Becker, Stephen (David)
BECKER, Stephen (David)
Also writes as Steve Dodge. Nationality: American. Born: Mount Vernon, New York, 31 March 1927. Education: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1943-47, B.A. 1947; Yenching University, Peking, 1947-48. Military Service: Served in the United States Marine Corps, 1945. Family: Married Mary Elizabeth Freeburg in 1947; two sons and one daughter. Career: Instructor, Tsing Hua University, Peking, 1947-48; teaching fellow, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1951-52; lecturer, University of Alaska, College, 1967, Bennington College, Vermont, 1971, 1977, 1978, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1974, and Hollins College, Virginia, 1986. Since 1987 professor of English, University of Central Florida, Orlando. Editor, Western Printing Company, New York, 1955-56. Awards: Paul Harris fellowship, 1947; Guggenheim fellowship, 1954; National Endowment for the Arts grant, for translation, 1984. Agent: Russell and Volkening Inc., 50 West 29th Street, New York, New York 10001. Address: 880 Benchwood Dr., Winter Spring, Florida 32708, U.S.A.
The Season of the Stranger. New York, Harper, and London, HamishHamilton, 1951.
Shanghai Incident (as Steve Dodge). New York, Fawcett, 1955;London, Fawcett, 1956.
Juice. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1958; London, Muller, 1959.
A Covenant with Death. New York, Atheneum, and London, HamishHamilton, 1965.
The Outcasts. New York, Atheneum, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1967.
When the War Is Over. New York, Random House, 1969; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1970.
Dog Tags. New York, Random House, 1973; London, Barrie andJenkins, 1974.
The Chinese Bandit. New York, Random House, 1975; London, Chatto and Windus, 1976.
The Last Mandarin. New York, Random House, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1979.
The Blue-Eyed Shan. New York, Random House, and London, Collins, 1982.
A Rendezvous in Haiti. New York, Norton, and London, Collins, 1987.
Uncollected Short Stories
"To Know the Country," in Harper's (New York), August 1951.
"The Town Mouse," in The Best American Short Stories 1953, edited by Martha Foley. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1953.
"A Baptism of Some Importance," in Story. New York, McKay, 1953.
"Monsieur Malfait," in Harper's (New York), June 1953.
"The New Encyclopaedist," in The Year's Best SF 10, edited byJudith Merril. New York, Delacorte Press, 1965.
"Rites of Passage," in Florida Review (Orlando) Autumn 1984.
Marshall Field III: A Biography. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1964.
Translator, The Colors of the Day, by Romain Gary. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Joseph, 1953.
Translator, Mountains in the Desert, by Louis Carl and Joseph Petit. New York, Doubleday, 1954; as Tefedest, London, Allen and Unwin, 1954.
Translator, The Sacred Forest, by Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau. NewYork, Knopf, 1954.
Translator, Faraway, by André Dhôtel. New York, Simon andSchuster, 1957.
Translator, Someone Will Die Tonight in the Caribbean, by RenéPuissesseau. New York, Knopf, 1958; London, W.H. Allen, 1959.
Translator, The Last of the Just, by André Schwarz-Bart. New York, Atheneum, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1961.
Translator, The Town Beyond the Wall, by Elie Wiesel. New York, Atheneum, 1964; London, Robson, 1975.
Translator, The Conquerors, by André Malraux. New York, HoltRinehart, 1976.
Translator, Diary of My Travels in America, by Louis-Philippe. NewYork, Delacorte Press, 1977.
Translator, Ana No, by Agustín Gomez-Arcos. London, Secker andWarburg, 1980.
Translator, The Forgotten, by Elie Wiesel. New York, Schoken, 1995.
Translator, The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart. Woodstock, New York, Overlook Press, 2000.*
By Becker, in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series 1 edited by Dedria Bryfonski, Detroit, Gale, 1984.* * *
Equally distinguished as a translator, a biographer, a commentator on the popular arts, and a novelist, Stephen Becker brings to his fiction a breadth of experience with world culture and human behavior which yields moral complexity and psychological verity in his work. Two major themes intertwine through his novels—the problems of justice and the necessity for self-knowledge and self-fulfillment.
