Bernard Malamud’s story began like many self-made persons in America during his era, as a child born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Malamud came of age during the start of the Great Depression and attended Erasmus Hall High School, a popular public high school at the time while Brooklyn’s population was rapidly growing. It was in high school that young Bernard fell in love with film, particularly the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, and enjoyed relating various plots to his school friends.
As an ambitious high school graduate, Malamud worked for a year as a teacher-in-training, and then attended the City College of New York on a government loan. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1936 and a Masters degree from Columbia University in 1942 after writing a thesis on Thomas Hardy, a personal inspiration of his. Despite being raised Jewish, Malamud identified as an agnostic humanist. His work in writing carried similar themes as Thomas Hardy, though set in a different time period. While themes in Hardy’s novels involved the struggles between social classes living in Victorian England, Malamud focused on social issues of his day, including the conflict between bourgeois and artistic values.
Philip Roth once described Bernard Malamud as “a man of stern morality, [driven by] the need to consider long and seriously every demand of an overtaxed, overtaxing conscience torturously exacerbated by the pathos of human need unabated.”
Malamud’s writing career took off slowly, as he was often the harshest critic of his own work. He wrote his first novel in 1948, titled The Light Sleeper, but later burned the entire manuscript. Thus his first published novel came four years later, in 1952, and is remembered today as his most symbolic work. The Natural was based off the bizarre shooting and eventual comeback of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball player, Eddie Waitkus. The novel tells the story of a fictional baseball player, Roy Hobbs, who is considered a baseball prodigy playing for the made-up team, the New York Knights. After Hobbs is shot, his health suffers even as he returns to play baseball and in the end is faced with a difficult decision of whether or not to throw the game for a substantial bribe. Available in its signed, first edition copy, The Natural is modeled off the story of The Fisher King, where Roy Hobbs plays the role of the flawed but heroic knight.
The Fixer, a fictional novel that channeled deeper into the author’s familial roots, tells the tale of a Jewish handyman wrongfully imprisoned during the anti-Semitic regime of tsarist Russia. First published in 1966, the book was praised for its fashionable prose. Elizabeth Harding wrote in Vogue that the novel is “[b]rilliant and harrowing… Historical reality combined with fictional skill and beauty of a high order make [it] a novel of startling importance.” Available in its signed, first edition, The Fixer won both the National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Malamud’s other award-winning book, The Magic Barrel, was his first collection of short stories. Most of the collection’s stories depict the search for hope and meaning in various desperately poor urban settings. Several of the stories involve the cooperation of two antagonists, whether it is a landlord and tenant or a matchmaker and daughter, learning from each other’s anguish. Famous stories within the collection include “The Last Mohican,” “Angel Levine,” “The First Seven Years,” and “The Mourners.” Available in its inscribed, first edition, The Magic Barrel went on to win the National Book Award.