Back­ing into For­ward: A Memoir

Jules Feif­fer
  • Review
By – September 7, 2011

Jules Feiffer’s mem­oir is a com­pelling Bronx tale, trac­ing his devel­op­ment from a day­dream­ing would-be auteur of action com­ic books to world-renowned house car­toon­ist of the Vil­lage Voice, intel­lec­tu­al, polit­i­cal activist, nov­el­ist, screen­writer, play­wright, and, in his lat­er years, after dis­cov­er­ing that he was far more adept at pleas­ing chil­dren than New York dra­ma crit­ics, author of children’s books. 

Told in brief anec­do­tal sec­tions rem­i­nis­cent of his Voice com­ic strip and writ­ten in a direct, bit­ing tone, Back­ing into For­ward is dis­tinct­ly Feif­fer, describ­ing with dis­arm­ing can­dor inci­dents such as how his moth­er gave away his pet dog Rex and his schemes, wor­thy of Catch-22, to avoid basic train­ing (and, lat­er, a post­ing to Korea) in the U.S. Army. The book is a par­tic­u­lar plea­sure for the intel­lec­tu­al voyeur, as Feif­fer finds him­self unex­pect­ed­ly in the cen­ter of New York’s artis­tic and intel­lec­tu­al life in the 1960’s and beyond, cross­ing paths and trad­ing bon mots with the likes of Mike Nichols, Mar­lene Diet­rich, and Duke Ellington. 

Under­gird­ing the whole is Feiffer’s recur­rent fan­ta­sy of him­self as a super­hero, aspir­ing to alter egos so far from his own real­i­ty— a skin­ny, per­pet­u­al­ly fright­ened Jew­ish young­ster from the Bronx — as Super­man, Cary Grant, and Fred Astaire. It is a delight to watch Feif­fer grad­u­al­ly out­grow this youth­ful anx­i­ety to become his own kind of super­hero and equal­ly delight­ful to see him pre­serve with­out com­pro­mise his left­ist polit­i­cal lean­ings through­out his life — he was mugged by real­i­ty at an ear­ly age, and nev­er turned back. But then, hav­ing grown up in the shad­ow of his much-favored cousin, Roy Cohn, how could he have done otherwise?

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

Discussion Questions