing up in the tough Hell's Kitchen section of New York City through her arrival on the literary scene with the publication of her first novel and her marriage to Alfred Kazin. The memoir details Birstein's turbulent marriage to Kazin, who was more than a decade older than the author and already an established man of letters. The author also discusses the intellectuals of her day. "Unsparing in her condemnation of the prevailing sexist attitudes of the times … she is also laceratingly funny" in her descriptions of the people in her life, wrote Donna Seaman in Booklist. Seaman went on to call the book "entertainingly illuminating." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "Particularly entertaining are Birstein's anecdotes of her family, school days and experiences during the 1940s … full of her trademark sardonic observations."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Birstein, Ann, What I Saw at the Fair, Welcome Rain Publishers (New York, NY), 2003.
Booklist, March 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of What I Saw at the Fair, p. 1142.
New Republic, April 1, 1972, review of Summer Situations, p. 2; March 29, 1980, Ann Hulbert, review of American Children, p. 40.
New Yorker, April 26, 1982, review of The Rabbi on Forty-seventh Street, p. 142.
New York Times, February 27, 1980, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of American Children, p. C25; April 16, 1982, Richard F. Shepard, review of The Rabbi on Forty-seventh Street, p. C29.
New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1972, Sally Beauman, review of Summer Situations, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly, April 22, 1988, review of The Last of the True Believers, p. 64; January 20, 2003, review of What I Saw at the Fair, p. 72.
Ann Birstein Home Page, http://annbirstein.com (December 3, 2005).