Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 20 December 1911. Education: Hunter College High School, New York; Barnard College, New York, A.B. in philosophy 1932. Family: Married 1) H.B. Heffelfinger in 1935, one daughter and one son; 2) Curtis Harnack in 1959. Career: Adjunct professor of English, Barnard College, 1956-57; visiting professor, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1957, 1959-60, Stanford University, California, 1958, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1962, and Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1963-64; writer-in-residence, 1965, and visiting lecturer, 1968, Univeristy of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; adjunct professor of English, Columbia University, New York, 1968-70 and 1972-73; Clark Lecturer, Scripps College, Claremont, California, 1969; visiting professor, State University of New York, Purchase, 1971-72; Regents' Professor, University of California, Irvine, Spring 1976; visiting writer, Bennington College, Vermont, 1978; Hurst Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, 1979; National Endowment for the Arts Lecturer, Cooper Union, New York, 1983; visiting professor, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1986; guest lecturer, U.S.-China Arts Exchange, Republic of China, 1986. President, PEN, 1986-87; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1987-90. Lives in New York City. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1952, 1955; Department of State American Specialists grant, 1958; American Academy award, 1967; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967; Kafka prize, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Achievement award, 1989. Litt.D.: Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1980; Grinnell College, Iowa, 1986; Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, 1988. Member: American Academy, 1977. Agent: Candida Donadio and Associates, 231 West 22nd Street, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.
False Entry. Boston, Little Brown, 1961; London, Secker and Warburg, 1962.
Textures of Life. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Secker andWarburg, 1963.
Journal from Ellipsia. Boston, Little Brown, 1965; London, Secker and Warburg, 1966.
The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride. Boston, Little Brown, 1966.
The New Yorkers. Boston, Little Brown, 1969; London, Cape, 1970.
Queenie. New York, Arbor House, 1971; London, W.H. Allen, 1973.
Standard Dreaming. New York, Arbor House, 1972.
Eagle Eye. New York, Arbor House, 1973.
On Keeping Women. New York, Arbor House, 1977.
Mysteries of Motion. New York, Doubleday, 1983.
The Bobby-Soxer. New York, Doubleday, 1986.
Age. New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.
The Small Bang (as Jack Fenno). New York, Random House, 1992.
In the Palace of the Movie King. New York, Random House, 1993.
In the Slammer with Carol Smith. New York, Marion Boyars, 1997.
The Novellas of Hortense Calisher. New York, Modern Library, 1997.
In the Absence of Angels. Boston, Little Brown, 1951; London, Heinemann, 1953.
Tale for the Mirror: A Novella and Other Stories. Boston, LittleBrown, 1962; London, Secker and Warburg, 1963.
Extreme Magic: A Novella and Other Stories. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1964.
The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher. New York, Arbor House, 1975.
Saratoga, Hot. New York, Doubleday, 1985.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Gig," Confrontation, 1986.
"The Evershams' Willie," in Southwest Review (Dallas), Summer1987.
"The Man Who Spat Silver," (novella) in Confrontation (41), Summer/Fall 1989.
"The Nature of the Madhouse," in Story (Cincinnati), Spring 1990.
"The Iron Butterflies," in Southwest Review, Winter 1992.
"Blind Eye, Wrong Foot," in American Short Fiction (10), Summer1993.
What Novels Are (lecture). Claremont, California, Scripps College, 1969.
Herself (memoir). New York, Arbor House, 1972.
Kissing Cousins: A Memory. New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1981. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.*
In Don't Never Forget by Brigid Brophy, London, Cape, 1966, New York, Holt Rinehart, 1967; article by Cynthia Ozick in Midstream (New York), 1969; "Ego Art: Notes on How I Came to It" by Calisher, in Works in Progress (New York), 1971; article by Kathy Brown in Current Biography (New York), November 1973; interview in Paris Review, Winter 1987; "Three Novels by Hortense Calisher" by Kathleen Snodgrass, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Austin), Winter 1989, and The Fiction of Hortense Calisher by Snodgrass, University of Delaware Press, 1994.
