Jong, Erica (1942—)

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Jong, Erica (1942—)

Erica Jong's first novel, Fear of Flying (1973), made her one of the central figures of the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Her frank and explicit depictions of women's sexual desire shocked the world and gained her the praise of everyone from Playboy editors to John Updike. But women have given her a more mixed reception. While her many works of fiction and poetry about women fulfilling their fantasies of sexual abandon played well among the newly liberated generation of women in the 1970s, feminists of the 1980s and 1990s have challenged her promotion of anonymous sex for its own sake and her claim to speak for baby-boomer women's sexual desires. Nonetheless, her fame rests on the fact that she brought the difficulties of women trying to balance love, sex, self-development, and creativity to the attention of a mass audience.

Jong grew up in an affluent Jewish family in New York and attended Barnard College. She was a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, studying eighteenth-century British literature, when she began her career as a writer. She published two volumes of poetry, and when her Fear of Flying caught the attention of Henry Miller, who compared the book to his Tropic of Cancer, and John Updike, who compared it to Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, her name became a household word. She was repeatedly asked by reporters to help explain women's perspectives on sexual liberation, and her frank, sassy commentary provided good copy for Playboy and Redbook alike.

Fear of Flying, which opens with the then-shocking intimation that the heroine is not wearing a bra, captured a cultural moment when women were shedding propriety and clothing in an attempt to gain fulfillment and freedom, giving birth to feminism and the sexual revolution. It tells the story of Isadora Wing, a writer who accompanies her stiff, cold, psychiatrist husband to a conference in Zurich. There she meets an Englishman who seems to epitomize unrepressed, guiltless sexual fulfillment, which she calls the "zipless fuck," a phrase that became a catchword for her generation and has been forever associated with Jong's popular image. Isadora soon learns, though, that the man who has rescued her from her prosaic life is impotent, causing her to return to her husband. The book ends with Isadora convincing herself that her search for empty and meaningless orgasms was no substitute for true self-development.

Jong continued Isadora's story in How to Save Your Own Life (1977) and Parachutes and Kisses (1984). In the first book, Isadora becomes a successful author, leaves her husband, begins life over with a young screenwriter, and has a baby. In the final installment of the trilogy, Isadora finds herself deserted by the father of her baby and has to learn how to be a single mother. What has stood out for readers and critics, in all three books, and her many other novels, short stories, and poetry, is Jong's message that sexual freedom is paramount to self-discovery for women.

While her subsequent books never repeated the success of Fear of Flying, she has continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s to be a prominent voice on women's issues. She has been pitted against other feminists like Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, and Andrea Dworkin on talk shows and in popular magazines, accused of upholding the virtues of heterosexual experimentation for women in a time when date rape and violence against women are prominent concerns. Other feminists simply consider her recipe for liberation an inadequate one. Amy Virshup has argued that despite Jong's advocacy of self-empowerment, "it is always Mr. Right who leads [her heroines] onward and upward." And Anne Z. Mickelson has charged that her depictions of sex mirror those found in "girlie magazines" and that "by adopting the male language of sexuality, Jong is also fooling herself that she is preempting man's power." In her memoir Fear of Fifty (1994), Jong went on the counter-offensive, attacking the "puritan feminists" who she feels have tried to silence her for her positive portrayals of heterosexual sex and motherhood.

While Jong has longed for a permanent place in America's high literature, she has remained a popular icon. She has called the success of Fear of Flying a "curse," adding that it "typecast me in a way that I've been trying to get free of ever since. I'm enormously grateful to it, and yet very eager to be seen as a woman of letters and not just Erica 'Zipless' Jong." But even as she has attempted to solidify her reputation, even writing The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (1993), in which she describes her literary relationship with this prominent writer, she has also remained tied to her historical moment. In Fear of Fifty and What Do Women Want?: Bread, Roses, Sex, Power (1998), she has portrayed herself as a spokesperson for baby-boomer women who wanted sexual fulfillment and empowerment in the 1970s and who want to reinvent their relationships with men on the basis of love and mutual respect in the 1990s.

—Anne Boyd

Further Reading:

Jong, Erica. Fear of Fifty. New York, Harper Collins, 1994.

——. What Do Women Want?: Bread, Roses, Sex. Power. New York, Harper Collins, 1998.

Mickelson, Anne Z. Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order in Recent American Fiction. Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1979.

Virshup, Amy. "For Mature Audiences Only." New York. July 18, 1994, 40-47.