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Shorris, Earl 1936–

Shorris, Earl 1936–

PERSONAL:

Born June 25, 1936, in Chicago, IL; son of Samuel Robert and Betty Shorris; married Sylvia Sasson (a writer and translator), May 3, 1956; children: Anthony Ernest, James Sasson. Ethnicity: "European/Russian." Education: Attended University of Chicago, 1950-53. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.

ADDRESSES:

Home—New York, NY.

CAREER:

Writer and journalist. Founder and chair of the advisory board for the Clemente Course in the Humanities, associated with Bard College; cofounder, Pan-American Indian Humanities Center, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma; member of Ford Foundation working group in social indicators, Rockefeller Foundation task force on the humanities, and Fulbright Panel. Military service: Served in U.S. Air Force, 1953-55.

MEMBER:

American PEN.

AWARDS, HONORS:

National Humanities Medal.

WRITINGS:

Ofay (novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1966.

The Boots of the Virgin (novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1968.

The Death of the Great Spirit (nonfiction), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1971.

Under the Fifth Sun: A Novel of Pancho Villa, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1980.

The Oppressed Middle: Politics of Middle Management: Scenes from Corporate Life (nonfiction), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1981, published as Scenes from Corporate Life: The Politics of Middle Management, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1984.

Jews without Mercy: A Lament (nonfiction), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1982.

(Editor) While Someone Else Is Eating: Poets and Novelists on Reaganism, Anchor Books/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1984.

Power Sits at Another Table and Other Observations on the Business of Power (aphorism collection), paintings by Nick de Angeles, photographs by Suzanne Kaufman, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1987.

Latinos: A Biography of the People, Norton (New York, NY), 1992.

A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture, Norton (New York, NY), 1994.

New American Blues: A Journey through Poverty to Democracy, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.

Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities, Norton (New York, NY), 2000.

In the Yucatan: A Novel, Norton (New York, NY), 2000.

(Editor, with others) In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of Mesoamerican Literature—Pre-Columbian to the Present, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.

The Life and Times of Mexico, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.

The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times, Norton (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor of articles and essays to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Ramparts, Esquire, Antioch Review, New York Times Sunday Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Lingua Franca, The Family Therapy Networker, American Educator, and Nation. Contributing editor, Harper's, 1972-81, 1983—.

ADAPTATIONS:

Film rights to The Boots of the Virgin have been sold.

SIDELIGHTS:

As a novelist, Earl Shorris is known for his black humor and sense of absurdity. The characters in The Boots of the Virgin, for example, include Sam, a communicative cockroach, an assortment of malformed and maimed humans, and anti-hero Sol Feldman (or "El Sol"), the Jewish bullfighter. Under the Fifth Sun: A Novel of Pancho Villa also bends reality, invoking both absurd aspects of human existence and the fantasy of myth. Its central character, however, is real. The novel tells a fictional version of Pancho Villa's life, a story of "whores, wives, blood, and strawberry soda," wrote Jerome Charyn in the New York Times Book Review. Charyn believed that "the book is much more than a catalogue of events in Villa's life. Mr. Shorris surrounds Villa with the magic of song." Charyn went on to write in the same review: "Fact, myth and nightmare come together in one powerful universe. And we ‘suffer’ through the novel as in an extraordinary dream."

Shorris's most widely reviewed nonfiction work, The Oppressed Middle: Politics of Middle Management: Scenes from Corporate Life, builds a case against the corporation's "totalitarian" power over its workers, particularly mid-level managers. Shorris draws on and amends classical and modern theories of philosophy, economics, and sociology and offers forty fictional vignettes of corporate life, much like case histories, to support his argument. "This odd, provocative and perverse book, sometimes charming and always ambitious beyond decency, wants to do everything at once," wrote John Leonard in the New York Times Book Review. Leonard commented that the book's "excesses include a fierce disdain for sociobiology; casual and arbitrary one-sentence explanations for the decline of the Mayan empire and the failure of Soviet grain crops; a blind faith in American trade unionism; a misreading of Machiavelli, and an ignorance of Vico—all without footnotes, or bibliography." However, while admitting that the "ghosts of Poli. Sci. 127" seem to "possess" Shorris in the book's opening theoretical section, New York Times Book Review contributor Richard Schickel noted that the forty original tales "make compelling reading. It is all horrid stuff, with the hard ring of truth to it." He calls the work "a scary and valuable book."