Hortense Calisher comments:
(1972) False Entry and The New Yorkers are connected novels; either may be read first; together they are a chronicle perhaps peculiarly American, according to some critics, but with European scope, according to others. Journal from Ellipsia was perhaps one of the first or the first serious American novel to deal with "verbal" man's displacement in a world of the spatial sciences; because it dealt with the possibility of life on other planets it was classed as "science fiction" both in the USA and in England. The Dublin Times understood it; its review does well by it. It also satirizes male-female relationships, by postulating a planet on which things are otherwise. In category, according to some, it is less an ordinary novel than a social satire akin to Erewhon, Gulliver's Travels, Candide, etc. The Railway Police and The Last Trollery Ride —the first is really a long short story of an individual, the second a novella built around an environs, a chorale of persons really, with four main parts, told in the interchanging voice of two men.
I usually find myself alternating a "larger" work with a smaller one, a natural change of pace. Textures of Life, for instance, is an intimate novel, of a young marriage, very personal, as Journal is not. After the latter, as I said in an interview, I wanted to get back to people. The New Yorkers was a conscious return to a "big" novel, done on fairly conventional terms, descriptive, narrative, leisurely, and inclusive, from which the long monologue chapters of the two women are a conscious departure. Its earlier mate, False Entry, has been called the only "metaphysical" novel in the America of its period—I'm not sure what that means, except perhaps that the whole, despite such tangible scenes as the Ku Klux Klan and courtroom episodes, is carried in the "mind" of one man. It has been called Dickensian, and in its plethora of event I suppose it is; yet the use of memory symbols and of psyche might just as well be French (Proust and Gide)—by intent it does both, or joins both ways of narration. The New Yorkers is more tied to its environs in a localized way; part of its subject is the environs.
Queenie is a satire, a farce on our sexual mores, as seen through the eyes of a "modern" young girl. As it is not yet out at this writing, I shall wait to be told what it is about.
(1986) Standard Dreaming : short novel narrated through the consciousness of a surgeon who believes the human race may be in process of dying off. Herself : the autobiography of a writer, rather than of the total life. Included are portions of critical studies, articles, etc., as well as several in toto (including one on the novel and on sex in American literature), and commentary on the writer's role in war, as a feminist, critic and teacher. Eagle Eye : the story of a young American non-combatant during and after the Vietnam War. Just as Queenie, in the novel of that name, confided in her tape-recorder, Bronstein addresses his computer. In 1974 some critics were bemused at this; time has changed that. The Collected Stories : preface by author begins with the much-quoted "A story is an apocalypse, served in a very small cup." On Keeping Women: Herself had broken ground in some of its aspects of what feminists were to term "womanspeak." I was never to be a conventional feminist; conventional thought is not for writers. But I had always wanted to do a novel from within the female feelings I did have from youth, through motherhood and the wish for other creation. This is that book. Mysteries of Motion : as in Journal from Ellipsia I continue concern for the way we live daily with the vast efforts and fruits of the scientists, and the terrors, without much understanding. Begun in 1977, before shuttles had flown or manmade objects had fallen to earth from orbit, this story of the first civilians in space is I believe the first novel of character (rather than so-called "science fiction") to be set in space. Because of that intent, the lives of all six people before they embark are an essential part of the story. What may happen to people, personality—and nations—in the space race, is what I was after. Though I researched minimally—just enough to know the language, or some of it—one critic commented that its technical details could not be faulted. I imagined, rather than tried to be faithful to the momentary fact. And again, time has caught up with it, sadly so in the matter of "star wars." Saratoga, Hot : short works, called "little novels." Writing novels changes the short-story pen—the stories become novelistic, or mine do. The intent was "to give as much background as you can get in a foreground." The Bobby-Soxer : the story of the erotic and professional maturing of a young girl of the 1950s, as narrated by the woman she has become, it is also a legend of American provincial life, akin to the early novellas.
I have just completed a short novel called Age, and am resuming work on a novel set in Central Europe and the United States.
(1991) The working title of the book I refer to above as "a novel set in Central Europe and the United States" is In the Palace of the Movie King. I've been at work on this longer book in the background behind the shorter works that have emerged since the last longer work (Mysteries of Motion ). It is certainly a more overtly political novel than any of the others, although that concern has been present in my work since the first stories.
