Friday, January 24, 2014

The First Seven Years

Bernard Malamud (1914–1986)
From Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s

Detail from The Shoemaker, oil on canvas by American artist Jefferson David Chalfant (1856–1931). Courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In 1949, prompted by the expansion of educational institutions under the G.I. Bill and assisted by his wife, Bernard Malamud submitted applications to over two hundred schools to become a teacher of literature. One of the few replies came from Oregon State College in Corvallis, a state-endowed institution specializing in agricultural topics, with liberal arts constituting “the Lower Division.” Appointed in July, he was hired to teach freshman composition—but not literature, because he didn’t have a Ph.D. He moved his family from New York City to Corvallis, where he conducted class three days a week and spent the other four days writing.

In a recent biography, Philip Davis describes that living in Oregon did “something rather extraordinary” to Malamud’s writing. “There he found himself going back to Brooklyn, for all that he was learning much about a different America.” Malamud would describe, on two separate occasions, the benefits of his dislocation:
I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Oregon . . . and the new life it offered, which I lived as best I could as I reflected on the old . . . [Almost] without understanding why, I was thinking about my father’s immigrant life (how he earned his meager living and what he paid for it). . . .

I tried all sorts of things but at last resolved to do simple stories about simple people. I did about ten of these, concerned mostly with Jewish and Italian storekeepers and their three-walled, plate-glass-windowed world.
Within a year, he had published three stories; the third, “The First Seven Years,” was accepted (“to my surprise,” Malamud admitted) by the prestigious Partisan Review, and the trio of stories brought him to the attention of Robert Giroux at Harcourt, Brace and Company, who asked Malamud if he happened to be writing a novel. The author responded that he was working on a “baseball novel,” and this debut book, The Natural, was published in 1952.

In the Companion to the American Short Story, Sanford E. Marovitz describes one reason why “The First Seven Years” is so effective:
Known chiefly for his imaginative portraits of Jewish characters, communities, and themes, Malamud takes advantage of the Yiddish he learned from his parents as a child and adapts it to suit his aim of being an American and indeed a universal author as well as a Jewish one. Consequently, he often blends Yiddish and English into Yinglish, a style that includes Yiddish syntax and phrasing without necessarily incorporating actual Yiddish words, which he uses but sparingly in his fiction.
The critic Robert Alter once identified this story as one that “will be read as long as anyone continues to care about American fiction written in the 20th century.” And, indeed, it is often included in anthologies and taught in schools, and it can of course be found in the newly published Library of America edition collecting Malamud’s fiction.

Note: As the end of the story indicates, Sobel will have served as Feld’s apprentice for a total of seven years, a reference to the biblical story of Jacob and Rachel (see Genesis 29:20–30).

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Feld, the shoemaker, was annoyed that his helper, Sobel, was so insensitive to his reverie that he wouldn’t for a minute cease his fanatic pounding at the other bench. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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