Nissenson, Hugh 1933–

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Nissenson, Hugh 1933–

PERSONAL: Born March 10, 1933, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Charles Arthur and Harriette (Dolch) Nissenson; married Marilyn Claster (a television writer and producer), November 10, 1962; children: Katherine, Kore Johanna. Education: Swarthmore College, B.A., 1955. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Sourcebooks, Inc. 1935 Brookdale Rd., Ste. 139, Naperville, IL 60563.

CAREER: Author and journalist.

MEMBER: Century Association (New York, NY).

AWARDS, HONORS: Wallace Stegner literary fellow at Stanford University, 1961–62; Edward Lewis Wallant Memorial Award for fiction, 1965, for A Pile of Stones; PEN/Faulkner Award nomination, 1985, American Book Award nomination, fiction, 1985, and Ohioana Books Award, fiction, Ohioana Library Association, 1986, all for The Tree of Life.


A Pile of Stones (stories), Scribner (New York, NY), 1965.

Notes from the Frontier (nonfiction), Dial (New York, NY), 1968.

In the Reign of Peace (stories), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1972.

My Own Ground (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1976, reprinted, Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY), 1997.

The Tree of Life (novel), Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1985, reprinted, Paul Dry Books (Philadelphia, PA), 2000.

The Elephant and My Jewish Problem: Selected Stories and Journals, 1957–1987, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1988.

(And illustrator) The Song of the Earth (novel), Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC), 2001.

The Days of Awe (novel), Sourcebooks (Naperville, IL), 2005.

Contributor to anthologies, including Chaim Potok and Jewish-American Culture: Three Essays: A Memorial Symposium, 2002; contributor of stories and articles to New Yorker, Harper's, Commentary, Holiday, Esquire, Playboy, London Magazine, and other periodicals.

SIDELIGHTS: Hugh Nissenson has long been acclaimed for his short stories, many of which explore contemporary perspectives on Jewish history and myth. The collection In the Reign of Peace, for example, contains "meticulous stories, perfected, polished, as a result often radiant," noted Cynthia Ozick in the New York Times Book Review. "The strength of Nissenson's prose is not in what he puts in … but how he omits," added Ozick. Similarly, New York Times contributor Thomas Lask observed that Nissenson "never writes in abstractions. The frame around his stories is firm and four-square. The settings are solid and easily followed." Lask also praised the author for creating "a group of superbly crafted tales that always mean what they say." But for all Nissenson's success with his stories, "what he wanted eventually to write," said John F. Baker in a Publishers Weekly interview, "was a work in which the arts of narrative, poetry, and painting are combined—and that is what he has finally achieved in The Tree of Life."

The Tree of Life is written in the form of a diary by one Thomas Keene, a widower who has settled in frontier Ohio in 1811. The novel "dramatizes, sometimes with almost unbearable intensity, the American dream and its attendant nightmare," explained Paul Gray in a review for Time. Keene catalogues his daily life in the journal, listing possessions, reporting events, recording feelings. The effect, as Elaine Kendall of the Los Angeles Times Book Review wrote, is that "this small novel works like a laser beam, penetrating the American experience with searing and concentrated intensity. Hugh Nissenson has created a complete world—inhabitants, artifacts, dwellings, customs and behavior, always working with an archaeologist's precision." In order to recreate frontier Ohio with accuracy, Nissenson acquainted himself with many of the objects Keene would have used. "As the work progressed," reported Los Angeles Times writer Garry Abrams, "so would Nissenson's collection of artifacts and other aids that would transport his imagination—[including] a Harper's Ferry musket, a tomahawk … and a set of buckskins such as Keene might have worn." The final item, Nissenson told Abrams, was most helpful, saying: "The first time I put on my buckskin in my New York apartment, I looked in the mirror and it was a wonderful experience because suddenly I was transformed, it was real."

This transformation is illustrated by the verisimilitude of Keene's mixed-media journal. In a Washington Post Book World review, Tom LeClair maintained that The Tree of Life is "artfully and authentically compressed. The account is a novelistic 'Waste Land'—a collage, like [T.S.] Eliot's poem, of precise and representative fragments." Kendall commented that the line drawings and woodcuts make "our vision of Keene's vanished world even more complete and explicit than the plain straightforward prose could do alone." The critic added that The Tree of Life "reverberates with a power far out of proportion to its modest length, cutting to the invisible roots of realism where all fiction begins."