This time the scene is Central Europe versus the U.S., as seen through the eyes of a filmmaker, Russian in origin, who grew up in Japan. Part of my interest has also been to see the U.S. as the visually obsessed nation it has fast become—through the eyes of a man who sees the world visually, rather than verbally. I hope thereby to free the book from what I think of as the de Tocqueville syndrome.
I am currently working on a shorter novel, set in England, where I have lived from time to time.
(1995) The "shorter work," set in England, is the novel, The Small Bang, published psuedonymously under the name Jack Fenno, to distinguish it from the other novel shortly to be published. As its title indicates, it poses the "small" bang that is human life against the "big bang" world views of the physicists. In the publisher's catalogue it is billed as a "mystery;" I wrote it as a novel purely, any novel being in a sense a "mystery" until its end.
On In the Palace of the Movie King : there comes a time for many of us when we feel seriously separated from the international intrigue that is happening all around us—and from the national picture also. Yet our domestic lives, urban or suburban or land-based, are always on that edge. I came to feel that I ought to be writing of what I thought of as "the long adventure"—that panorama, with documents, which would move through what we've been too trained to think of as the "thriller" novel. At the same time I must unite this with the domestic scene.
That's a nineteenth-century ambition, from the books I cut my teeth on: Dickens, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, and in my teens, the Russians. I miss their scope—if not necessarily their size. A sentence can embody the long view. But a novel so conceived will concentrate along that axis. What will the reader allow me to do for our twentieth century time? Meanwhile—my century feeding me what I ought to be seeing—in both the subtle and monumental. I was seeing the whole metaphor of "the third world." Censorship, yes, torture for the dissident, death because one differs. But the crux of it: they—the citizens of that third world I happen to know best, Middle Europe—they were locked in. My country was not. Is not.
The Gonchevs, the couple I wrote about, emerged through those mists, along with a vision of the whole wide-screen planet we are now. The time is just before that savage Balkan conflict we are now witnessing. When Gonchev, an apolitical man entirely, is shipped to the U.S.A. and cast in the role of "dissident," my own land emerges, as seen through his eyes. One strains like the devil not to be "author," authoring. There the emigrants and transcontinentals I've known all my life surely helped.
At times Gonchev's story is taken to be satirical, even hilarious. That's a relief.* * *
Many readers first encounter Hortense Calisher through her widely anthologized short stories, then anticipate her novels. After reading them, however, they may come away vaguely unsatisfied though seldom quite dissatisfied. She is too gifted a writer for that.
It seems impossible for Calisher to write poorly: she is a master of language. Precise, powerful verbs give scenes life and immediacy. In "The Woman Who Was Everybody" an overqualified department store employee reluctantly faces the day: "She swung sideways out of bed, clamped her feet on the floor, rose and trundled to the bathroom, the kitchenette." Calisher's imagery is bountiful, original, and appropriate. In the same story, "the mornings crept in like applicants for jobs." Equal to language, Calisher has evidently observed and experienced how truth is revealed in the course of living and can reconstruct these epiphanies readily in characters.
Then why, since hers are among the best American short stories of this century, are Calisher's novels less successful? At least two reasons are likely. One is that it is impossible to sustain in the long form the power she packs into the short form. The small cast, limited setting, single problem of the short story let her build the work to a final revelation which suggests that, for better or worse, a life will never be quite the same again. This is the classic short story.
Calisher novels often merely elongate the story format. Substituting for traditional plot and subplot, there are series of revelations related to the central situation. (A young couple disclose aspects of themselves as they cope with an ill child in Textures of Life. Another couple, from the novella Saratoga, Hot actually reveal more about their horsey social set than themselves.) Whether the reader can sustain interest in longer works whose internal logic is random and whose continuity needs occasional propulsion by fortuitous revelation is a question. Certainly that does work in The New Yorkers often called her most successful novel, an indulgent insight into family life. Ill-advised timing and treatment may have undercut Calisher's satirical novel, Queenie. The late 1960s were not laughing times and for many the new sexual freedom which Queenie fumbles toward was no laughing matter. What may be her least successful novel, Mysteries of Motion, distracts as much as discloses since six lives are revealed, and on a space journey at that. Better a bus ride in Brooklyn.
