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The Natural | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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Bernard Malamud | Biography


Born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 26, 1914, novelist and short story author Bernard Malamud is best known for his work exploring the spiritual and moral conflicts of Jewish characters. This theme resonated deeply with Malamud, who had been raised Jewish but was an atheist in adulthood. The Natural is his only novel not to feature a Jewish protagonist. It was his first novel, which may explain the omission of the theme of the struggles and pain of Jewish Americans that characterized the author's subsequent work.

As the child of poor immigrants living in New York during the Great Depression, Malamud endured a difficult childhood, but he found great solace in films, which prompted him to begin writing his own stories. His writing drew heavily from his own life, including his novel The Assistant (1957), which tells the story of a Jewish grocery store owner in New York—the same job his father held during Malamud's childhood. A New Life (1961) is partly based on Malamud's teaching career at Oregon State College, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 novel The Fixer discusses anti-Semitism in Russia around the time his parents fled. Finally, his 1971 novel The Tenants provides a meta-discussion of Malamud's own creative struggles as a writer. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, his works have won an O. Henry Award ("Man in the Drawer," 1969) and National Book Awards (The Magic Barrel, 1969 and The Fixer, 1967).

At the time he started writing, Malamud also began studying Jewish tradition. Although Malamud became agnostic as an adult, he continued to revere Jewish tradition as a part of his personal identity. His interest in religious history and tradition influenced Malamud's style of blending fantasy and reality in novels, displayed in The Natural through Roy's dreams, visions, and hallucinations. The Natural, like many of Malamud's other works, also makes references to mythological stories, which Malamud found particularly inspiring. Many of Malamud's characters struggle through periods of growth—or in Roy Hobbs's case, lack of growth—to earn a better understanding of their places in the world. A prominent theme in Malamud's work is the struggle to find redemption through suffering, an ideal verbalized by Iris Lemon in The Natural when she says, "Suffering is what brings us toward happiness." When asked about this theme by the New York Times, Malamud responded, "People say I write so much about misery, but you write about what you write best."

When The Natural was published in 1952, most readers and reviewers took it at face value, viewing it simply as a "baseball novel." The New York Times proclaimed, "Baseball writers making the swing through the West with major league teams occasionally wondered whether one of their number would ever produce a serious novel about baseball. That novel has finally been written," although the Times and others acknowledged that Malamud was perhaps a strange writer to tackle the subject. Although he "does not come from the ranks of baseball reporters," the paper reported, "at least he hails from Brooklyn and there are those who feel that qualifies him ex officio."

It was not until much later that critical reviews began peeling away the layers of Malamud's prose to view the novel through different lenses, including the analysis of a tragic hero in the character of Roy Hobbs. Rather than focusing on the scandals surrounding Roy's rise and fall, the novel examines the hero and his motivations. In the same vein, the placement of blame for Roy's failures also shifted over time in critical perspectives. In the 1950's most reviewers blamed the women, especially Harriet and Memo, for "distracting" Roy and breaking his heart, but later reviewers identified Roy's ego as his fatal flaw. The LA Review of Books wrote in 2014, "Endowed with exceptional talent, and with an inner drive to be the best, Hobbs fails again and again. He brings failure on himself—he chases women, he breaks training—and this gives his failure dimensionality: failure isn't imposed on him; he is its collaborator."

Malamud, a thoughtful, slow-paced writer, published eight novels and numerous short stories and articles. Like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, he began his career later in life, in his 30s, when he felt compelled to write about Jewish struggle after the Holocaust: "I for one believe that not enough has been made of the tragedy of the destruction of six million Jews. Somebody has to cry—even if it's a writer, 20 years later.'' Malamud once said that "all men are Jews," remarking on the suffering of humanity. In Malamud's obituary, longtime friend and fellow writer Philip Roth stated, ''What it is to be human, and to be humane, is [Malamud's] deepest concern." Malamud, survived by his wife and two children, died in his home on March 18, 1986.

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