Besides the realism evident in The Tree of Life, critics have remarked on the complex levels of meaning in the novel. "Giving narrative momentum to Nissenson's researched inventory is a dual plot, where the personal and the historical, love and war, intersect," noted Le-Clair. Village Voice contributor Eliot Fremont-Smith also perceived an intricacy in the novel's plotting, writing that "part of the book's eeriness derives from the certain if not quite conscious knowledge of what is to come—expansion for the whites, doom for the Indians—the sense of the inevitable, and so early." "Finally, with the shock of a trapdoor falling beneath one's feet," wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, "one realizes that 'The Tree of Life' isn't an artifact at all, but instead a poem in the form of a diary, whose every image performs a complex set of duties. One can pick out almost any word or phrase, and an extensive web of associations seems to stretch away in every direction." Concluded the critic: "On first reading, it possesses us as a vital documentary of nineteenth-century frontier life. On second reading, it confronts us where our deepest and most disturbing fantasies intersect with our sense of history…. It is a book that plants deep seeds." In fact a main character in Nissenson's story is John Chapman, better known as "Johnny Appleseed," the man who planted actual seeds in his travels across the North American continent.

Recounting his working methods, Nissenson revealed to Baker: "I write and rewrite, and that's why it takes me so long. For the novel to survive, it has to do what the movie can't—which means you have to assert the primacy of the word. It's no good going in for long descriptions as they did in the nineteenth century; the camera can do that. You have to trim away the fat, achieve more with less." The author continued: "I want above all, as [novelist Joseph] Conrad said, to make people see and feel. And to do that, you must have some sort of a narrative, to make people follow you. Nobody ever tires of a story."

Nissenson drew from his early collections, A Pile of Stones and In the Reign of Peace, in creating The Elephant and My Jewish Problem: Selected Stories and Journals, 1957–1987. The 1988 anthology contains short stories and reporting pieces written over a period of thirty years, including Nissenson's coverage of the Klaus Barbie trial in 1987, as well as the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann. There are news pieces written about Israel and the 1967 and 1973 conflicts, and about the Lebanon invasion. Mervyn Rothstein reviewed The Elephant and My Jewish Problem in the New York Times Book Review and reported on a conversation with Nissenson, who said: "The Holocaust is one of my major themes and one of my preoccupations. As an American writer, I can only look on it obliquely. I think it would be chutzpah to try and dramatize it directly. But the sense of horror, the sense also of being forever aware of what the human being is capable of, marked me and changed the way I must look at the human condition and the human race. One of the things I address again and again—I have no solutions, I'm not a philosopher, all I can do is dramatize—is the idea of the immense component of evil, and radical evil, in the human mind."

Published more than a decade after The Tree of Life, The Song of the Earth is similarly a fictional biography, in this case of John Firth Baker, the first genetically engineered artist, born in 2038. The Song of the Earth is a book that accompanies a gallery showing of Baker's artwork in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the artist's murder. Baker's lesbian mother, Jeanette Baker, is one of three women who participated in an illegal experiment in which they were inseminated by Frederick Rust Plowman, an American scientist. Plowman is attempting to prove his theory that, in order to produce creative genius, maternal affection must be withheld.

John and the other two children are born, one a Japanese boy, the other a Russian girl. Other genetically engineered people populate the story, including a young chess master created to wrest the championship from the IBM computer that has held it since 2009. "The depiction of these myriad cults and factions at war with each other—Gaian, gynarchic, phallocentric—is hilarious, witty, and depressingly believable," wrote Elizabeth Hand in the Washington Post Book World. "Nissenson dives into deep water with his novel—not just into the relationships between Science and Art, maleness and femaleness, but into the often dangerous confluence of creativity, sexual desire, obsession, and religious and political zealotry." Hand called The Song of the Earth "brilliantly conceived."

A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that Nissenson "has created a complete and fascinating future world full of details that tease the imagination…. The time is ripe for a reconsideration of Nissenson's quiet but distinguished career." Booklist contributor Ray Olson called the novel an "SF masterpiece."

The Song of the Earth is a new kind of narrative, according to Nissenson. With its forty-seven paintings and drawings attributed to John Firth Baker, the novel consummates Nissenson's integration of images and text—both prose and poetry—begun in The Tree of Life. Andy Bailey, reviewing the work in TimeOut New York, dubbed The Song of the Earth a "feverishly clever, dystopian epistolary allegorical metafiction" that forces the reader to "rethink notions of intelligence, talent and acquired knowledge."