That more modest approach to setting is exactly what makes her short stories seem instantly relevant to our ordinary lives, that and the fact that each story—however brief—is also a life history of sorts. Calisher examines that life at a time of crisis and the reader comes away instructed in valuable experience. In the classic "One of the Chosen" a successful Jewish lawyer, Davy Spanner, always popular in his college days, has believed lifelong that he never needed the support of fraternity life and had comfortably rejected the early overtures of the campus societies. At a class reunion, a gentile classmate blurts out the unsettling truth that Spanner would never have been offered a serious membership bid.
Calisher's long interest in psychology and the supernatural is evident. Her life spans Freudianism and beyond, but psychology—eclectic and non-systematic—as it appears in her work at times is close to fantasy, at other times follows accepted dogma. "Heartburn" centers on the power of suggestion; "The Scream on 57th Street" treats fear. Both "work" just as her general grasp of family relationships seems valid, however it was acquired. On the other hand,Standard Dreaming, Calisher's unfortunate excursion into a dream world of searching characters, could be taken for a parody of surrealism.
Calisher's short stories and novellas may initially appear to be peopled by fully-rounded characters, but an overview of the stories reveals a high proportion of well-done types: the educated misfit, the eccentric family member, the young innocent, the at-odds mother-daughter (or husband-wife), the displaced southerner, the would-be radical. And type is all they need to be since hers are not primarily stories of character, but of complex situation, the result of long processes of cause and effect told in hints and subtleties. Where the Calisher protagonists have been, are now, and where they are probably going—or not going, depending on their revelations—is their story. Exactly who they are is incidental. Their external descriptions are often vivid, even witty, but their tastes and temperaments are revealed only to the degree that they serve the tale. If we flesh them out ourselves, it is a tribute to their creator's ability to write so that we read creatively.
The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, an enduring treasury of major works in her best genre, allows ready comparison of early and late works and reveals the consistency of Calisher's vision, even such traits as a vein of humor, a thread of the absurd, and a persistent interest in the power of the mind to direct fate. Similarly, The Novellas of Hortense Calisher gave readers an opportunity to savor some old treasures—Tale for the Mirror, Extreme Magic, Saratoga, Hot, The Man Who Spat Silver, The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride —along with the previously unpublished Women Men Don't Talk About. Also in the late 1990s, Calisher published Age, an epistolary novel centering on Gemma, an architect, and Robert, four years her junior. She also produced In the Slammer with Carol Smith, whose title character has just been released from prison after a long sentence. Carol's imprisonment was not the result of a crime she actually committed, but rather the outcome of being at the wrong place at the wrong time—or more specifically, a poor black woman who fell in with wealthy white revolutionaries during the early 1970s.
Calisher is an eminently serious and concerned writer, despite the fatuous, the incompetents, the ditsy relatives, and the rattled authority figures who clamor for their share of attention in her works. Their truths are as true as anyone else's, Calisher suggests, and their numbers among us may be greater than we want to believe.
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 20 December 1911. Education: Hunter College High School, New York; Barnard College, New York, A.B. in English 1932. Family: Married 1) H. B. Heffelfinger in 1935, one daughter and one son; 2) Curtis Harnack in 1959. Career: Adjunct professor of English, Barnard College, 1956-57; visiting professor, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1957, 1959-60, Stanford University, California, 1958, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1962, and Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1963-64; writer-in-residence, 1965, and visiting lecturer, 1968, Univeristy of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; adjunct professor of English, Columbia University, New York, 1968-70 and 1972-73; Clark Lecturer, Scripps College, Claremont, California, 1969; visiting professor, State University of New York, Purchase, 1971-72; Regents' Professor, University of California, Irvine, Spring 1976; visiting writer, Bennington College, Vermont, 1978; Hurst Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, 1979; National Endowment for the Arts Lecturer, Cooper Union, New York, 1983; visiting professor, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1986; guest lecturer, U.S.-China Arts Exchange, Republic of China, 1986. President, PEN, 1986-87. President, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1987-90. Lives in New York City. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1952, 1955; Department of State American Specialists grant, 1958; American Academy award, 1967; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967; Kafka prize, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Achievement award, 1989. Litt.D.: Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1980; Grinnell College, Iowa, 1986; Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, 1988. Member: American Academy, 1977.
Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher. 1975.
The Novellas of Hortense Calisher. 1998.
In the Absence of Angels. 1951.
Tale for the Mirror: A Novella and Other Stories. 1962.
Extreme Magic: A Novella and Other Stories. 1964.
The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride (novellas). 1966.
Saratoga, Hot. 1985.
False Entry. 1961.
Textures of Life. 1963.
Journal from Ellipsia. 1965.
The New Yorkers. 1969.
Standard Dreaming. 1972.
Eagle Eye. 1973.
On Keeping Women. 1977.
Mysteries of Motion. 1983.
The Bobby-Soxer. 1986.
The Small Bang (as Jack Fenno). 1992.
In the Palace of the Movie King. 1993.
In the Slammer (with Carol Smith). 1997.
What Novels Are (lecture). 1969.
Herself (memoir). 1972.
Kissing Cousins: A Memory. 1988.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1981. 1981.*
In Don't Never Forget by Brigid Brophy, 1966; article by Cynthia Ozick in Midstream, 1969; "Ego Art: Notes on How I Came to It" by Calisher, in Works in Progress, 1971; article by Kathy Brown in Current Biography, November 1973; interview in Paris Review, Winter 1987; The Fiction of Hortense Calisher by Kathleen Snodgrass, 1993.* * *
There has always been a suspicion among short story writers seeking publication in The New Yorker that there exists such a beast as " The New Yorker story." The official editorial stance of the magazine is that, like everyone else, it is looking only for high-quality writing. Nonetheless, several strictly urbane, generally female writers have over the years published such a great number of their stories in the magazine that one must conclude that, if there is not a New Yorker story per se, there are certain types of stories one can expect to find in its pages. Hortense Calisher writes such short stories.
For 50-odd years Calisher has steadily published fiction in The New Yorker, the most prestigious commercial venue available to writers of short stories in the twentieth century. Like most short fiction writers of her time, she has also proved her worth as a writer of the novel. But her 1969 collection The New Yorkers established her as a soundly minted Manhattan writer. By that time she was firmly established as one of the premier highbrow fiction writers of the period.
The titles in the collection reveal a writer's unconscious hatred of having to name one's own stories; only one story has a title of more than six words. This unconscious disdain for the need to cater to the public's desire for a clear identity carries over into the stories themselves. In the collection it often seems that Calisher is writing with a vengeance, seeking to annihilate the need for telling any stories whatsoever. In "Finding a Girl," for example, Calisher dabbles in the depraved—incest, drug deals—all within two pages, only to have the third-person narrator intrude in the last line to declare that this is a scene "without intellect." The reader apparently is to accept prima facie that the aloof and absent narrator's pronouncement on a story that needs no telling is an outward and visible sign that intellect does exist, although not among the tawdry and addicted.
The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, published in 1975, remains the best collective representation of her early and middle work. The book contains her first collection, In the Absence of Angels (1951), in its entirety, and it is, as Calisher says in the preface to its 1975 reissue, "full of beginnings." The beginnings on the part of the characters generally tend be aborted, and the endings of the stories often return the character and the reader back to the beginning, which, à la T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding," is to "know the place for the first time." The characters in the early stories reflect a world that Calisher knows well and travels within. There are the dry, well-buffed, and ideal freaks to be found among the upper-class East Coast and New York of the late 1930s and the 1940s. Tidy alcoholic ladies with well-educated, socially useless sons; daffy, lonely old men seeking medical treatment; British colonials severed from their past by the war and its reversals; and young women themselves becoming self-consciously aware that they have been shaped and developed by circumstances of birth and education—these are the types of characters Calisher works so well with in the early stories. There is, however, little technical innovation. The limited third-person narrator and the first-person narrator are standard. Thus, while one does not read a Calisher story to see the most recent narrative trends, one does read her stories for their technical perfection and her skill with language.
Although her stories may be too highbrow for the casual reader, Calisher shares, through her subject matter and her treatment, something of the grand tradition within which such writers as Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Jean Stafford, and Eudora Welty have worked. Calisher shows a particular sensitivity to inward ("domestic" simply is not suitable for describing her work) female experience—the life of the senses, of the emotions, and of the habitats within which women most frequently dwell.
