Shorris, Earl 1936-
SHORRIS, Earl 1936-
PERSONAL: Born June 25, 1936, in Chicago, IL; son of Samuel Robert and Betty (Mann) 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—444 E. 82nd St., New York, NY 10028.
CAREER: Writer. 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, Ford Foundation Working Group in Social Indicators, Rockefeller Foundation Task force on the Humanities, Fullbright Panel. Military service: Served in U.S. Air Force, 1953-55.
MEMBER: American PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Humanities Medal.
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.
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. New York Times Book Review critic Nicholas Samstag commented, "The Boots of the Virgin trample [the reader] down, into a world where nothing is real but filth and cruelty," yet it is a world no "more or less absurd than the one in which nothing is real except romantic love and honor…. Just uglier and funnier."
Under the Fifth Sun 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…. Fact, myth and nightmare come together in one powerful universe. And we 'suffer' through the novel as in an extraordinary dream." Los Angeles Times writer Dave Smith, however, wrote that "ultimately Shorris renders up a Villa too small, too empty, basically too unintelligent to carry the dramatic weight" of the events and Mexican-Indian lore assigned to him. "The book splits in two," added Smith, "chiefly where mysticism meets machismo, never successfully unified in … Villa."
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 midlevel 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."
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 critic 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." Writing in the Detroit News, L. J. Davis described the book as "an accomplished, complex, and beautifully written piece of work. It is also wise."
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 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 the Latiknow Web site, 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 for Commonwealth. J. Jorge Klor de Alva in the New York Times Book Review 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 we have lost our intrinsic value as humans because we feel the need to put a price on everything—everything has a price. This salesman mentality has lead 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 writes, "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 reviewer felt 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 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 writer Alden Mudge felt "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 with 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 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," described Howard Meredith of World Literature Today. Meredith felt 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.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Best Sellers, March 1, 1968.
Booklist, September 15, 1994, Joseph Leonard, review of A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market 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.
Commonweal, March 26, 1993, Edward L. Cleary, review of Latinos: A Biography of the People, p. 23-24.
Detroit News, May 10, 1981.
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, p. 204.
Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1981.
Migration World Magazine, March-June, 1993, J. Jorge Klor de Alva, review of Latinos, pp. 55-56.
National Review, March 6, 1981.
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; May 5, 1982; October 19, 1997, Jo-Ann Mort, review of New American Blues, p. 43.
New York Times Book Review, February 11, 1968; October 5, 1980; March 15, 1981; July 8, 1984; May 24, 1987.
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 ANation of Salesmen, p. 406; September 8, 1997, review of New American Blues, p. 64; April 10, 2000, review of In the Yucatan, p. 73.
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. 225-26.
BookPage Web site, http://www.bookpage.com/ (November 24, 2002), Alden Mudge, review of New American Blues.
Latiknow Web site, 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,
World Free Internet Web site, http://www.worldfreeinternet.net/ (November 24, 2002), Jonathan S. Shapiro, "Citizenship vs. Nationality."