Markson, David M. 1927–

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Markson, David M. 1927–

(David Merrill Markson)

PERSONAL: Born December 20, 1927, in Albany, NY; son of Samuel A. (a newspaper editor) and Florence (a school teacher) Markson; married Elaine Kretchmar (a literary agent), September 30, 1956; divorced, 1994; children: Johanna Lowry, Jed Matthew. Education: Union College, Schenectady, NY, B.A., 1950; Columbia University, M.A., 1952. Politics: Liberal Democrat. Religion: Jewish.

ADDRESSES: Home and officeNew York, NY. Agent—Elaine Markson, 44 Greenwich Ave., New York, NY 10011.

CAREER: Writer, journalist, and educator. Albany Times-Union, Albany, NY, staff writer, 1944–46, 1948–50; Weyerhauser Timber Co., Molalla, OR, rigger, 1952; Dell Publishing Co., New York City, editor, 1953–54; Lion Books, New York City, editor, 1955–56; freelance writer, 1956–64; Long Island University, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn, NY, assistant professor of English, 1964–66; freelance writer, 1966–. Part-time lecturer at Columbia University, 1979–87, and The New School, 1994, 1997–99. Military service: U.S. Army, 1946–48; became staff sergeant.

MEMBER: Louis Norman Newsom Memorial Society (commisioner, 1973–80).

AWARDS, HONORS: Fellow of Centro Mexicano de Escritores, 1960–61; fellow, National Endowment for the Arts, 1990; Salon Book Award, 1996; fellow, New York Foundation for the Arts, 2000.



Epitaph for a Tramp, Dell (New York, NY), 1959, published as Fannin, Belmont (New York, NY), 1971.

Epitaph for a Dead Beat, Dell (New York, NY), 1961.

Miss Doll, Go Home, Dell (New York, NY), 1965.

The Ballad of Dingus Magee, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1966.

Going Down, Holt (New York, NY), 1970, reprinted, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2002.

Springer's Progress, Holt (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1990.

Wittgenstein's Mistress, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1988.

Reader's Block, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1996.

This Is Not a Novel, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 2001.

Vanishing Point, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2004.

The Last Novel, Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2007.

An omnibus volume of Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat was published by Shoemaker & Hoard (Washington, DC), 2006.


(Editor) Great Tales of Old Russia (anthology), Pyramid Publications, 1956.

Face to the Wind (screenplay), Brut Productions, 1974.

Malcolm Lowry's Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning (literary criticism), New York Times Co. (New York, NY), 1978.

Collected Poems, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1993.

Contributor to magazines and newspapers, including Saturday Evening Post, Nation, Atlantic, and Village Voice.

ADAPTATIONS: The Ballad of Dingus Magee was filmed as Dirty Dingus Magee by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1970, starring Frank Sinatra and George Kennedy.

SIDELIGHTS: David M. Markson is best known as a writer of experimental fiction. San Francisco Review of Books contributor Joseph Tebbi noted that Markson is "among the few working novelists decisively to have carried the modernist tradition into the present, postmodern literature; a writer who, without claiming any particular knowledge of, or even affinities with, the more programmatic expounders of post-modernism, in recent work exemplifies many of the period's most vital developments." Since the publication in 1959 of Epitaph for a Tramp (later released under the title Fannin), he has published numerous novels, has seen a screenplay produced, and has written a book of literary criticism centering on the works of his friend, the writer Malcolm Lowry. Markson, wrote a Contemporary Novelists contributor, "found it easy to form friendships with well-known writers such as Lowry, Dylan Thomas, and Jack Kerouac in his youth, but only found widespread success for his own work with Wittgenstein's Mistress, a book rejected fifty-four times before its publication in 1988."

Markson achieved a modicum of notoriety with the publication in 1966 of The Ballad of Dingus Magee, a parody of the Western novel complete with a ruthless young gunfighter, a corruptible sheriff, and a prosperous town bordello. According to a Time contributor, the book "is stacked with enough sagebrush cliches to make it high Campfire." The reviewer added: "Parts of the book are rollickingly funny parody, while other parts are slapstick." In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek review, Piers Brendon of Books and Bookmen wrote: "Everyone has a cache of conviction inside him, however small, where to admit humour is to commit sacrilege. Personally, I can take jokes about the Virgin Mary, about disease, even about incest. But I do draw the line at laughing at the Wild West." Brendon went on to note: "If God is dead one must have faith in something. I believe in John Wayne." Dispelling his outrage, Brendon also commented that "there is plenty of action, plenty of bawdy and plenty of highly irreverent amusement in this novel."

