Blumenthal, Michael C. 1949-
BLUMENTHAL, Michael C. 1949-
PERSONAL: Born March 8, 1949, in Vineland, NJ; son of Julius (a retail furrier) and Betty (Gern) Blumenthal; children: a son. Education: State University of New York at Binghamton, B.A., 1969; Cornell University, J.D., 1974.
ADDRESSES: Home—Austin, TX. Agent—Zachary-Shuster Agency, Lane Zachary, 45 Newbury St., Boston, MA.
CAREER: Poet, educator, and attorney. Teacher of German, 1969-70; teacher of emotionally disturbed adolescents, 1970-71; Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC, attorney, 1974-75; National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, arts administrator, 1975-76; Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA, editor, 1977-80; National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, DC, assistant to chairman, 1980-81; West German Television, Washington, DC, producer, 1981-83; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Briggs-Copeland lecturer in poetry and director of creative writing, 1983-92; senior Fulbright lecturer in American literature and editor, Central European University Press, Budapest, Hungary, 1992-96. Instructor in poetry and member of board of directors of Writer's Center, Glen Echo, MD, 1980-83; poet-in-residence at University of Louisville, spring, 1982; University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel, visiting professor of English, 1996-97; Boise State University, poet-in-residence; Free University of Berlin, visiting senior Fulbright professor, 1999-2000; Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, visiting professor of English; Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, visiting professor, 2001; Universite Jean Manner, Saint-Etienne, France, visiting professor of American literature; American University of Paris, Paris, France, visiting professor of creative nonfiction, 2001.
MEMBER: Poetry Society of America, Associated Writing Programs, Academy of American Poets, New York Bar Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pushcart Prize from Pushcart Press, 1979, for poem "Stones"; fellowships from District of Columbia Arts Commission, 1979-80, 1980-81, 1982-83; Walter Mark Award from Poets of North America, 1980, for Sympathetic Magic; fellow at Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, 1980; fellow at Mac-Dowell Colony, 1980-81; fellow at Ossabaw Island Project, 1981; anniversary award from Associated Writing Programs, 1982, for poem "Fish F—ing"; grand prize from Associated Writing Programs, 1983, for poem "Night Baseball"; fellow of Yaddo, 1983; Peter I. B. Lavan Prize, Academy of American Poets; Guggenheim fellow; Fulbright fellow, 1992-96, 1999-2000.
Sympathetic Magic, Walter Mark Press (Huntington, NY), 1980.
Days We Would Rather Know, Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
Laps, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1984.
Against Romance, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
The Wages of Goodness, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1992.
Dusty Angel, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1999.
(Editor) To Woo and To Wed: Contemporary Poets on Love and Marriage, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Weinstock among the Dying (novel), Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA), 1993.
When History Enters the House: Essays from Central Europe, Pleasure Boat Studio (Port Angeles, WA), 1997.
All My Mothers and Fathers: A Memoir, HarperCollins/Perennial (New York, NY), 2002.
Also translator of essays and poems from the Hungarian. Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Times, Time, Harvard Review, and the Paris Review, among others. His poetry is anthologized in The Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry, Harvard University Press, 1985.
SIDELIGHTS: Michael C. Blumenthal is a poet and educator who has also ventured into essays, memoirs, and fiction. Among his better-known verse collections are Days We Would Rather Know and Dusty Angel. His novel Weinstock among the Dying casts a baleful eye at academia, while his nonfiction ranges from When History Enters the House: Essays from Central Europe to a remembrance of his youth, All My Mothers and Fathers: A Memoir. Blumenthal once commented: "Like many poets, I came to my vocation, one might say, 'through the back door,' having struggled through years of seemingly desirable yet (to me) unsatisfying jobs, while 'stealing' the time for my true work. The original impetus for my writing, perhaps, was best reflected in a statement made by Robert Mezey—'I am a man, a Piscean, and unhappy, and therefore I make up poems'—but I feel, now, that my work derives from the healthier (and happier) desire to tap the sources of my own inner wisdom, and to make music of it."
Blumenthal, trained as a lawyer, went into editing and then became a lecturer in poetry at Harvard University and ultimately director of the Creative Writing program there. From 1992 to 1996 he lived and worked in Budapest, Hungary, as a senior Fulbright lecturer. Since then, he has been visiting professor at universities and colleges both in the United States and abroad. Blumenthal's first book of poetry, Sympathetic Magic, appeared in 1980. His second, Days We Would Rather Know, "adds a buoyant and odd new presence to contemporary American poetry," according to Helen Vendler, writing in the New Republic. Vendler pointed out that while Blumenthal's subjects, such as the Holocaust or mental doubt, might be termed "tragic," the approach he takes in his poetry creates "poems exhilarating to read, full of lifts and turbulence." In the poem "Over Ohio," for example, he writes of the joys of flying: "You can say what you like about the evils / of technology / and the mimicry of birds; I love it, I love the / sheer, / unexpurgated hubris of it, I love the beaten / egg whites / of clouds hovering beneath me." In this "irrepressible poem," as Vendler further observed, "social pieties … fall away like shed garments." Vendler went on to comment that even in "the grimmest poem … Blumenthal finds a moment for quizzical humor."
