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date: 03 July 2022

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902–1991): Biography and Overview of Workslocked

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902–1991): Biography and Overview of Workslocked

  • James A. LewinJames A. LewinEnglish and Modern Languages, Shepherd University

Summary

Why does evil exist? That is the question Isaac Bashevis Singer could not stop asking. The first Yiddish author to win a Nobel Prize and the only established American writer who wrote in Yiddish, I. B. Singer created historical sagas about the Jews in Poland, from premodern times through the Holocaust. He also published memoirs and children’s books. He concentrated his special genius, however, in a plenitude of short stories. With an ironic voice of protest, his earthy, poetic style portrays characters seeking love and truth—in spite of the grand and petty injustices of the world. Haunted by his own sense of survivor’s guilt, the author wrote out of a personal argument with God.

As a Protean and prolific writer, with shifting identities, he effectively named himself. Early on, he was Itche Zinger. He published his first novel, Satan in Goray, in 1935, in Yiddish, under the pen name of “Yitzchok Bashevis,” a nom de plume derived from his mother’s first name. Meanwhile, under the by-line Warshawsky, or son of Warsaw, he provided journalism and humorous articles in Yiddish newspapers, thus distancing the pseudonymous scribe from higher literary aspirations. Occasionally, he became D. Segal. In large measure, his wider success depended on having his work translated from Yiddish, a marginalized language of traumatic memory, into English, a living language with hegemonic influence. He supervised his translators closely and reached a wider audience with stories published in The New Yorker, Playboy, Commentary, and other magazines. As his work reached a global readership, he became Isaac Bashevis Singer, a composite name that allowed the author to maintain his roots while differentiating himself from his older brother, Israel Joshua (aka I. J.) Singer, also a best-selling Yiddish writer. Yet, in marked contrast to his welcome reception from the English-reading public, I. B. Singer has faced rebukes and even denunciation from Yiddish critics who felt uncomfortable with his provocative representations of Jewish life. For devoted fans and relentless critics alike, however, he remains known simply as “Bashevis.”

His litigation with heaven followed the model of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Job. He refused to suffer without questioning his mortal condition. He would not disavow an invisible higher power, and even referred to himself as religious, yet he rejected conventional faith or belief in cosmic compassion. Throughout his career, I. B. Singer wrestled with that twist in the psyche that allows perpetrators of atrocities to lack remorse, while victims of inhumanity may be plagued with self-reproach. He exorcised his demons by arguing with the Almighty through his writing, transforming survivor’s guilt into a protest against the injustice of life. Protest against the cosmic silence extended the artistic bridge between his psychological realism and his fascination with the occult. The author glances back at a lost innocence of traditional values and gazes forward into a world of expanding moral chaos. He satirizes society as a grotesque underworld. He condemns the cruelties of history and refuses to accept easy answers to haunting questions. Although he affirms the existence of an Absolute and portrays atheism as the greatest human failing, by the act of writing, he challenges the ethical standards of the inscrutable universe. While affirming the life of the soul, through his storytelling, he inscribes a compelling protest against the seeming indifference of heaven and earth.

Subjects

  • North American Literatures
  • Children’s Literature
  • Fiction
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Slavic and Eastern European Literatures

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