Cynthia Ozick explores many forms in her several hundred essays, including the literary review, biographical sketch, editorial, travelogue, and autobiography. Several topics occur again and again in her essays, such as feminism, Henry James’ literary influence, what it means to be a writer, of both nonfiction and fiction, and, most importantly for Ozick, what it means to be a Jewish writer in 20th-century America. Her nonfiction has been published in a wide variety of magazines and journals, from the New Yorker, Ms., and the New York Times Book Review to Judaism, Commentary, and the Partisan Review. Despite Ozick’s being better known for her novels and short stories, critics increasingly analyze her collections of essays in their studies of her fiction. She continues to contribute frequently to periodicals, and clearly desires her essays to be accepted as separate entities from her fiction. In the preface, entitled “Forewarning,” to Metaphor & Memory (1989), she writes that it is “plain foolishness” for readers to think that “the stories were ‘illustrations’ of the essays” or that “the essays expressed the ideational (or even at times the ideological) matrix of the stories.”
Whether Ozick writes for a general or more specialized readership, she makes several consistent assumptions about her audience. For example, though many of her essays were originally composed as speeches, she assumes a kind of intellectual crossover, an attentiveness, between a hearing and a reading audience. Furthermore, her formal style reveals her belief that authorial expertise is neither divisive nor distancing, but rather expected by those who read nonfiction prose. Her tone is authoritative, didactic, at times even polemical, yet she assumes an openmindedness, a willingness to explore the unknown, in her audience. Her broad literary and historical knowledge, and especially her learned readings of the Torah and Pentateuch, act as a foundation for her readers and herself, and she teaches rather than declaims. Ozick seems to believe that both the writing and reading of an essay are parts of a journey, and she makes the journey along with her readers. She writes in the foreword to Art and Ardor (1983) that the “only nonfiction worth writing—at least for me—lacks the summarizing gift, is heir to nothing, and sets out with empty pockets from scratch.”
Two of Ozick’s best-known pieces on Judaism illustrate several characteristics of her approaches to the essay. In her preface to “Toward a New Yiddish” (1970) in Art and Ardor, Ozick states that “my own striving is to be one thing all the time, and to everyone; not to have one attitude or subject matter (or imagining or storytelling) for one kind of friend and another for another kind.” Though the essay argues that “there are no major works of Jewish imaginative genius written in any Gentile language,” Ozick’s selection of the essay for Art and Ardor suggests that she assumes her Gentile as well as her Jewish readers will be open to her revolutionary ideas. Her purpose in the essay is to encourage Jews to develop a central liturgical language, by and for Jews, that will allow them to develop in the Diaspora a Jewish oeuvre. She responds to her own ideas in “Bialik’s Hint” (1983), altering them slightly, to conclude that a new language is not what is
necessary—what is needed for Jews to accomplish a new literature is to replicate the combination of the Hebraic and the Platonic that produced the Jewish holiness of study in a new assimilation of Hebrew and Enlightenment thought—“for Enlightenment ideas of skepticism, originality, individuality, and the assertiveness of the free imagination to leach into what we might call the Jewish language of restraint, sobriety, moral seriousness, collective conscience.” Her shift in thought does not contradict her desire to be the same person to all people; rather, it expresses the kind of openness that marks the capacity of writer and reader to learn.
Even Ozick’s more polemical style, reminiscent of Mary Wollstonecraft, in her feminist essays belies the conclusion that she writes for the converted. For example, in “Previsions of the Demise of the Dancing Dog” (1972.), Ozick argues that “the enlightenment has, for women, and especially by women, not yet occurred”; however, in “The Hole/Birth Catalogue” (1972,), written for Ms., she rails against the idea that anatomy is destiny; and in “Literature and the Politics of Sex: A Dissent,” written for the same magazine, she emphatically distances herself from the “new” feminism. In the latter essay, she objects to the term “woman writer,” believing that it further solidifies the intellectual disenfranchisement of women that classical feminism struggled to dissipate.
Ozick might choose to modify her ideas over time; but she will not give an audience what it expects, and her voice is often tough, cheerless, and demanding.