In his 1999 collection Dusty Angel, similar attributes were noted by critics. David Yezzi, for example, writing in Poetry, noted that Blumenthal "writes wonderful satire." The poet gathers both new and formerly published poems for this collection, including "The New Yorker Poem," "Jungians & Freudians at the Joseph Campbell Lecture," and "Dancing with a De-Constructionist," verses that fit the satirical category Yezzi proposes. Sex and love come to play in a section called "Decencies," while a "comic mode" is present, according to Yezzi, with such "delightful entertainments" as the poem titled "The Scribes," in which Blumenthal parodies the truism that everyone has one book in them by listing all the quotidian persons encountered who have written books. Judy Clarence, writing in Library Journal, also had praise for the collection, commenting that Blumenthal's style "is pure, simple, utterly accessible, loving, lyrical, and full of emotion."
In his novel Weinstock among the Dying, Blumenthal fashions a poet protagonist, a "disgruntled" Harvard professor, according to a contributor for Publishers Weekly. Initially, the title character's acerbic view of academic life is satiric; eventually, the novel spotlights Weinstock's struggle with his own history and identity. In the course of psychoanalysis, he comes to terms with the death of his adoptive aunt, deals with the truth of his biological parents, and learns to become a parent himself. A critic for Publishers Weekly found this to be a "graceful, wise, [and] moving" debut novel that was "resonant with meaning."
After a four-year position in Hungary as a Fulbright fellow, Blumenthal gathered fifty short essays—most of which had been published in magazines—in When History Enters the House. These articles range from difficulties with language and exile to an examination of the O. J. Simpson case. A critic for Publishers Weekly felt that the collection of essays made a "worthy book," but noted that it could also "have benefited from greater selectivity." Booklist's Brad Hooper observed that the book "offers wide-ranging observations on current situations in Central Europe."
Blumenthal returns to subjects explored in his novel with the 2002 memoir All My Mothers and Fathers. Here he tells the story of his youth. He was born to chicken farmers in New Jersey who essentially gave him at birth to his aunt and uncle. Raised in Manhattan by these Holocaust survivors, he did not know until his aunt died and he was ten years old that he had been adopted. When his uncle remarried, Blumenthal encountered a stepmother who wanted no part of him. The result was a life-long inability to love as he would have wanted to. A contributor for Publishers Weekly called Blumenthal a "deft storyteller," but also wrote that "his memoir is distorted by rage and self-pity." Similarly, Amanda Heller, writing in the Boston Globe, felt that Blumenthal's "psyche still bears the open wounds" of this betrayal by his biological parents and the ill treatment by his stepmother. For Heller, such an ongoing open wound was "the weakness as well as the strength of this gripping memoir." A Kirkus Reviews critic also found strength and weakness in the memoir, commenting that Blumenthal "writes vividly and elegantly," but also calling the book "claustrophobic [and] self-obsessed."
Norris Hounion, however, writing in Library Journal, was more positive in his evaluation, calling All My Mothers and Fathers a "touching story of [Blumenthal's] search for his true identity." Hounion found this account both "filled with humor" and "deeply moving." Writing in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dan Benson compared Blumenthal's memoir to Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, noting that though All My Mothers and Fathers doesn't have the "raucous humor" of McCourt's work, still it does have a "fearful hopefulness," for Blumenthal finds a kind of salvation in the promise of his own son's life. As Whitney Scott concluded in Booklist, "Blumenthal's message and his source of comfort seem to be that love endures."
"I write poetry," Blumenthal once commented, "quite unashamedly, because I believe, as Howard Nemerov has said, that 'the beautiful is still among the possible,' and that it redeems us, and as a screen against (and a reminder of) my own wickedness and complexity. As for my poems, it seems to me that only they can speak of themselves."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Blumenthal, Michael C., Days We Would Rather Know (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
Blumenthal, Michael C., All My Mothers and Fathers: A Memoir, HarperCollins/Perennial (New York, NY), 2002.
Book, March-April, 2002, James Schiff, review of All My Mothers and Fathers, p. 77.
Booklist, March 15, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of When History Enters the House, p. 1196; February 15, 2002, Whitney Scott, review of All My Mothers and Fathers, p. 975.
Boston Globe, March 31, 2002, Amanda Heller, review of All My Mothers and Fathers, p. E3.
Chicago Tribune, March 3, 2002, Dan Santow, review of All My Mothers and Fathers, p. 6.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2002, review of All My Mothers and Fathers, p. 82.
Library Journal, December, 1999, Judy Clarence, review of Dusty Angel, p. 140; April 15, 2002, Morris Hounion, review of All My Mothers and Fathers, p. 86.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 24, 2002, Dan Benson, review of All My Mothers and Fathers, p. O6.
New Republic, April 16, 1984, Helen Vendler, review of Days We Would Rather Know, pp. 37-40.
Poetry, May, 2001, David Yezzi, review of Dusty Angel, p. 108.
Publishers Weekly, July 26, 1993, review of Weinstock among the Dying, p. 58; March 16, 1998, review of When History Enters the House, p. 47; February 25, 2002, review of All My Mothers and Fathers, pp. 54-55.
Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Web sitehttp://www.comm.uiuc.edu/icr/ (October 24, 2003), "A Letter to My Students."
Lawyers and Poetry, http://www.wvu.edu/ (October 23, 2003), biography of Michael Blumenthal.
Pleasure Boat Studio, http://www.pbstudio.com/ (October 24, 2003), biography of Michael Blumenthal.
Poetry Porch, http://www.poetryporch.com/ (October 24, 2003), biography of Michael Blumenthal.*