Isaac Bashevis Singer: Writer and Critic

By David StrombergNovember 11, 2019

Isaac Bashevis Singer: Writer and Critic
THE LIFEWORK OF Isaac Bashevis Singer, though researched by many, is still being mapped. Not only are there troves of unpublished or untranslated writings by Singer — fiction, memoir, and criticism — but much of the context for that work has not yet been properly explored. This is in part because Singer functioned in more than one capacity as a literary artist. In the United States, he became a writer, translator, editor, and critic, working in both Yiddish and English, composing his literary work according to his own developing artistic principles. Many of these principles were clearly articulated in critical articles published pseudonymously in Yiddish, where Singer expressed his ideas on culture and society and on the artist’s place in them. But these articles remained largely unpublished, although he later presented many of them as lectures in English. And so, in order to understand the context of his writing, we must explore the way that his essayistic work informed his literary production.

As a literary artist, Isaac Bashevis Singer worked in at least three modes: a Yiddish-language writer and journalist named Yitskhok Bashevis (who published under two additional pseudonyms), an English-language author named Isaac Bashevis Singer, and an in-between authorial figure who negotiated the transition from one to the other, to whom I sometimes refer as IBS. The Yiddish Singer — the one whom Yiddishists call simply Bashevis — was an artist, a journalist, and a public intellectual who changed and developed over nearly 70 years of writing and publishing. The Yiddish Bashevis made his living by publishing several articles pseudonymously each week in the Yiddish daily Forverts — and while at first people didn’t know that the artist was the same person as the occultist who was the same person as the intellectual, with time it became known that Itzhok Varshavsky, and eventually even D. Segal, were the same person as Yitzkhok Bashevis.

The English Singer is known as Isaac Bashevis Singer — also called Isaac Singer or simply Isaac. This Singer, who shares the personal history and characteristics described above, started publishing in the United States in 1950 with the translation of The Family Moskat — his first serious experience reformulating himself into English. In 1953, Saul Bellow translated his story “Gimpel Tam” as “Gimpel the Fool” and it was published in Partisan Review. This was followed in 1955 by a translation of Singer’s 1933 short novel, Satan in Goray, by Singer and Jacob Sloan, a story collection titled Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories in 1957, and the novel The Magician of Lublin in 1960. By the early 1960s, the English Singer was gaining critical attention from young American literati interested in this 60-year-old Jewish storyteller from the Old World who’d appeared, it seemed, out of nowhere. But in fact, they were dealing with a seasoned European intellectual who had laid out his literary path with great focus and deliberateness.

The authorial IBS, the one between the Yiddish Bashevis and the English Singer, was a highly punctilious literary artist. He was the one who, at the age of 50, began looking over nearly 30 years of literary production in Yiddish to decide which works could be used to invent his image in English and connect with an audience that was much larger than the linguistic and cultural world to which he belonged and from which he drew his strength and imagination. This is also the IBS who began to consolidate his ideas on philosophy, art, and human nature into an integrated moral and aesthetic vision. This is the IBS who guided the dissemination of the other two — and thanks to him we still have access to both the Yiddish Bashevis, whose work is finally being digitized and made available, and the English Singer, whose translated works are still being published.

IBS was a historical figure, different from the character who appears in his fiction and memoir, and his approach to literature is revealed in his essays. In March 1952, he published an article, under the pseudonym of Varshavsky, called “The Limits of the Artistic Word,” in which he wrote:

One of the greatest difficulties of writing prose is that the writer is limited to a specific number of pages. War and Peace is one of the greatest novels, whether you count its pages or its themes. […] In this work Tolstoy sought to depict the Napoleonic War. But did he manage to succeed? No, it is impossible, even in four or five hundred pages, to depict a war. The experience of a single soldier would require thousands of pages.

