Review: Rosenfeld’s Lives

Greater than Bellow?


Steven J Zipperstein
Yale University Press, £20

‘It should have been Isaac,” said Saul Bellow when awarded the Nobel Prize. “Isaac” was his Chicago childhood friend, Isaac Rosenfeld, writer and essayist, who died tragically at 38.

For years, Rosenfeld was forgotten. There are two references to him in the eight-volume Cambridge History of American Literature and none in the 1,000-page Oxford Companion to American Literature. His life became a cautionary tale, a byword for literary failure. “What remained,” writes Steven Zipperstein in this moving biography, “was a story of waste.”

That is not all that remained. When Rosenfeld died in 1956, he left a novel (Passage from Home, 1946), which was one of the most interesting Jewish-American works of the immediate post-war period; 20 short stories; and more than 100 essays and reviews.

Most have been gathered into three anthologies published since the 1960s and now that the work is available it is time to reassess the man. Zipperstein, a UCLA historian of European Jewry, has left few stones unturned. In a clear, comprehensive account, he follows Rosenfeld’s life from its traumatic origins in Chicago (his mother died before he was two, his father married three times). Rosenfeld and Bellow met as teenagers and became inseparable friends — and rivals — known to their Chicago friends as Zinoviev and Kamenev and later to their New York friends as “the Chicago Dostoyevskyans”.

Soaked in Russian literature, Soviet politics and 20th-century modernism, they were a formidable pair when they hit literary New York in the 1940s. Though Bellow was the first to publish a novel, Irving Howe wrote that Rosenfeld was “our golden boy, more so than Bellow…” He wrote for the best literary magazines and published a novel that was acclaimed by Howe, Daniel Bell and Diana Trilling. And then his life fell apart. The decline and death are movingly told by Zipperstein, who cautions us against reading Rosenfeld’s life as a story of failure. What if he hadn’t died so young of a heart attack? His late work was some of his very best.

Zipperstein is surely right to ask what we mean by “failure” but it would have helped if he had broadened out these questions to look not just at Rosenfeld but at the larger problem of the “failure” of mid-20th-century Jewish American writers. A whole generation came before Rosenfeld and Bellow: Nathanael West, Henry Roth and that other complicated failure, Delmore Schwartz, the model for Humboldt in Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. Rosenfeld was by no means the only great Jewish-American writer who failed to break into the mainstream.

Zipperstein seems to have talked to everyone who knew Rosenfeld, read a mountain of letters and manuscripts and thought long and hard about the novelist’s life and what success and failure mean. His book is a first-rate, timely introduction to one of the most fascinating Jewish-American writers.

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