In addition to her fiction and novels, which have become more and more erudite over the years, Calisher has long been a mentor to younger writers. Her editorial selections for the 1981 The Best American Short Stories confirmed her commitment to writers of sophisticated fiction working with technical craft foremost in mind, but she also showed a taste for young writers coming of age at the time. Elizabeth Hardwick, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike were there, of course, but so too were Walter Abish, Ann Beattie, Andre Dubus, Bobbie Ann Mason, Elizabeth Tallent, and Larry Woiwode. In her introduction Calisher acknowledges the abundance and variety of short fiction writers that had come to the fore since her own youth. She credits politics, regional developments, and economics with what she regards as the specifically American tendency to "sustain" the short story form. Although she notes a lack of the "city-based" story made famous by those of her own generation, she also notes the conspicuous absence in the 1980s of stories written by and about blacks. She does not believe that such stories are not being written or are unpublishable, but instead she takes a jab at the editorial policies of the type of magazines the prizewinning stories are culled from. In this way she reveals that, though hers may be an upper-crust world, as an artist she regards it as simply another neighborhood one must pass through.
Calisher, then, is not an innovator of the short story form. She is, however, an impeccable stylist, a cynic with a heart, and as down-to-earth as she can be arch.
See the essay on "The Railway Police."
Daughter of Joseph H. and Hedvig Lichtstern Calisher; married Heaton B. Heffelfinger, 1935 (divorced); Curtis A. Harnack, 1959; children: Bennet, Peter
The older child of a German-born mother and a Southern father, Hortense Calisher was reared in an upper-middle class Jewish family. After earning her B.A. in 1932 at Barnard College, she worked as a sales clerk, model, and social worker in New York City. She began publishing short stories in 1948.
In Herself (1972), an aptly titled autobiographical journal and meditation on her life as a writer, Calisher proclaims her emphasis on the individual, based on self-trust and acceptance. She rejects controversy in literature as well as group action in politics. Her stories and novels intelligently and sensitively chronicle the experiences of the self: the loneliness of individual consciousness, epiphanies of communication, and pain of "tiny knife-moves," especially within families and between lovers.
In the Absence of Angels (1951) includes Calisher's best short stories. "In Greenwich There Are Many Gravelled Walks" affirms the potential for love between two young people, emotionally deprived but old in responsibility. "The Woman Who Was Everybody" and "A Wreath for Miss Totten" show the sensitive individual and the "unsolicited good [act]" against the mask of the self-satisfied average. The title story affirms the moral importance of observing oneself and others fairly despite political differences. In this and subsequent short story collections—Tale for the Mirror (1962) and Extreme Magic (1963)—Calisher includes semiautobiographical stories of the Elkin family. She develops themes from her Southern and Jewish heritage in "May-ry" and "Old Stock," explores the familial tensions of her girlhood in "The Coreopsis Kid," and "The Gulf Between."
Textures of Life (1963) accomplishes Calisher's aim to portray "that dailiness which subtly pushes our lives on while we wait for the overt event." Two married women, mother and daughter, learn fundamental lessons; the bourgeois mother learns to accept her artistic daughter's rebelliously austere lifestyle, while the daughter lowers her artistic goals and modifies her austerity. Only their husbands, however, consciously perceive that they all tread "the path between surprise and compromise" amidst the joys and inexorabilities of life.
Three disappointingly unfocused novels explore the older generation's puzzlement over the younger generation's entry into adulthood: Queenie (1971) lightheartedly describes the heroine's sexual coming of age as she rejects commercial and political sex for true love and revolution; in Eagle Eye (1973), young Bunty Bronstein tries to evaluate his past and build his future through a computer; while Standard Dreaming (1972) finds plastic surgeon Neils Berners agonizing over his lost son, seeking emotional support from a sensitivity group of deserted parents and intellectual relief from a theory that runaways signal downward human evolution. He finally continues his healing vocation and accepts his wandering son's freedom.