With his 2005 novel, The Days of Awe, Nissenson focuses on the events of September 11, 2001, as they intersect with the lives of his protagonist, sixty-seven-year-old book illustrator and author Artie Rubin, his wife, Joanna, and their circle of friends. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly praised the "solid character writing and attention to the details of daily life" which help to bring the events of that autumn to life. The Days of Awe of the title are the ten days that fall between the two Jewish celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During this time, it is believed, God decides who will pass away in the coming year. Indeed, Artie is dealing with death on many fronts: several colleagues have recently died or are dying, while his wife has high blood pressure. On top of this come the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all of which push Artie back into his faith. Reviewing the title for Booklist, Michelle Leber found Nissenson's novel "a moving, thought-provoking exploration of coming to grips with mortality." Speaking with Daniel Asa Rose of New York Magazine, Nissenson explained part of the motivation for The Days of Awe: "I wanted to write a novel about our ultimate confrontation with God and death, and to seek in ordinary things what makes life worthwhile."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1975, Volume 9, 1978.

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

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

Nissenson, Hugh, The Elephant and My Jewish Problem: Selected Stories and Journals, 1957–1987, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1988.


Art & Auction, July-August, 2001, David D'Arcy, review of The Song of the Earth.

ARTnews, May, 2001, Rebecca Sonkin, "Genetic Esthetic," p. 46.

Booklist, April 15, 2001, Ray Olson, review of The Song of the Earth, p. 1542; August, 2005, Michelle Leber, review of The Days of Awe, p. 1994.

Boston Phoenix, May 25, 2001, review of The Song of the Earth.

Chicago Tribune Book World, October 27, 1985.

House & Garden, November, 1985, M.L. Aronson, "Frontier Obsession," p. 70.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2001, review of The Song of the Earth, p. 284.

Library Journal, October 15, 1985, Charles Michaud, review of The Tree of Life, p. 102.

London Review of Books, December 5, 1991, review of The Tree of Life, p. 19.

Los Angeles Times, January 22, 1986, Garry Abrams, review of The Tree of Life; June 7, 2001, Zachary Karabell, "Of Future Shock and Life's Eternal Truths," p. E3.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 3, 1985, Elaine Kendall, review of The Tree of Life; January 15, 1989, review of The Elephant and My Jewish Problem: Selected Stories and Journals, 1957–1987, p. 1.

New Yorker, December 23, 1985, review of The Tree of Life; June 11, 2001, review of The Song of the Earth, p. 89.

New York Magazine, September 26, 2005, Daniel Asa Rose, "Falling Man."

New York Times, March 18, 1972, Thomas Lask, review of In the Reign of Peace; March 30, 1976; October 14, 1985, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Tree of Life; November 9, 1988, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Elephant and My Jewish Problem, p. 22; January 4, 1989, Mervyn Rothstein, "Holding on to One's Faith in a World of Violence," p. B3; July 26, 2001, Dinitia Smith, "Depression His Linchpin, a Novelist Keeps Going," p. B1.

New York Times Book Review, July 11, 1965; April 28, 1968; March 19, 1972, Cynthia Ozick, review of In the Reign of Peace, p. 9; April 4, 1976; October 27, 1985, Ivan Doig, review of The Tree of Life, p. 14; January 25, 1987, Patricia T. O'Connor, reviews of My Own Ground and The Tree of Life, p. 32; December 11, 1988, Alan Cheuse, review of The Elephant and My Jewish Problem, p. 15; January 4, 1989, Mervyn Rothstein, "Holding on to Faith in the Face of the Reality of Evil"; November 26, 1989, review of The Elephant and My Jewish Problem, p. 34.

People Weekly, December 16, 1985, Campbell Geeslin, review of The Tree of Life, p. 33.

Publishers Weekly, November 1, 1985, John F. Baker, review of The Tree of Life, p. 67; September 16, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Elephant and My Jewish Problem, p. 63; September 29, 1989, review of The Elephant and My Jewish Problem, p. 64; April 30, 2001, review of The Song of the Earth, p. 56; June 27, 2005, review of The Days of Awe, p. 40.

Saturday Review, July 3, 1965; April 13, 1968; January, 1986, Bruce Allen, review of The Tree of Life, p. 83.

Time, October 21, 1985, Paul Gray, review of The Tree of Life, p. 87.

TimeOut New York, May 24-31, 2001, Andy Bailey, review of The Song of the Earth, p. 21.

Village Voice, October 22, 1985, Eliot Fremont-Smith, review of The Tree of Life.

Wall Street Journal, January 23, 1986, Helen Dudar, "Writer Finds Slow and Steady Wins the Race," p. 30.

Washington Post Book World, November 3, 1985, Tom LeClair, review of The Tree of Life; January 8, 1989, review of The Elephant and My Jewish Problem, p. 11; May 27, 2001, Elizabeth Hand, "Test-Tube Genius," p. T07.

West Coast Review of Books, April, 1989, review of The Elephant and My Jewish Problem, p. 22.