Rosen­feld’s Lives: Fame, Obliv­ion, and the Furies of Writing

Steven J. Zipperstein
  • Review
By – December 12, 2011
By the 1940’s, Isaac Rosen­feld (1918 – 1956) was a ris­ing star in the lit­er­ary fir­ma­ment, while his Chica­go friend, Saul Bel­low, was a rel­a­tive unknown; bare­ly a decade lat­er, Rosenfeld’s name was syn­ony­mous with lit­er­ary fail­ure. Posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tions have res­cued his rep­u­ta­tion to a degree, but Zipperstein’s biog­ra­phy, by explor­ing how this writer worked through his demons, goes a long way to restor­ing Rosenfeld’s place in Jew­ish-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. 

From inter­views with Rosenfeld’s rel­a­tives, friends, and rivals, and from close read­ing of Rosenfeld’s unpub­lished man­u­scripts and let­ters, Zip­per­stein pieces togeth­er Rosenfeld’s life — both his appar­ent eccen­tric­i­ties (his stint as a sea­man in World War II, his rib­ald treat­ment of kashrut, his end­less wom­an­iz­ing), and his attempts to come to grips with the role of the writer in mod­ern soci­ety. Read­ers are intro­duced to a vari­ety of Jew­ish lit­er­ary cir­cles the Divi­sion Street move­ment,’ the Com­men­tary and Par­ti­san Review crowds — and the issues that fired their fiercest debates. Rahv, Kazin, Tar­cov, and Trilling are all here, although Rosenfeld’s life­long strug­gle with Bel­low takes cen­ter stage. 

Any­one inter­est­ed in the stress­es of the writer’s life, or the his­to­ry of Jew­ish lit­er­ary cul­ture in Amer­i­ca, will find this biog­ra­phy both provoca­tive and sur­pris­ing­ly reward­ing. Index, notes, photographs. 

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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