This Day In Literary History
On April 26th, 1914, the famous American writer Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. He had a younger brother named Eugene.
In 1932, Malamud graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. He worked as a teacher-in-training before enrolling at City College of New York on a government loan. From there, he attended Columbia University.
After completing his education, Malamud taught high school English, mostly to adult night school students. He later taught freshman composition at Oregon State University.
Although he had earned a Master's degree in literature at Columbia, Oregon State would not allow him to teach literature because he lacked a Ph.D.
In 1942, Malamud met an Italian Catholic girl named Ann De Chiara. They fell in love and married, despite the strong opposition of their respective parents. They had a happy marriage. Ann bore him two children (Paul and Janna) and served as his typist and editor.
Bernard Malamud completed his first novel in 1948. Published four years later, the book would prove to be his most popular novel. The Natural, inspired by the life of a real baseball player, (Chicago Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges) takes a haunting look at the dark side of America's national pastime.
The novel opens with 19-year-old pitching phenom Roy Hobbs en route to Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs. On the train with Hobbs are his manager Sam, sportswriter Max Mercy, superstar slugger Walter "The Whammer" Whambold, and a beautiful, mysterious woman called Harriet Bird.
When the train stops at a carnival, The Whammer challenges Hobbs to strike him out. The equally arrogant Hobbs accepts the challenge - and strikes The Whammer out, humiliating him. Harriet Bird comes on to Hobbs and later invites him to her hotel room.
What Hobbs doesn't know is that she's a homicidal maniac determined to kill the best player in the game. The Whammer was her original target. When the womanizing Hobbs goes to Harriet's room, she shoots him.
The novel flashes forward 15 years. Roy Hobbs, now in his mid-thirties and past his prime as a player, has just been signed as the new right fielder for the New York Knights, a slumping National League team.
As the new player on the team, Hobbs is subjected to mean spirited practical jokes by his teammates, including the theft of his favorite bat, Wonderboy. Hobbs gets a chance to reclaim his past glory when team manager Pop Fisher chooses him to pinch hit instead of slumping slugger Bump Bailey.
On his first at-bat, Hobbs smacks a triple. A few days later, Bump Bailey, now an outfielder, is killed when he crashes into the outfield wall while trying to catch a fly ball.
Sportswriter Max Mercy, who had known Hobbs as a young pitching phenom, arrives and tries to get him to talk about his troubled past. He even offers him five thousand dollars for the story.
Hobbs turns Mercy down, telling him that "all the public is entitled to is my best game of baseball." When the arrogant Hobbs fails to persuade the Knights' ruthless co-owner Judge Banner to grant him a raise, Mercy writes about it in his column, resulting in a fan uprising.
Hobbs falls into a slump, then breaks out of it and plays brilliantly, leading his team to a 17-game winning streak. With the Knights one game away from winning the National League pennant, Hobbs goes to a party, binges on food, and collapses.
He wakes up in a hospital bed, and the doctor tells him that he must retire after the league championship game if he wants to live. Judge Banner had been offering Hobbs increasing amounts of money to throw the championship game because he wants to fire Pop Fisher as manager.
Facing the prospect of early retirement and no way to support the family he wants to build with love interest Memo Paris, Hobbs makes Banner an offer: he'll throw the game for $35,000. Although his conscience troubles him, it can't save him from self-destruction.
The Natural was adapted as a feature film in 1984, starring Robert Redford in the title role. Mostly panned by critics, including the late great Roger Ebert, who denounced it as "idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford," as a novel adaptation, the film is a travesty.
With a completely different ending, it sacrifices Malamud's dark, mythological story of one man's downfall at the hands of his own hubris in favor of a typical Hollywood happy ending.
And yet, the film remains one of the most popular sports movies of all time. Surprisingly, Malamud himself liked it. The film's producers later claimed that it was never meant to be a literal adaptation of the novel.
While his first novel made his name as a writer, Bernard Malamud's fourth novel, The Fixer (1966) won him both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Inspired by both the author's own experiences with anti-Semitism and a true story of anti-Semitic persecution in Tzarist Russia, the novel tells the tale of Yakov Bok, a Jewish fixer (handyman) living and working in Kiev - without the proper papers.
When a Christian boy is murdered during Passover, the police assume that the killer is a Jew. This is what's known as the blood libel - the hateful false accusation that Jews murder Christian children as part of their religious practices and celebrations. Yakov Bok is soon rounded up for questioning.
When asked about his political views, he claims to be apolitical. Although there is no evidence against him, because he's an undocumented Jew, Bok becomes the prime suspect. He's arrested on suspicion of murder, jailed indefinitely without being charged, and denied counsel or visitors.
As he spends many months in jail, Bok contemplates his entire sad life in particular and human nature in general. Despite his fate, he finds himself growing spiritually, and is at last able to forgive his wife, who had left him just before the opening of the novel.
The novel ends with Bok finally being charged and brought to trial. In the last scene, as he's being taken to court, Bok has an imaginary conversation with the Tzar.
Bok rebukes him as the ruler of the most oppressive and backward regime in Europe, famously concluding that "there is no such thing as an apolitical man, especially a Jew."
The Fixer was adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1968, starring Alan Bates as Yakov Bok and directed by John Frankenheimer, working from a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. Bates' excellent performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Though he wrote seven novels, Malamud was also known as a master of the short story. He published several collections of short stories, including The Magic Barrel (1958) and Pictures of Fidelman (1969). His classic short story Man in the Drawer (1969) won him the O. Henry Award.
Flannery O'Connor once said of him, "I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself." In 1988, the PEN/Malamud Award was established in the author's memory. The award recognizes excellence in the short story.
Bernard Malamud died in 1986 at the age of 71.
Quote Of The Day
“A writer is a spectator, looking at everything with a highly critical eye.” - Bernard Malamud
Today's video features a tribute to Bernard Malamud, recorded live at The Center for Fiction. Enjoy!