On Keeping Women, Calisher's 1977 novel, shows the breakup of the family as liberation. She sensitively depicts the independent decisions of Lexie and Ray, as well as their four children, to leave the family home to achieve self-fulfillment. In her work in the 1980s Calisher expanded the range of her fictional forms and subjects. Mysteries of Motion (1983) imagines the first civilian space travel. In what Calisher claims is the first novel of "character" rather than science fiction set in space, six lives are revealed on a space journey. In 1985 she published short works under the title Saratoga, Hot, including "Gargantua Real Impudence," "The Library," "The Sound Track," "The Passenger," "The Tenth Child," "Survival Techniques," and the title story.
The strict roles assigned to both sexes and the complexities of gender and sexuality are recurrent themes in Calisher's work, as are loneliness and individuality. The Bobby Soxer (1986) takes these themes to the limit, narrating, through the eyes of a teenage girl, her discovery that Aunt Leo, a maiden aunt, had male and female organs. Although Aunt Leo is the pivotal character, she has little to do with the story that unfolds; that of the girl, her town, her extended family, her genteel Southern mother, her father, and his business ventures. The book won the Kafka Prize in 1987.
In Age (1987) an aging couple, Gemma and Rupert, agree each should keep a diary for the other to read after the partner's death. Their awareness that they are facing the end of life is reinforced through the suicide of two friends and the death of Rupert's first wife. They abandon the diaries when they realize one will have to read alone. This deepening sense of loss that comes with advancing age continues as a theme in Kissing Cousins (1988), a memoir in which Calisher pays tribute to both her Southern and Northern heritages, as she has done in other novels, and to the value of memory. Nurse Katie Pyle is a relative only through the connection of their Southern families and their Southern Jewish heritage; she and Calisher remained emotionally close throughout their lives. The independent Pyle went to war as an army nurse and later continued a nursing career. As they reminisce, Southern expressions color New York memories and the extended family appears loving and eccentric. Pyle dies, Calisher has her memories. Kissing Cousins, as well as in most of Calisher's work, is sorrowful, rich in language, loving in tone. Her language is powerful, her dialogue accurate, her memories vivid. The people in her stories are not terrible, eccentric, or bizarre, but believable in their faults and virtues.
In the 1990s Calisher received a little of the critical attention she has long deserved. Her writing, alternately characterized as difficult, exasperating, pretentious, exciting, superlative, beautiful, Byzantine, or linguistically exuberant, depending on who's doing the reviewing, both challenges and rewards. What no one has disputed is that she continues to produce highly original and intelligent work.
Calisher's In the Palace of the Movie King (1994), moves over and through the tale of displaced Russian filmmaker. The novel examines the loss of meaning and self, as well as that of language and place within a societal context. It is about immigrant experience and, to an extent, the experience of every person ever subject to a sense of marginality. The book is as much concerned about what it is to be dissident and newly American in the latter half of the 20th century as it is with the meaning of meaning. The Novellas of Hortense Calisher (1997) collects seven of Calisher's short novels, peopled with complex characters caught up variously in infidelity, growing up, and family secrets. The collection includes one previously unpublished novella, "Women Men Don't Talk About," which finds a woman weaving a compelling myth around her absent husband, until a fascinating stranger threatens to rupture its fabric.
In the Slammer with Carol Smith (1997) shows that Calisher, nearing ninety, maintained a perceptive and lively interest in the cadence of contemporary life. It is the story of a young woman of color who falls in with some bourgeois white revolutionaries and takes the fall for them, spending a good portion of her life in prison. When she is released, she must refind her memory and herself. Though many critics found the novel disjointed, others praised its kaleidoscopic quality and the way in which it slowly, but ultimately thrillingly, makes the reader privy to the protagonist's growing sense of self.
In a 1992 article, Calisher wrote of how a writer's psyche is in part formed by the anecdotes they hear about their culture when they are children. Such a premise is vintage Calisher: a subtle, elusive, deeply refractive notion with its roots in both epistemological thinking and a playful interest in the tone and tenor of the culture in which she lives.
False Entry (1961). Journal from Ellipsia (1965). The Railway Police and The Last Trolley Ride (1966). The New Yorkers (1969). The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (1975).
