Rosenfeld, Isaac

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ROSENFELD, ISAAC (1918–1956), U.S writer and critic. Isaac Rosenfeld enters literary history as a footnote to the life and career of Saul Bellow. In the early 1930s, Bellow and Rosenfeld were schoolmates at Tuley High School in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. As young men they went to New York together to make their careers. Bellow would emerge as one of the superstars in the American firmament, while Rosenfeld would be recalled in a Jungian way as his shadow.

Rosenfeld began publishing short stories in Partisan Review as early as 1944, the year of Bellow's novel Dangling Man. His novel, Passage from Home appeared in 1946, a year before Bellow's The Victim. He was also making a name for himself as a book reviewer for the New Republic in 1942, where he would remain for over 10 years, while also writing for Partisan Review, Commentary, the Nation, Kenyon Review, and Harper's, the major journals of opinion of his day. Those reviews, slashing and acerbic in the New York intellectual manner of their day, belied the more tender and vulnerable spirits that found voice in his fiction, a fiction largely of what his generation referred to as "alienation."

He was the son of one of those embittered and distant Jewish fathers that turn up all over Jewish fiction of his generation. Sam Rosenfeld, whom Isaac referred to as "Ozymandias," Shelley's king of kings, was a severe, dictatorial figure. Since his mother had died when he was just 22 months old, Rosenfeld drew such emotional nourishment as he could from two spinster aunts, who were the mainstays of childhood.

Passage from Home was an auspicious debut for a young writer (just 28 in 1946). A postwar disenchantment novel, typical of its time, it was a public exhibition of his alienation, in which he wrote passionately about his childhood, as if by doing so he could stanch his wounds and cleanse his spirit. The hero, Bernard Miller, a name Americanized as though to universalize him, is Isaac Rosenfeld in all but name, and his struggles with his father are the very same that had driven Rosenfeld from the home of Ozymandias. The Jewish family in Passage from Home is a weakened institution, in which the father's tyranny has been divorced from any semblance of religious authority. An American, Chicago born, Bernard Miller has learned – to borrow a formula from Abraham Joshua Heschel – the danger and gloom of this world but not the infinite beauty of heaven or the holy mysteries of piety.

Rosenfeld's essays and some short stories possessed fair amounts of traction and thrust, and much that remains memorable in his career can be found in posthumous collections titled An Age of Enormity (essays) and Alpha and Omega (stories).

Despite a certain dishevelment that marked his fiction, Rosenfeld was a vivid individual well remembered for his playfulness and his capacity for mimicry and invention. Bellow recalled his prevailing sense of life as one of "hard-headed gemutlichkeit." His writing at its best was saturated with his trademark blend of passion and intelligence. In his stories, essays, and journals, he performed a sort of Reichian character analysis, looking beneath the skin of writing or writers for blockages, symptoms, armor, and open corridors to feeling. He wrote as a physician of the will, and as a result his book reviews tended to be pathograms, cat scans of malignant tissues.

Rosenfeld died in 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 38. But his legacy was to be memorialized by others, in memoirs by Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and William Barrett, in the novel To An Early Grave by Wallace Markfield, and, most notably in Bellow's "Zetland" story. Indeed, the character of the ill-fated poet Von Humboldt Fleisher in Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift is thought by some to owe as much to Rosenfeld as to Delmore Schwartz.


I. Rosenfeld, Preserving the Hunger: An Isaac Rosenfeld Reader, ed. and intro. M. Shechner (1988); J. Atlas, "Golden Boy," in: The New York Review of Books (June 29, 1989); S.J. Zipperstein, "The First Loves of Isaac Rosenfeld," in: Jewish Social Studies, 5:1–2 (Fall 98/Winter 99); idem, "Isaac Rosenfeld's Dybbuk and Rethinking Literary Biography," in: Partisan Review, 69:1 (2002).

[Mark Shechner (2nd ed.)]

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