In her essays on contemporary writers, such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and John Updike, Ozick’s tone recalls William Hazlitt’s—opinionated, cranky, educated, and above all, unapologetic. Her explorations of literary figures from the past, however, take the forms of introduction, recovery, or rediscovery, and in them her tone is affectionate, her didactic style easier and more forgiving of her audience’s unfamiliarity with her subject. In “What Henry James Knew” (1993), for example, one of her many essays on the most influential writer of her career, she explores the effect of James’ theatrical failure, Guy Domville (1894), upon his later novels, in which he “looked freely into the Medusan truth.” In “Sholem Aleichem’s Revolution” (1988), she historicizes Yiddish, and explains Aleichem’s revolutionary insistence that the language be taken seriously. In “More than Just a Victorian” (1995), she avers that late 20th-century readers reject Anthony Trollope because he understands them too well.
In “Metaphor and Memory” (1986), Ozick explicitly discusses the morality she believes should undergird any enterprise, including writing. Intellectual passion is the hallmark of Ozick’s esoteric essays, lyricism that of her rare personal reflections. When freed from the constraints of erudition, Ozick’s writing soars, and the “metaphorical concentration” she believes allows all “strangers to imagine the familiar hearts of strangers” emerges unbidden. In her eulogy to Bernard Malamud (1986), she writes that after a telephone conversation with him, she felt she “had been blessed, anointed, by an illumination of generosity fetched up out of the marrow of human continuity.” In her memoir, “Alfred Chester’s Wig” (1992,), Ozick characterizes the instructor at New York University who pits Chester and her against one another in Freshman Composition as a “sly, languid, and vainglorious Roman emperor presiding over the bloody goings on in the Colosseum of his classroom, with the little green buds of Washington Square Park just beginning to unfold below the college windows.” Finally, in her childhood recollection, “A Drugstore in Winter” (1982), Ozick recalls how one year Pelham Bay “froze so hard that whole families, mine among them, crossed back and forth to City Island, strangers saluting and calling out in the ecstasy of the bright trudge over such a sudden wilderness of ice.”
Joseph Epstein (1984) uses the adjectives “brilliant, quirky, profound, outrageous” to describe the pieces in Art and Ardor, while Sarah Blacher Cohen (1990) finds that some of the essays in Metaphor & Memory are the “illuminations” Ozick strives to achieve.
Yet each of these writers views the essays through the lens of the fiction. Ozick’s ongoing and varied composition of essays elicits the hope that they will continue to be collected, and that they will some day be viewed by their own light.
SIOBHAN CRAFT BROWNSON
Born 17 April 1928 in New York City. Studied at New York University, B.A. (cum laude) in English, 1949 (Phi Beta Kappa); Ohio State University, Columbus, M.A., 1950.
Married Bernard Hallote, 1952: one daughter. Taught at New York University, 1964–65, and Indiana University, Bloomington, 1972; distinguished artist-in-residence, City College, New York, 1981–82; Phi Beta Kappa Orator, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985.
Awards: many, including the Wallant Award, 1972.; B’nai Birith Award, 1972; Jewish Book Council Epstein Award, 1972, 1977; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1973; Hadassah Myrtle Wreath Award, 1974; Lamport Prize, 1980; honorary degrees from 11 universities and institutions.
Essays and Related Prose
Art and Ardor, 1983
Metaphor & Memory, 1989
What Henry James Kneu, and Other Essays on Writers, 1993
Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character, and Other Essays on Writing, 1996
Fame & Folly, 1996
A Cynthia Ozick Reader, edited by Elaine M.Kauvar, 1996
Other writings: three novels (Trust, 1966; The Cannibal Galaxy, 1983; The Messiah of Stockholm, 1987), short stories, poetry, and a play.
Currier, Susan, and Daniel J. Cahill, “A Bibliography of Writings by Cynthia Ozick,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Summer 1983)
Cohen, Sarah Blacher, “The Fiction Writer as Essayist: Ozick’s Metaphor & Memory,” Judaism 39 (Summer 1990): 276–81
Epstein, Joseph, “Cynthia Ozick, Jewish Writer,” Commentary 77 (March 1984):64–69
Pinsker, Sanford, “Jewish Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Cynthia Ozick, edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House, 1986
Pollitt, Katha, “The Three Selves of Cynthia Ozick,” in Cynthia Ozick, edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House, 1986
Strandberg, Victor, Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994
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