Islas, A., "The Work of Hortense Calisher: On Middle Ground" (thesis, 1971). Minnesota Review (1973). Segal, D., ed., Short Story Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Short Fiction Writers 15 (1994). Snodgrass, K., "Rites of Passage in the Works of Hortense Calisher" (thesis, 1987). Snodgrass, K., The Fiction of Hortense Calisher (1993).
CA Online (1999). CANR (1986). Contemporary Novelists (1976, 1986). FC (1990). Jewish American Women Writers: A Biobibliographical and Critical Sourcebook (1994). MTCW (1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States (1982). Reference Guide to American Literature (1987).
Bulletin of Bibliography (Mar. 1988). CB (1973). Iowa Review (1994). Nation (25 May 1963, 1 Dec. 1997). New Criterion (Feb. 1983). NYT (18 Dec. 1988, 20 Feb. 1994, 27 July 1997). NYTBR (13 Apr. 1969, 1 Oct. 1972, 6 Nov. 1983, 20 May 1984, 30 Mar. 1986). Saturday Review (28 Oct. 1961, 25 Dec. 1965, July/Aug. 1985). Southwest Review (interview, Spring 1986). Texas Studies in Literature (Winter 1989). Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (Summer 1965).
—HELEN J. SCHWARTZ
UPDATED BY JESSICA REISMAN
CALISHER, Hortense. Also writes as Jack Fenno. American, b. 1911. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Autobiography/Memoirs. Career: Barnard Coll., adjunct professor of English, 1956-57; State University of Iowa, writer-in-residence, 1959-60; Sarah Lawrence Coll., faculty, 1962; Brandeis University, visiting professor of literature, 1963-64; University of Pennsylvania, writer-in-residence, 1965, visiting lectr., 1968; Columbia University, adjunct professor of English, 1968-70; University of California, regents professor, 1975; Brown University, distinguished professor, 1986. President, American P.E.N., 1986; President, American Academy/Inst. of Arts and Letters. 1987-90; winner of Lifetime Achievement Award, National Endowment for the Arts, 1989. Publications: NOVELS: False Entry, 1961; Tale for the Mirror, 1962; Textures of Life, 1963; Journal from Ellipsia, 1965; The New Yorkers, 1969; Queenie, 1971; Standard Dreaming, 1972; Eagle Eye, 1974; On Keeping Women, 1977; Mysteries of Motion, 1983; The Bobby-Soxer, 1986; Age, 1987; (as Jack Fenno) The Small Bang, 1992; In the Palace of the Movie-King, 1993; In the Slammer with Carol Smith, 1997; Sunday Jews, 2002. STORIES: In the Absence of Angels, 1951; Extreme Magic: A Novella and Other Stories, 1964; The Railway Police and The Last Trolley Ride (novellas), 1966; Collected Stories, 1975; Saratoga, Hot, 1985; The Novellas of Hortense Calisher, 1997. OTHER: Herself (autobiography), 1972; Kissing Cousins (memoir), 1988. Address: 205 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019, U.S.A.
CALISHER, HORTENSE (1911– ), U.S. writer. Calisher was born in New York to a family whose ancestry encompassed Jews from the American South as well as Germany. She had, she wrote in her memoir, Herself (1972), "no shtetl background." Her stories and memoirs, often drawing upon her own sense of displacement, vividly brought the Jewish South and its problems into fiction. Her insight in rendering the texture of American society derives, in part, from her own family's impoverishment in the Great Depression, her experiences as a social worker after graduating from Barnard College in 1932, and her sense of family history which echoed, as she put it, Civil War Richmond, 1850 Dresden, and 1888 New York. This background enriched her acceptance of American life as diverse and enriching. Equally important, some of her work critiqued Jews' attitudes towards themselves – drawing fire from parts of the Jewish reading public – as well as blacks. Her prose has been described as Jamesean: nuanced, complex, and sophisticated though her stylistic range is large. Her works include the memoirs Kissing Cousins (1988) and Tattoo for a Slave (2004), and novels, most notably those encompassing a generational Jewish odyssey, such as False Entry (1961), and her magisterial Sunday Jews (2002), which deals with American multiple identities and pasts. The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher appeared in 1975; The Novellas of Hortense Calisher in 1997.
K. Snodgrass, The Fiction of Hortense Calisher (1993).
[Lewis Fried (2nd ed.)]