Isaac Bashevis Singer in New York

By Hadda, Janet | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Isaac Bashevis Singer in New York


Hadda, Janet, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


After the cataclysmic events of 1944 and 1945, Bashevis's life in the late 1940s calmed down considerably, at least outwardly. Although he had expressed his anguish quietly, his enormous distress over the loss of his brother, his culture, and his literary future had been obvious at the conclusion of World War II. Now, just a few years later, he seemed more settled, able to enjoy the trappings of normalcy. He had returned to full literary activity and had finally achieved the status of staff writer at the Forverts. His salary remained paltry, but Alma supplemented the family income through her work as a saleslady, starting with a seventeen-dollar-a-week job at Arnold Constable, a New York department store.(1) While Bashevis stayed at home and wrote, Alma found herself "joggling back and forth on the subway."(2) The couple ate dinners out in simple restaurants; despite their modest circumstances, they traveled extensively, initiating long trips to Europe as soon as the War ended.

But external appearances were deceiving. A major change was underway in Bashevis's life: he had entered the world of English translation. This development was to have huge ramifications for Bashevis, leading finally to the award of the Nobel prize almost thirty years later. Along the way, Bashevis, that sharp-witted, conflicted, sometimes harsh literary genius, would gradually yield to Isaac Bashevis Singer - and even Isaac Singer - the quaint, pigeon-feeding vegetarian, the serene and gentle embodiment of timeless Eastern-European-Jewish values.

Bashevis's first work to be translated into English was The Family Moskat. It appeared in 1950, published by Alfred Knopf. Knopf had been Israel Joshua Singer's publisher in English, and he had agreed to take on Bashevis's book because of the family relationship. Already at the time of this first translation, Bashevis was worrying about what to call himself. A letter from the publishing house refers to the confusion: "Did we agree on the form in which your name as author is to appear? It could be 'Isaac Singer' or 'Bashevis (Isaac Singer,)' but I do not think it can be 'Isaac Singer Bashevis,' which is merely confusing."(3)

The privilege of appearing in translation with his brother's publishers turned out to be a mixed blessing for Bashevis. First, Knopf insisted on certain changes in the novel for purposes of translation, an artistic insult that Bashevis neither forgot nor forgave.(4) Then, once the book came out, Knopf informed Bashevis that sales were poor. But Alma, who was working at Macy's in Manhattan at the time, believed that Knopf's report was inaccurate, if not a downright lie. From her vantage point, perhaps colored by the immigrant fear that her husband was being cheated, she took issue with the publisher's gloomy account, observing that the books were actually "selling like hotcakes."(5)

In a 1965 interview in Harper's, Bashevis claimed that the book had sold 35,000 copies - in part because it had been a book club choice - but that he had realized only about $2,000 from the deal. "I haven't grown rich from my works translated into English," he commented wryly at the time. There were reasons for the meager reward. Knopf had deducted a translator's fee from Bashevis's royalties. Moreover, the translator had died before finishing the manuscript, costing Bashevis "additional time and money to complete the job."(6)

Bashevis's recollections on the matter complain of anti-European bias and hint at Jewish anti-Semitism: ". . . the mail kept bringing envelopes with reviews from all over America. I found my picture in many newspapers and magazines. But with all that, I had the feeling that my book was not receiving the proper recognition." As it happened, Knopf was also the publisher of John Hersey's The Wall, which appeared just weeks after The Family Moskat. Both authors had written about Warsaw, and Knopf evidently favored Hersey's work. The slight was not lost on Bashevis: "True, I had written from experience, while Hersey had compiled a work based on reports. …

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