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Scholar illuminates forgotten life of writer Isaac Rosenfeld

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Steven Zipperstein, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, has written a biography on the late writer Isaac Rosenfeld, titled Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion and the Furies of Writing.

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BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

When Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976, his first words to a friend were: "It should have been Isaac."

The "Isaac" was his longtime Chicago chum and rival, Isaac Rosenfeld (1918-1956), the almost-forgotten Jewish literary wunderkind. Steven Zipperstein, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, tells the story in Rosenfeld's first biography, Rosenfeld's Lives: Fame, Oblivion and the Furies of Writing (Yale University Press).

According to the Wall Street Journal, Zipperstein "does a splendid job of sifting through the details of Rosenfeld's life, reminding us of his importance and acquainting us with his work" and offering "the kind of attention for which Rosenfeld should not have had to wait."

As the subtitle suggests, Zipperstein's biography is not only about Rosenfeld's brief candle but about the demons of writing, the demands of a writer's life and the role of chance in literary fame.

It also explores the role of fate. As Zipperstein points out, many writers stumble in their thirties but find their footing later to press on to greatness. Rosenfeld, however, never had time to regain his footing; he died of a massive heart attack at 38.

"Quite nearly anyone who writes and takes writing seriously faces day after day the same questions Rosenfeld faced," Zipperstein said.

All writers dream of greatness, and Rosenfeld, too, had "his own sense that he expected to walk with literary giants."

"That he felt this emphatically, that he came so close, and that his closest high school friend, and his great rival, achieved just this lent the story an especial poignancy."

Bellow, Rosenfeld and the circle around them exchanged letters furiously in their teenage years. However, their aim to transform world literature was "not only adolescent striving and hubris," Zipperstein said. Later, in New York, they became absorbed into the intellectual literary worlds formed by the Partisan Review and Commentary. The postwar years brought a sense that European culture had ended, and the world was now looking to its more vibrant counterpart in America. Unlikely as it seemed, the ambitious boys from the Jewish enclaves of Chicago were seen as the hope of the future.

Rosenfeld met with initial success: His only novel, Passage from Home, was celebrated as a work of genius in 1946. Critic Diana Trilling, usually sparing of her kudos, wrote: "I can think of no one now writing fiction in whose development I have greater confidence." But the later years saw dissipation and a terminal case of writer's block.

Zipperstein became interested in Rosenfeld while he was working on his book Imagining Russian Jewry. A 1995 New Yorker article on Saul Bellow by James Atlas inspired him to contact first Atlas, then Rosenfeld's friends and family. He eventually gathered the enormous number of letters that were "as dense a body of archival material as exists for any of the New York Jewish intellectuals."

It was a "historian's goldmine"—because of the close-knit nature of Rosenfeld's circle. Its participants describe the same incidents through different sets of eyes.

But more important, the letters persuaded Zipperstein to move forward to a biography: "The power of his voice as a letter-writer pushed me over the top."

Zipperstein finished 200 pages in 2003, then set it aside. Years later, while sorting through his desk in the spring of 2006, he opened a folder he didn't recognize. He turned the pages over, he admitted, embarrassed and stunned at how effectively he was able to forget their existence—perhaps as much as the world had been able to forget Rosenfeld himself.

How to write a book about a man whose works were out of print and largely forgotten? What would it have to say to us today?

One key was every writer's decision on how to balance life and art. "Bellow made that choice emphatically—not to give much energy to his life—as wives would attest—to give quite nearly all his energy to his writing. Rosenfeld wrestled throughout his all-too-brief life—and wrote movingly, and astutely, about the difficulty of making the choice.

"That quest, that inability to make the choice, his moving back and forth between his writing desk and life, had to be the center of the book. If I could manage that, I'd capture, perhaps, not only something essential to his own quest, but so many others.

"It was clear to me it had to be a deeply written book; I had to demonstrate through my prose how moved I was by him for the book to keep readers interested."

Rosenfeld's life brought some of today's issues in sharp relief: In his introduction, Zipperstein decried "the assault on reading that is at the heart of contemporary culture."

The theme is especially timely now because "so much that seemed solid has melted into the air," he said. "The once-familiar routine of learning about a book, going into a building called a bookstore and reading 10 or 20 pages before you buy it is as arcane as thinking that if you want to eat a potato, you plant it.

"It also came to feel more and more important to me, as the fate of books came to be discussed in the public sphere, that I had to try to capture the aspirations, the hubris, the still-bracing voice of this group of boys for whom reading was literally the air that they breathed," Zipperstein said.

"Living with their letters helped remind me of what a life with books can actually bring. It felt crucial to use these letters to remind others."

In his introduction, Zipperstein described a central motivation for any biography: "the desire to meet one's subject, to hear the voice, especially when this is impossible." Was Zipperstein trying to have a conversation with the author who intrigued him?

"Oh, yes," Zipperstein said. "I was actually surprised when I heard a recording—he had a slightly higher pitch; it wasn't the voice I expected to hear. I felt at times, of course, a certain tenderness, something akin to a sense of friendship with him. One has to check that; it's an unrealistic, perhaps destructive impulse on the part of a biographer.

"I certainly didn't like everything he did, but it wasn't up to me to like him. I retained throughout a deep affection for him, yes.

"It felt awful when it was clear that it was time for him to die in the book."