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Recent Bernard Malamud biography draws on Ransom Center materials

By Harry Ransom Center

Oxford University Press has published a new biography of Jewish American writer Bernard Malamud. It is the first major biography of Malamud to date. The book, written by Liverpool University Professor of English Philip Davis, is titled Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life. The Harry Ransom Center holds a substantial part of Malamud’s archive, comprising more than 37 boxes of correspondence and papers and recently acquired additional materials from the Malamud family. (Learn more about the recent acquisition.)

Davis conducted research at the Ransom Center while working on the biography, which has received enthusiastic advance praise. Literary critic Harold Bloom writes, “The biography of Malamud by Philip Davis should be the definitive account of a poignant and now too often neglected writer of superb fictions. Davis writes with clarity, sympathy, and profound understanding of a subtle and permanent American author.”

The Ransom Center’s Malamud archive is part of the Center’s growing collections of Jewish-American writers, which includes the archives of Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, David Mamet, Norman Mailer, and Leon Uris, as well as smaller manuscript and correspondence collections of many other important Jewish writers, including Lillian Hellman and Allen Ginsberg.

Learn More about the Malamud materials at the Ransom Center.

Author Philip Davis Discusses Using the Malamud Collection

My biography of Bernard Malamud was published by Oxford University Press on both sides of the Atlantic in September 2007. In the summer of 2005 I was awarded a fellowship in order to research the Malamud papers at Harry Ransom Center (the other main archive in particular for the manuscripts of the works themselves being in the Library of Congress).

This is the first-ever biography of Malamud increasingly a rather neglected novelist who in his heyday ranked equally with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Accordingly, much of the material in the Ransom Center has not been much used by scholars. I benefited from access to four main areas in the collection:

1. a host of personal correspondence with friends, colleagues, writers and students
2. evidence of Malamud’s income over the years
3. notebooks in particular for the writing of The Assistant and Dubin’s Lives
4. personal papers including those found on his desk immediately after his death

Areas 3 and 4 were the most exciting. In the invaluable notebooks I saw the writer’s mind at work and in process: my biography is A Writer’s Life and Malamud spent most of his life at his desk, plotting and revising and struggling. Among the personal papers, I found references to a memoir the novelist failed to write of his parents during his later days: he found to his dismay that he could not remember sufficient to fill a book, though it filled his heart. One tiny white square of notepaper recalled, for example, how Malamud had stolen money from the till of his father’s grocery shop when a child and been caught: the humiliation is part of what lies behind the portrait of Frank Alpine, recidivist thief, in The Assistant, though neither his wife nor his daughter knew of such a thing. I found in hitherto neglected little places some of the poignant inner secrets of the man.

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