Beginning most clearly with Juice, Becker concentrates on the moral and social complexities of law and justice, continuing this theme in A Covenant with Death and When the War Is Over. The problem Becker's protagonists face is to distinguish between the arbitrary and mechanical justice of the law and true human justice. The rigidity and absoluteness of law collide with human values—especially the need for expiation, mercy and compassion. The characters' dilemma is to choose between true justice and simple retribution and to use the mechanism of blind justice to solve difficult moral problems. Against this theme is developed another—an existential concept of the self, men struggling with themselves, with nature and with circumstances to become fully alive and functioning beings. This theme is isolated most clearly in The Outcasts, which describes a group of engineers building a bridge deep in a primeval jungle. There they must overcome the indifferent force of nature, their own weaknesses, their fears and prejudices.
In Juice the theme of human and mechanical justice arises when the central character, Joseph Harrison, kills a pedestrian in an auto accident. His friends and employer try to use the law and the power of money and position ("juice") to white-wash the occurrence, while Harrison demands an absolute judgment to redeem his error. The tensions between views of law and truth reshape Harrison's whole existence. In A Covenant with Death a young judge is confronted with a difficult decision in a murder case; through detective work, insights into motivation and a complete understanding of the limits of the law, Judge Lewis is able to render a humane verdict and still satisfy the meaning of law. The forces of procrustean and draconian legalism are averted through the judge's efforts, through an intense moral revaluation which ultimately changes the judge's own life. In this novel, humanity triumphs through the action of the law.
The tragedy of the law is exposed in When the War Is Over, Becker's most satisfying novel. It is the story of the last victim of theCivil War, a boy executed as a Confederate guerrilla long after hostilities had ceased. The moral struggle is embodied in Lt. Marius Catto, a young career officer caught between a genuine love of peace and justice and a natural inclination toward the arts of war. He works to prevent General Hooker from wreaking vengeance through law on the boy but fails and is left scarred and embittered by disillusionment. The novel, based on historical fact, is a brilliant reconstruction of the time and place and an intense scrutiny of moral and social values. It convincingly examines the mechanism of military order, social justice and our conflicting views of violence and law. The story uncovers basic contradictions in our organization of legal murder.
Dog Tags is another densely detailed chronicle of man at war and his ability to survive it humanly and intelligently. It focuses on Benjamin Beer, a Jew wounded in World War II and later interned in North Korea. His response to war is to become a skilled and humane doctor, as if in expiration for the universal crime of war. His life is a moral struggle for self-knowledge and understanding of man's limitless potentials; "You're worried about good and bad," he says, "well, I'm worried about good and evil." In his quest, Benjamin learns his own abilities and limitations and achieves peace and grace within himself.
The Chinese Bandit, The Last Mandarin, and The Blue-Eyed Shan are finely-wrought and highly atmospheric Asian tales which focus on the collision of Western adventurers with oriental culture. Each story details the effect of American mercenaries in search of action in China and Southeast Asia after World War II and develops the moral and social conflicts between the two cultures through tales of violence and individual struggles for survival. The landscape and social patterns of a changeless East are refracted through the sensibilities of self-sufficient and resourceful Americans who find themselves alone in the crowds of the orient.
In A Rendezvous in Haiti, Becker returns to the U.S. Marines as a focus for a romantic adventure. The novel follows a young Marine lieutenant, Robert McAllister, and his fiancée during a rebellion in Haiti in 1919. McAllister, a veteran of the brutality of World War I, must single-handedly rescue his fiancée from the rebels (and the romantic spell of a mysterious rebel chieftain), crossing the island and its dense jungles. The story, like Becker's earlier Conradian romances, is rich with authentic period details and feeling and also comments seriously on American political and cultural imperialism and adventurism.
Becker's examination of society's structure and limitations and his portrayal of men seeking "grace under pressure" is a significant contribution to contemporary fiction. The existential premises of the works—individuals finding meaning inside the arbitrary bounds of social order—reflect our acceptance of the civilization we have built.
—William J. Schafer
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