Elkin, Stanley Lawrence

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Elkin, Stanley Lawrence

(b. 11 May 1930 in New York City; d. 30 May 1995 in St. Louis, Missouri), novelist, essayist, and educator known for his innovative prose style, his extravagant humor, and his driven, obsessive characters.

Elkin was one of two children born to Philip Elkin, a salesman, and Zelda Feldman, a homemaker. When he was three years old the family moved to Chicago, where his father accepted a job as a traveling salesman selling costume jewelry throughout the Midwest. Elkin fondly remembered his father’s material success and his pitchman’s rhetoric in his autobiographical essay “My Father’s Life” (1987; reprinted in Pieces of Soap, 1992), and many of his early works were concerned with consumer culture in ways that are rare in American literature. Although the family had moved to Chicago, Elkin’s bar mitzvah took place in New York City on 17 July 1943. He attended school in Chicago, then majored in English literature at the University of Illinois. From that institution he received an A.B. degree in 1952 and his M.A. degree in 1953. He married Joan Marion Jacobsen on 1 February 1953. An artist, Joan’s portraits of her husband adorn the dust jackets of several of his later works, most notably the collection of essays and autobiographical reminiscences Pieces of Soap. They had three children.

Elkin served in the United States Army from 1955 to 1957. During this time he cultivated a lifelong interest in interactive radio as a means of communicating among the alienated, a theme that organized his third novel, The Dick Gibson Show (1971). In “Where I Read What I Read” (printed in Antaeus, 1982, and in Pieces of Soap), Elkin reminisced about the reading opportunities his stay in the army provided, both during a bivouac in Colorado in 1955 and in the Army Reserves during 1958. After he was discharged from the army in 1957, Elkin returned to the University of Illinois, where he defended his Ph.D. dissertation, “Religious Themes and Symbols in the Novels of William Faulkner,” in 1961. While completing the thesis Elkin joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught for the rest of his academic career. At Washington he knew and appreciated such literary colleagues as William H. Gass, Howard Nemerov, and Mona van Duyn. He became Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in 1983, an endowed chair that permitted him to limit his teaching and concentrate on writing. He was honored by a star in the St. Louis Walk of Fame in May 1991. In 1999 Washington University, supported by a Danforth grant, established the Stanley Elkin Professorship in the Humanities.

Before he left Illinois in 1960, Elkin worked on the staff of Accent magazine, which published his early story “In the Alley,” for which he received the Longview Foundation Award in 1962. “The Great Sandusky,” a selection-in-progress from his first novel, Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964), won the Paris Review humor prize that year, although it garnered mixed reviews from the critics. He was also nominated four times for National Book Awards. Two novels, George Mills (1982) and the posthumous Mrs. Ted Bliss (1995), won National Book Critics Circle Awards. His first novel, Boswell (1964), was subsidized by his mother, who sponsored Elkin and his wife as they traveled through Italy and England, during which time Elkin completed the novel.

After collecting his short stories in Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (1966), Elkin became an important new voice in American fiction with his second, more controversial novel, Bad Man (1967). A study of incarceration and obsession, this novel challenges many assumptions Americans have about the penal system and the nature of guilt. By the end of the 1960s Elkin’s position in American letters was secure. He had been a visiting professor at two universities and earned a Guggenheim fellowship and a Rockefeller Foundation grant.

However, in 1968 when Elkin was only thirty-eight, he had his first heart attack, and the health concerns that plagued him for the rest of his life began. Formerly a robust individual, Elkin had to reassess his active life and his work. He continued with and even refined the rhetoric of aggression that had been his trademark, but the prophetic obsession with mortality that animated the protagonist of Boswell soon took a more central role in his fiction. His novel about talk radio, The Dick Gibson Show (1971), consolidated his reputation and he was awarded a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. While he was in Great Britain in 1972 however, he experienced tingling sensations that led first to physical therapy, then to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in that same year. The disease eventually limited his mobility as well as his tactile sensation and control. While he adjusted to the diagnosis, his awards and honors multiplied. He was invited to prestigious universities as a visiting professor and was recognized by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The hero of his next novel, The Franchiser (1976), suffers through a series of progressively deteriorating episodes of multiple sclerosis. In that novel Elkin cleverly associated the disease attacking his hero’s body with the breakdown of America’s infrastructure during the 1970s, especially that decade’s oil crises.

From The Franchiser on, much of Elkin’s fiction exhibited a more serious tone. The aggressive syntax and the fascination with style and rhetoric for their own sake remained, as did the love of telling a good story. In many novels, however, the concern with health and the fragility of the human condition became a central preoccupation. The blue-collar hero of Elkin’s favorite book, George Mills (1982), suffers from chronic back ailments and serves briefly as chaperone to a rich woman seeking a miracle cure for cancer. His masterpiece, The Magic Kingdom (1985), published the year of Elkin’s first heart bypass surgery, treats a despairing effort, based on a variation on the “grant-a-wish” theme, to provide a diversion for children dying from horrid, terminal conditions. His final novels, The MacGuffin (1991) and Mrs. Ted Bliss (1995), are respectively about a chronically ill minor politician and about a widow adjusting to life after her husband’s death. Elkin died of heart failure in Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

In the decade before he died, Elkin saw his own work subject to specialization among the American literary community, meaning that his readers were a primarily specialized audience of students, critics of postmodern American fiction, and fellow writers. Although many writers and several critics saw him as an extraordinarily original writer and a craftsman of great skill, his work was not widely received in popular circles. In addition, some readers reacted adversely to his triptych, The Living End (1979), because of its satiric portrayal of God and the Holy Family. However, during the same period as Elkin’s popularity as a novelist and cultural commentator went into a temporary decline, he was eagerly sought after by magazines and journals for his crotchety, eccentric views on pubic life. His essays on the Academy Awards and the California culture are marvelous revivals of the familiar essay genre and he established himself as one of the most astute commentators the work we do, the things we consume, the culture we inhabit, and the way we live. Since Elkin’s death there have been indications that he will be restored to his rightful place as one of the most original, if idiosyncratic, fiction writers of the second half of the twentieth century and one of the most astute commentators on the work we do, the things we consume, the culture we inhabit, and the ways these things shape our character and our fate.

Elkin’s personal papers are archived at Washington University in St. Louis. No formal biography of Elkin exists at this time, but autobiographical essays appear in Early Elkin (1985) and Pieces of Soap (1992). For brief descriptions of Elkin’s life story, see Doris G. Bargen, The Fiction of Stanley (1980), and David Dougherty, Stanley Elkin (1991). An obituary appears in the Chicago Tribune (1 June 1995).

David C. Dougherty