He also considers an attempt to devote a large number of pages to a single character:

The artist cannot research his hero freely and tirelessly like a scientist researches his subject. He has to remember that his work will be a book with two covers and that it must not be too far from one cover to the other. […] A writer like Proust was an exception. He wrote 18 volumes about his hero Swann. But the number of readers who have read this grandiose work is very small. The writer of these lines has tried to gather the strength many times, but never got through more than a few sections.

IBS also points to economic realities:

In our time of mass-production and high printing and distribution costs, a writer can exist only when the theme and the form are geared toward the reading masses. […] So we come to a tragicomic situation. By nature, art seeks out the particular, the individual, the “corners.” […] But financial constraints often drive the artist to be the opposite of what he ought to be.

And these financial constraints are accompanied by formal ones:

The writer, like a chess player, is limited by his pieces and their direction. It is true that the writer himself picks his pieces. But at the moment that he places them on the “chessboard,” he is obligated to them. A figure in a drama, like a figurine on a chessboard, has its course — its possibilities and limits. The further the work continues, the fewer possibilities remain, and the frame grows tighter. […] The artist must constantly think about his frame, regardless of whether it is a picture-frame, the frame of a book cover, or the ramp of a stage.

At the end, he makes a distinction between the market economy of English-language books, and the largely wild terrain of Yiddish literature:

First, the Yiddish writer is almost free from the economic law of supply and demand. For us there is almost no demand and the supply is therefore independent of external circumstances. […] Second, the Yiddish writer needs to care less about the tempers and caprices of readers. […] The author publishes [the book] at his own expense, then distributes it among his colleagues, relatives, and compatriots, regardless of whether they want to read it or not. […] The reader doesn’t put up the money so there’s no reason for him to have an opinion.

What IBS laments is not the financial poverty of Yiddish literature, which he says lends it “many privileges and freedoms,” but its lack of promising new voices: “The greatest constraint on Yiddish literature is the fact that the new generation has no talented writer, no tireless seeker and researcher of the written word and its possibilities.”

In sum, IBS outlines several types of constraints on the writer: material, economic, artistic, and cultural. In light of these, one would expect him to despair of further work. But the facts tell a different story. The Family Moskat was published in Yiddish in the late 1940s, The Manor and The Estate were published in Yiddish as The Court in 1953–’55, and Shadows on the Hudson was published in Yiddish in 1957. Between The Family Moskat and The Court, from 1949 to 1951, he also published a yet-untranslated novel titled The Uncle from America. So, after having finished two long novels by the early 1950s, IBS came to certain understandings about the limits of the artistic word, which he expressed in his critical essay in 1952, and then went on to write two more long novels.

What does this mean? We can only speculate, of course, but we can do so along the lines IBS has himself set forth.

The first is material: IBS’s novels had less of a material constraint because they were published serially in a newspaper. They could be written without anyone having to consider publishing hundreds of pages in book form.

The second is economic: IBS was paid for each piece he submitted. He didn’t need to sell his book as its own artistic object because it was sold to anyone who bought the Forverts.

The third is artistic: IBS managed to interest his readers. The story goes that when his editor Abraham “Abe” Cahan threatened to stop the publication of The Family Moskat in the Forverts because of sexual scenes set during the Jewish high holidays, the paper’s readers, who were already hooked on the novel, protested and Bashevis was saved.

And the fourth is cultural: IBS saw himself as an artistic adventurer on a mission to create a new brand of Yiddish literature. IBS continued on this adventure until 1959, when at the age of 56 he published the serialized version of The Magician of Lublin, his first short novel since Satan in Goray. What motivated this shift? Well, a lot of things. As previously mentioned, in 1953 Singer had his English breakthrough with “Gimpel the Fool” and his horizon opened beyond the realm of Yiddish. This led to two important book-length publications — Satan in Goray, which gave him his first experience in the translation and publication of a shorter work, as well as the story collection Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories. Both of these events would have brought IBS back to considerations of modern economic constraints, as his works now entered the market economy. The context for this shift is found in another essay — “What’s the Use of Literature?” — which appeared in Yiddish, under Varshavsky’s name, in 1963, after both the Yiddish and English publications of The Magician of Lublin (1960) and his next short novel, The Slave (1962).