In Latinos: A Biography of the People, Shorris explores the effects of the Latino stereotypes on their position in the United States. Known for his draw to social theories, Shorris first breaks down "Latinos" into groups: Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, and Mexicans. He explains how the U.S. Census Bureau created the term Hispanic in the 1970s to apply to all the Spanish-speaking groups as a means of classification. Edwin Roman, writing for Latiknow, was impressed that Shorris "addressed the rivalry and prejudice that exists between all Latinos—something that hinders us from collectively moving ahead." "We expect no one to confuse Irish with British, and one hopes that after delving into this book, sophistication about Hispanic categories will also prevail," wrote Edward Cleary in Commonwealth. J. Jorge Klor de Alva in Migration World magazine summarized that Shorris "is quick to note that neither poverty, discrimination nor neglect have discouraged the overwhelming majority of Latinos from seeking their version of the American dream." "Earl Shorris has combined his skills as a journalist and a novelist to weave well-annotated sketches of Latino individuals and families and predicaments they face into a single, compelling story," continued Klor de Alva. "Latinos is a bringing together of a lifetime's insights about Latinos' place in American culture," observed Publishers Weekly contributor Paul Elie.

Shorris explores America's obsession with selling in A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture. He explains how Americans have lost their intrinsic value as humans because they feel the need to put a price on everything. This salesman mentality has led to "a corrosive decay of American values and culture," wrote Murry Frymer for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Services. "The most serious loss for society … comes in the character of the people," continued Frymer. Shorris wrote: "When nobody has any value except in how he or she is used, when everything has its price, the effect is a loss of human dignity. A human being should have value in and of himself, not in what price he can fetch." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that Shorris is arguing that a "consumerist lifestyle has been ‘oversold’ to people who buy goods and services they neither need nor can afford." The same reviewer stated: "Shorris offers few remedies, but he does predict a resurgence of decency and a mass rejection of the sales mentality."

Shorris tackles yet another social topic in New American Blues: A Journey through Poverty to Democracy, about poverty in America. "Shorris gives an unforgettable glimpse of poverty in the United States … and leads us through theory to change," commented Sandra Isaacson of the Library Journal. Booklist contributor Mary Carroll wrote that "poor people today are isolated and overwhelmed in a ‘surround of force’ where politics appears impossible and irrelevant." Shorris points out that citizenship is useless to the poor, as they do not feel that they are a part of America. He gives this theory as the reason people in poor communities seem to rampage their own neighborhoods. This theory aside, BookPage contributor Alden Mudge commented that "Shorris is not blind to the chaos and the sometimes-self-inflicted complications of their lives." Mudge summed up the book as "not a call to the guilt and do-goodism on which the current system thrives. Rather it seeks to tap the idealism that occasionally energizes the body politic, creates change and sometimes even sets people free." John Shapiro, writing for World Free Internet, noted, however, that Shorris's "whole approach to welfare reform is based on anecdotal contacts." Shapiro further explained: "The worthy ideal of citizenship based on a notion of equality has never been more than an ideal."

In the Yucatan: A Novel is a refreshing break from the heavy nonfiction works Shorris released previously. Although many nonfiction writers do not cross over into the fiction realm, Shorris does it with skill and success. "Shorris knows scads about Mayan culture and uses it to good advantage, weaving politics, religion, natural medicine, spirituality, and beautiful language into an admirable political novel," wrote Harold Augenbraum of Library Journal. The book is about a Mexican American lawyer who is thrown into jail after trying to help some Mayan workers form their own union. While in jail he befriends one of the Mayans who was also arrested, and Shorris unravels the story from both points of view. The intriguing style in which Shorris wrote this novel has led to its success not only in America, but also in Mexico.

In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of Mesoamerican Literature—Pre-Columbian to the Present is Shorris's compilation of ancient as well as contemporary poetry and writings of Mesoamericans, "presenting a sensitive offering of the literary expression of the high cultures of Mexico and Central America," as described by Howard Meredith of World Literature Today. Meredith commented that Shorris's work is a masterpiece, as it truly shows the art of the Mesoamerican works, and that the writings are unlike any other prose commonly presented.

Shorris's next book, The Life and Times of Mexico, is a 3,000-year history of Mexico that has received widespread praise from critics. A Publishers Weekly contributor called it "a beautiful, passionate and powerful account." Andy Boynton, writing in Booklist, commented that it is "elegantly and simply written." In his book, Shorris discusses everything from the Indian world and the Spanish invasion to Mexico's Independence, the 1910 Revolution, and the modern state of affairs typified by what the author sees as the tragic lives of Mexicans working in assembly plants along the border with the United States. The author tells much of the story through the lives of everyday Mexicans. In addition, he explores the lives of the many Mexicans living and working in the United States. The book includes three maps and thirty-two pages of illustrations. "Shorris's narrative approach is at once journalistic … and historical," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor, adding that "it is also exquisitely literary." Elizabeth Salt, writing in the Library Journal, noted that the author "successfully captures the vibrant nature of the spirit of Mexico."