In a review of Going Down, Newsweek's S.K. Oberbeck wrote: "A volcanic pretension bubbles at the bottom of the drama of a menage a trois of damaged U.S. expatriates nearing their doom in Mexico. It stumbles and stutters along in a dreamy barrage of elegant, unfinished sentences and unanswered rhetorical questions nipped at mid-phrase." Markson's unique style appears to be a favorite target for some critics who noted that it tends to detract from the underlying quality of his work. A Virginia Quarterly Review writer, for instance, called him "an intelligent writer, often a humorous one, whose mannerisms tend to conceal his very solid attributes." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times, offers a possible explanation: "It may be that Mr. Markson is up to something here. On the other hand, it is equally possible that he is not. My reasoning runs as follows: If the prose style of fiction doesn't serve to illuminate the action it's describing, then it's either incompetent or it's meant to call attention to itself." Haupt added: "The prose of Going Down is by no means incompetent. It draws one's attention inexorably to the narrator, who turns out to be no one but the author himself." However, after arriving at this conclusion, Lehmann-Haupt decided that the illusion created by this method "is of a novelist, with nothing to say, trying to tell a story he doesn't believe for a minute."

Wittgenstein's Mistress takes the form of an interior monologue given by Kate, a former painter who believes that she is the last person left alive on earth. Markson leaves ambiguous the notion of whether Kate is actually insane or the only survivor of a global catastrophe. "Wittgenstein's Mistress," wrote Evelin E. Sullivan in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, "addresses the question of how memory works." Sullivan went on to write: "Throughout the book, Kate moves by mental associations from topic to topic: who was who's student, who knew whom, who lived in the same city as who, died of the same disease as who, had eccentricities similar to whose?" Sullivan added: "As Kate finally realizes, what anything and everything brings to her mind are things too painful to think about."

In This Is Not a Novel, Markson "continues to push against the boundaries of fiction," as noted by a Publishers Weekly contributor. The narrator, who refers to himself only as "Writer," is a hypochondriac who sets before the reader a mass of data that at first seems random but is, as noted by Donna Seaman in Booklist, "wittily connected." Complaining of his difficulty writing, the narrator/writer discusses famous writers and artists who have died as he outlines his plans to write a novel without characters, plot, motivation or any of the common aspects of most novels. Paul Maliszewski, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, called the book "part commonplace book, part melancholic catalog of loss, part fugue, part epic poem of unnumbered cantos, part portrait of the artist, and, taken as a whole, a great read."

As noted by a Krikus Reviews contributor, Markson supplies "another booklength collection of facts, statements, and like planted surprises" in his next novel titled Vanishing Point. Once again, Markson presents an unknown, aging author gathering together various note cards to form the basis of his new novel. On the cards are thoughts covering history, human behavior, and philosophy. The "Author" also provides plenty of gossip and quotes attributed to writers and artists. Despite the seeming disconnect between the various notes and writings, a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that "the entries manage to tell a story—of humanity and humanity's desires, if you will." Janet St. John, writing in Booklist, commented that the author "deserves great credit for his literary experimentation." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that Markson "proves once again that his trademark fragmental style yields boundless meditations on the mythologized lives of great artists and thinkers, as well as … constructing and controlling a novel." Irving Malin, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, commented that the book "again demonstrates Markson as one of our most complex, innovative novelists."



Breit, Harvey, and Margerie Bonner Lowry, editors, Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1965.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 67, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Day, Douglas, Malcolm Lowry, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1974.

Fiedler, Leslie A., The Return of the Vanishing American, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1968.

Green, Jeremy, Late Postmodernism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.


Booklist, April 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of This Is Not a Novel, p. 1535; January 1, 2004, Janet St. John, review of Vanishing Point, p. 824.

Books and Bookmen, May, 1967, Piers Brendon, review of Wittgenstein's Mistress.

City Pages (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN), February 4, 2004, Eric Lorberer, review of Vanishing Point.

Hollins Critic, October, 2005, Peter Dempsey, "Novelist of Shreds and Patches: The Fiction of David Markson."

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2003, review of Vanishing Point, p. 1375.

Library Journal, January, 2004, Marc Kloszewski, review of Vanishing Point, p. 158.

Newsweek, April 6, 1970, S.K. Oberbeck, review of Going Down.

New York Times, April 24, 1970, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Going Down.

Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1993, review of Collected Poems, p. 472; August 12, 1996, review of Reader's Block, p. 79; March 19, 2001, review of This Is Not a Novel, p. 74; January 26, 2004, review of Vanishing Point, p. 231.

Punch, April 5, 1967, review of The Ballad of Dingus McGee, p. 506.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1990, Evelin E. Sullivan, review of Wittgenstein's Mistress, pp. 240-246; summer, 2001, Paul Maliszewski, review of This Is Not a Novel, p. 158; summer, 2004, Irving Malin, review of Vanishing Point, p. 131.

San Francisco Review of Books, annual, 1988, Joseph Tebbi review of Wittgenstein's Mistress, p. 32.

Threepenny Review, summer, 2006, David Cozy, author profile.

Time, April 22, 1966, review of The Ballad of Dingus Magee.

Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1970, review of Going Down.


Book Lovers Review, (August 30, 2006), Michael Pastore, review of Vanishing Point.

Bookslut, (November 15, 2006), author interview.

Internet Movie Database, (August 30, 2006).

Pop Matters, (August 30, 2006), Davin Heckman, review of This Is Not a Novel.

Spike, (August 30, 2006), Stephen Mitchelmore, review of This Is Not a Novel.

Splendid, (August 30, 2006), Jenn Sikes, review of This Is Not a Novel.