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Isaac Bashevis Singer Biography

(1904–91), Globus, Vorwarts, Jewish Daily Forward, The Family Moskat, shtetl, The Manor, The Estate

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Seven Against Thebes (Hepta epi Thēbas; Septem contra Thebas) to Sir Walter Scott and Scotland

American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, born in Leoncin, Poland, educated at Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary, Warsaw. Singer (the surname is anglicized from Zynger and the middle name is a pseudonym taken from his mother's name, Bathsheba) emigrated to the USA in 1935 and took American citizenship in 1943; apart from some early works written and published whilst he was studying in Warsaw almost all his major fiction was written in Yiddish and published in the USA, and it was the subsequent translation of his Yiddish writings into English that secured him the reputation of being the most widely read of Yiddish writers—indeed, one of the most popular of post-war American authors. In Warsaw Singer was an associate editor for Globus; when he moved to New York he quickly became associated with Vorwarts, the Jewish Daily Forward, writing for it under both his own name and the assumed names of Varshavsky and Segal. In 1950, however, with the publication of The Family Moskat, Singer in effect began his career as an ‘English’ writer, the novel appearing simultaneously in both Yiddish and English. In The Family Moskat Singer writes within a largely realistic tradition, the novel depicting that point in contemporary Jewish history when the settled traditions of a confined shtetl life were under threat, from both Nazi tyranny and the pace of social and economic change; other works of a similarly sociological kind include The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969). It was his short stories, though, that did most to establish his popularity, notably the collections Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (1957), some of which were translated by Saul Bellow, The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories (1961), Selected Short Stories (1964, edited by Irving Howe), The Seance and Other Stories (1968), and A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories (1970). Novels such as Satan in Goray (1935; translated in 1955) and The Magician of Lublin (1960) embody that blend of the realistic and the mysterious which gives such symbolic depth to much of his major fiction. Other volumes of stories include Short Friday and Other Stories (1964), A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories (1973), Old Love (1979), and The Collected Stories (1982); among his other novels are The Slave (1962), Enemies: A Love Story (1972), and The Penitent (1983). His autobiographical works, particularly In My Father's Court (1966), A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw (1969), and A Little Boy in Search of God: Mysticism in a Personal Light (1976), combine a lyrical evocation of a Hasidic childhood in Eastern Europe with accounts of Singer's intellectual and spiritual ‘awakenings’. Singer also wrote several plays, numerous volumes of stories for children, and was an assiduous translator of distinguished foreign fiction into Yiddish, notably works by Gabriele D'Annunzio, Knut Hamsun, Thomas Mann, and Erich Maria Remarque. He was honoured by many American colleges and universities and received many awards for his fiction, amongst them the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 (his Nobel Lecture was published in 1979). A Singer Reader (1971) is a useful introduction to his writings, and Conversations with Singer (1985) is valuable for its anecdotes and its insights into his art. Critical Views of Singer (1969), edited by Irving Malin, draws together some intelligent critical essays whilst David N. Miller's Fear of Fiction: Narrative Strategies in the Works of Singer (1985) subjects his fiction to post-modernist analyses; further critical commentary can be found in The Achievement of Singer (1969), edited by Marcia Allentuck, and Singer and His Art (1970) by Askel Schiotz.

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