In this essay, IBS questions not merely the limits of the artistic word but its very right to exist. He first says that he himself is more interested in articles and case studies than in fiction. And yet he admits that there is a degree of human achievement in literature that is inherently interesting:

Even though we can now land on Mount Everest in a helicopter, it would be a pity if we no longer wanted to try climbing up to the top. […] Even if we could invent a machine that would report to us precisely all of the experiences of a Raskolnikov, a Madame Bovary, or an Anna Karenina, it would still be interesting to know if this could be done with pen and paper.

But this reduces literature to a kind of intellectual sport or curiosity, which has limited — if any — value: “The man who walks across the country to California can summon admiration, but his walking will not be taken seriously as a medium of communication.” It is as a means of communication that literature is important. But IBS separates this type of communication from other popular forms:

The modern reader knows more psychology and the writer’s explanations often seem to him superfluous, false, or obsolete. […] He can get the facts from newspapers, magazines, radio, television, film. He’s connected to all the corners of the world and to what takes place in reality. […] There is a chance yet that, in our day — or yours — mankind will reach the moon, and the other planets. How weak and ridiculous all the fantasies of so-called “science fiction” will seem in comparison with footage shot on the moon or on the other planets.

So the direct transfer of information about reality is not what literature is about. Then what is it about?

For IBS, it turns out, literature is about human beings themselves — and this is also why literature has so few readers:

How is it that literary prose has to go beyond its natural limits and become a mishmash of styles and facts in order to appeal to readers? The reason is that the essence of literature — the portrayal of characters, the expression of the individual — has never had many enthusiasts. […] If literary fiction and theater are to continue playing their old role, they would need an audience with a strong interest in human character and individuality, independent of all these other byproducts and external concerns. But the number of such connoisseurs is small. Real and pure connoisseurs of art are nearly as rare as real and pure artists.

And this is also where IBS takes his renewed raison d’être beyond that of a literary researcher:

Precisely because contemporary man is surrounded by a sea of information related to all kinds of fields, the genuine modern artist should deliver more artistic purity, more substantive matter, a greater focus on the portrayal of character and individuality. But for this it is necessary to have exceptional gifts.

IBS does not suggest which “genuine modern artist” has such gifts — but we can guess that Bashevis and Singer are candidates.

By 1963, IBS had drastically reframed his notion of what it meant to be a literary artist. The artistic researcher has turned into a provider of artistic purity, substantive matter, and portrayal of human character. To become such a writer, IBS would himself need to know a thing or two about art, philosophy, and the human spirit. IBS’s writings on these topics have never been collected. The common theme emerging from these long-neglected essays, in a clear and personal tone, is Singer’s belief in the power of free choice combined with the richness of cultural tradition. The essays show how he harnessed the Jewish tradition and its texts, the canon of Western literature and philosophy, and the workings of the human spirit in order to develop his own unique approach to literary art. They revise the way that Singer is perceived historically, and show that behind his artistic achievement lies a thoroughly developed critical framework.


David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.


Featured image: "Biłgoraj - Isaac Bashevis Singer's memorial bench" by Przemysław Czopor is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Banner image: "Plaque commemorating Isaac Bashevis Singer at 1 Krochmalna Street (near interesection with Ciepła Street) in Warsaw" by Adrian Grycuk is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 PL.

LARB Contributor

David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem. His essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Literary Matters, and Speculative Nonfiction. He has published fiction in Call Me Brackets, Atticus Review, and the UK’s Ambit, scholarly articles in Prooftexts, Journal of Narrative Theory, and The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, and translations in The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Conjunctions. He is the author of four cartoon collections, including Baddies (2009), and two critical studies, including IDIOT LOVE and the Elements of Intimacy (2020). His edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.


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