Rosten, Norman

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Rosten, Norman

(b. 1 January 1914 in New York City; d. 7 March 1995 in New York City), poet, playwright, novelist, and first poet laureate of Brooklyn who is best known for his play Mister Johnson (1956) and his nonfiction work Marilyn: An Untold Story (1973).

Rosten, one of four children born to the immigrants Louis Rosten, a farmer, and Celia Rosten, grew up in the small town of Hurleyville, New York. Deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps, Rosten entered the Agricultural College at Cornell University in 1931. He studied there for six months, until a fire destroyed the family farm and the Rostens moved to Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. The “wintry seascapes and the throbbing summer carnival” of his new home made a lasting impression on the farm boy, who soon developed a love affair with Brooklyn life.

His career as a farmer ended, Rosten enrolled in Brooklyn College, where he joined the staff of the college newspaper, wrote sonnets and short stories, and was exposed to the works of Carl Sandburg, Archibald MacLeish, and John Steinbeck. Rosten also became involved with the antifascist and labor movements on campus. After graduating in 1935 with a B.A. degree in English, he continued his studies at New York University, earning an M.A. degree in 1936. During this period he supported himself working as a garage mechanic with an eye on pursuing a literary career. With this in mind, Rosten submitted an “imitation Chekhov play about Brooklyn peasants” to the University of Michigan, earning him a playwriting scholarship for 1937–1938. At Michigan, Rosten experimented with verse plays and received the prestigious Avery Hopwood Award in poetry and drama. His play This Proud Pilgrimage, which premiered in January 1938 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was produced off-Broadway in 1942, won the 1942 National Theatre Conference Award. He also met Arthur Miller, a fellow student at Michigan. They were lifelong friends and for a time neighbors in Brooklyn Heights. Rosten also met Hedda Rowinski, a psychologist and freelance writer from Connecticut. They married in 1940 and had one child. In 1951 Rosten published Songs for Patricia, a collection of poems inspired by his daughter.

Returning to New York in 1939, Rosten found employment at the New York Federal Theatre and began to write verse plays for radio, including portraits of American literary figures for Cavalcade of America. His success on radio did not translate well to Broadway, however, where First Stop to Heaven opened to poor reviews in 1941. He returned to radio and achieved instant fame with his verse “Ballad of Bataan,” recorded by both Alfred Lunt and Orson Welles. The poem was aired on more than 800 radio stations and in army recruitment campaigns. Spurred by his strong belief in the Allied cause, Rosten made further literary contributions to the war effort, including his Lunch Hour Follies, performed in war-production factories. He also wrote radio scripts, such as “The Unholy Three,” for the wartime series Day of Reckoning.

Rosten’s work in radio earned him an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1945 for the “exploration of the Radio as a new medium for poetry.” This was not the first award he received for his poetry. In 1940 he won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for Return Again, Traveler, a poem inspired by a cross-country hitchhiking trip. In 1941–1942, on a Guggenheim fellowship, Rosten completed The Fourth Decade and Other Poems. In 1944 his antifascist poems from this collection were reprinted in Seven Poets in Search of an Answer, a compilation of poems dealing with the issues of freedom and liberty.

Rosten believed that poetry “should neither exhaust nor confuse, but invigorate and clarify.” He wrote poetry for the people in everyday American language. Miller commented that Big Road (1946), Rosten’s epic poem about the building of the Alean Highway during World War II, is a “rare book that the people will make great. It speaks to them and for them, and always beautifully.” In all, Rosten published seven books of poetry.

Rosten’s greatest success was Mister Johnson, which opened on Broadway in 1956 and in London in 1960. Based on the 1939 novel by Joyce Cary, this play centered on the tragic story of a Nigerian civil servant in British West Africa. In 1966 two more of Rosten’s plays premiered Off Broadway, The Golden Door and Come Slowly Eden: A Portrait of Emily Dickinson. However, by the late 1960s he had abandoned playwriting, concluding that the political climate of the time created public distrust of the spoken word and consequently of the play as a form of theater. For Rosten only spectacles remained, and all theater had become theatrics.

In 1962 Rosten wrote the screenplay for Miller’s drama A View from the Bridge. Through his friendship with Miller he came to know Miller’s third wife, Marilyn Monroe. In 1973 Rosten wrote her biography, Marilyn: An Untold Story, considered by many an honest retelling of her tragic life. Later he wrote the libretto for Erza Laderman’s opera Marilyn, which premiered at the New York City Opera in 1993.

In 1979, the same year his Selected Poems was published, Rosten was named the poet laureate of Brooklyn by the borough president Howard Golden, thus becoming the first person to hold this title. Brooklyn featured prominently in many of Rosten’s works, including Under the Boardwalk (1968), his critically acclaimed novel about coming of age in Coney Island, and Over and Out (1972), a humorous tale about a Brooklyn writer. His experiences as a longtime resident of Brooklyn Heights inspired his Neighborhood Tales (1986), a melding of neighborhood facts with fiction.

By the 1990s Rosten was a local icon, honored by both the borough he loved and by Brooklyn College, where he was first exposed to literature. Right up to the end Rosten remained active, continuing to write and travel widely. He reveled in the recognition of academia when the University of Arkansas Press reprinted Under the Boardwalk, hailing it as “a neglected classic.” When Rosten died of congestive heart failure, three memorials in New York City celebrated his life and career. His remains were cremated and are in the possession of his family.

Through his numerous poems, plays, stories, and essays Rosten sought to impart a vision of society in the vernacular. His work represents a genuine view of twentieth-century America, from his narrative poems of war and the Great Depression to his explorations of cultural icons and popular mythology.

Material relating to the Avery Hopwood Award and typescripts of Rosten’s early plays are in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan. Brooklyn College of the City University of New York has a small collection of Rosten’s papers, most notably the drafts of Big Road and Mister Johnson. An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Mar. 1995).

Marianne Labatto