In his 2007 book, The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times, Shorris examines what he sees as an aura of fear in the United States and the power of the religious right as a national political movement that transcends political parties, has no formal structure and no real leaders, and has no sworn loyalty except to God. He traces the movement of fear and the growth of the religious right to the end of World War II, when the atomic bomb instilled fear of mass death in the American psyche and influenced America's views of justice, ethics, and global politics. The author marks the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as a second turning point in the culture of fear, leading Americans to not only become increasingly pessimistic but far too willing to embrace simplistic, self-serving solutions to questions concerning personal and national issues, thus leading to George W. Bush's reelection as president in 2004.

Noting that numerous books have been written with a focus on how George W. Bush won reelection, San Francisco Chronicle contributor Charles Matthews wrote: "Few of the books have been as erudite as Earl Shorris' The Politics of Heaven." Vanessa Bush wrote in Booklist that the author "eloquently offers a penetrating and unsettling look at American fear." Several reviewers noted that the author sometimes goes into a diatribe reflecting his complete disappointment with the Bush administration and how America has seemingly given itself over to fear in the early part of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Matthews noted in the San Francisco Chronicle: "There may be some indigestible bits of gristle in it, but Shorris' serving up of recent American political and social history is both palatable and provocative."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 15, 1994, Joseph Leonard, review of A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of theMarket and the Subversion of Culture, p. 91; October 15, 1997, Mary Carroll, review of New American Blues: A Journey through Poverty to Democracy, p. 368; July, 2004, Andy Boynton, review of The Life and Times of Mexico, p. 1813; August, 2007, Vanessa Bush, review of The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times, p. 29.

California Bookwatch, April, 2006, review of The Life and Times of Mexico.

Commonweal, March 26, 1993, Edward L. Cleary, review of Latinos: A Biography of the People, pp. 23-24.

Historian, fall, 2005, Mark Wasserman, review of The Life and Times of Mexico, p. 544; summer, 2007, Samuel Brunk, review of The Life and Times of Mexico, p. 353.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2004, review of The Life and Times of Mexico, p. 486; June 15, 2007, review of The Politics of Heaven.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 25, 1994, Murry Frymer, review of A Nation of Salesmen, p. 1125.

Library Journal, October 1, 1997, Sandra Isaacson, review of New American Blues, p. 106; June 1, 2000, Harold Augenbraum, review of In the Yucatan: A Novel, p. 204; June 15, 2004, Elizabeth Salt, review of The Life and Times of Mexico, p. 83.

Mass Humanities, spring, 2000, Kristin O'Connell, "Social Transformation through the Humanities: An Interview with Earl Shorris."

Migration World, March-June, 1993, J. Jorge Klor de Alva, review of Latinos, pp. 55-56.

National Review, March 6, 1981, Alan L. Millier, review of The Oppressed Middle: Politics of Middle Management: Scenes from Corporate Life, p. 238.

New Leader, December 19, 1994, Leonard Silk, review of A Nation of Salesmen, p. 35.

New Republic, April 26, 1993, Alejandro Portes, review of Latinos, pp. 38-41.

New York Times, February 2, 1981, John Leonard, review of The Oppressed Middle, p. 12; May 5, 1982, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Jews without Mercy: A Lament, p. 25; October 19, 1997, Jo-Ann Mort, review of New American Blues, p. 43.

New York Times Book Review, October 5, 1980, Jerome Charyn, review of Under the Fifth Sun: A Novel of Pancho Villa, p. 14; March 15, 1981, Richard Schickel, review of The Oppressed Middle, p. 9; July 8, 1984, Steven V. Roberts, review of While Someone Else Is Eating: Poets and Novelists on Reaganism, p. 21; May 24, 1987, Alex Ward, review of Power Sits at Another Table and Other Observations on the Business of Power, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1992, review of Latinos, p. 68; October 19, 1992, Paul Elie, review of Latinos, pp. 50-51; August 8, 1994, review of A Nation of Salesmen, p. 406; September 8, 1997, review of New American Blues, p. 64; April 10, 2000, review of In the Yucatan, p. 73; July 5, 2004, review of The Life and Times of Mexico, p. 49.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 2007, Charles Matthews, "Politics of Heaven Explains How U.S. Got on a Fearful Track."

Whole Earth Review, spring, 1996, Sandy Zipp, review of A Nation of Salesmen, p. 89.

World Literature Today, winter, 2002, Howard Meredith, review of In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of Mesoamerican Literature—Pre-Columbian to the Present, pp. 225-226.

ONLINE

BookPage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (November 24, 2002), Alden Mudge, review of New American Blues.

Latiknow, http://www.latiknow.com/ (November 24, 2002), Edwin Roman, review of In the Yucatan.

Norton Web site, http://www.wwnorton.com/ (November 24, 2002), review of In the Yucatan,

San Diego History, http://www.sandiegohistory.org/ (November 24, 2002), Arturo Ramirez, review of Latinos.

World Free Internet, http://www.worldfreeinternet.net/ (November 24, 2002), Jonathan S. Shapiro, "Citizenship vs. Nationality."

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