Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Allegra Goodman

Shabbat Pesach  
The Four Questions”
About her latest book, The Cookbook Collector

I was born in Brooklyn New York in 1967, but I grew up in Honolulu, where my parents moved in 1969. My father, Lenn Goodman taught philosophy at the University of Hawaii. My mother, Madeleine Goodman, of blessed memory, taught biology and directed the Women’s Studies program. She also served as Vice President for Academic Affairs. After 25 years, my parents left Hawaii for Nashville, Tennessee , where my mother became the first woman Dean of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt and my father accepted a position in the philosophy department. He still teaches at Vanderbilt.

In Hawaii, my sister Paula and I attended Punahou, an independent school founded in the 19th century by Congregationalist missionaries. The school is stunningly beautiful with a lush tropical campus and many fine teachers. I remember mine well. Two, in particular, encouraged me to write. Mrs. June F. Briske, my second grade teacher, urged me to write my stories and poems in a notebook she gave me. Mr. William Messer, my high school English teacher instilled in me a love of Elizabethan literature and spurred me to write cogent critical essays.

I began writing short stories in high school, and the summer after I graduated in 1985, I submitted my story “Variant Text” to Commentary magazine. I hoped that the editors there wouldn’t realize that I was only seventeen.

On a warm day in September I arrived at Harvard. I brought two suitcases, but no winter clothes, apart from a heavy black coat my mother had worn in the 60s. Stumbling through Harvard Square I made my way to Wigglesworth Hall. The phone rang. My father was calling to tell me that a letter had arrived from Commentary. Marion Magid, the managing editor there, had accepted my story. Years later, Marion told me, “Bubbe, don’t forget who discovered you.”

While at Harvard I concentrated in English and philosophy. I took classes on Chaucer with Larry Benson and Derek Pearsall, seventeenth century poetry and Milton with Barbara Lewalski, Henry James with Michael Anesko and a playwriting workshop with Bill Alfred. I wrote my senior thesis on platonism in Paradise Lost under the direction of Barbara Lewalski.

At college I saw snow for the first time, and acquired my first pair of boots. I continued to publish short stories in Commentary, and in my junior year an agent named Irene Skolnick phoned me at Dunster House and asked to represent me. She sold a collection of my stories to Ted Solotaroff at what was then called Harper & Row. Irene and I have been together ever since.

The day I graduated in 1989 was also the day my first book was published. On graduation day, Harper & Row sent me a basket of flowers. My parents flew in from Hawaii and brought me a lei. At commencement, we students wore black arm bands in solidarity with the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. A young Benazir Bhutto spoke about human rights and free elections. That summer I married my classmate, David Karger, and we spent the next year in England, where David studied maths at Cambridge as a Churchill Scholar.

After our return from England, David and I began graduate programs at Stanford where I wrote my second book, The Family Markowitz. Most of the stories in this book were published in The New Yorker.

At Stanford I studied Shakespeare with Stephen Orgel and Pat Parker, and Marlowe and Jonson with David Riggs. I also took courses in Medieval Drama with Seth Lerer, eighteenth century literature with John Bender, English Romanticism with George Dekker and early American literature with Jay Fliegelman. I wrote my dissertation on Samuel Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare under the direction of Stephen Orgel and earned my PhD in English literature in 1997.

I love research and literary scholarship. Many people tell me that they have novels inside of them. I am a novelist with a scholarly book inside of me. I hope to write one someday.

When David accepted a job at MIT, we moved back to Cambridge Mass, and have lived there ever since. In Cambridge I completed my novels Kaaterskill Falls, Paradise Park, Intuition, and The Other Side of the Island. Recently I’ve begun teaching a writing workshop in the graduate program in Creative Writing at Boston University.

I teach revision—a subject I know well. I revise my own work extensively on my own, and with the incisive comments of my editors, Susan Kamil at Dial, and Jessica Rothenberg and Ben Schrank at Razorbill. I love scribbling in purple pen all over a typed draft.

These days I write while my four children are at school. {She married David Karger, 1989}. At times the year seems like one snow day, sick day, and staff day after another, but somehow, slowly, my work gets done. I love my job. Each book teaches me something new about character and plot and structure. I am dedicating my life to learning how to tell a story.

What the critics say

In an address given at the 1994 meeting of the Modern Language Association, Allegra Goodman acknowledged that “my most intimate and immediate audience comes from the American Jewish community, that in many ways when I write fiction I am writing not only about them but also for them.” In so defining both her readership and the source of her fiction, Goodman confirms her place in the evolving tradition of American Jewish writers at the close of the 20th century. These writers draw equally from the legacy of Yiddish writers such as Sholom Aleichem and I. B. Singer, who carried the burden of representation of the world of the Eastern European Jew, and those postwar American Jewish writers such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, and Cynthia Ozick, who emerged beyond ethnicity into mainstream American letters.

As an American Jewish writer whose fiction is patterned on a long tradition of both scriptural and secular storytelling, Goodman draws from the collective memory of the past, “a memory, real or imagined” (from “One Down”), to contextualize the paradoxes of contemporary Jewish life. Her fiction resounds with the “thundering of history” (“The Four Questions”), with Jewish history, a mythic, often religious, at times onerous, certainly contentious legacy. As a result her fiction turns on the complex tensions surrounding the place of ancient Jewish law and learning in contemporary American life and thought, tensions between old and new, between orthodoxy and reform, between piety and secularism, between Judaism and modernism, between tradition and change.

Indeed, a sense of familiarity, of the quotidian, of daily, recognizable attitudes and responses to contemporary life permeates Goodman’s fiction, whether the setting is England, Hawaii, California, or the East Coast. In large part she draws upon the familiar as a source of satiric commentary. The Family Markowitz, in which Goodman creates recurrent, evolving characters whose lives are played out in interlocking, successive stories, is a kind of postmodern epic in which three generations of Markowitzes—from immigrant matriarch Rose to the American-born granddaughter Miriam, whose return to the orthodoxy mystifies her liberal, well-educated parents, Sarah and Ed Markowitz—struggle to maintain autonomy in the midst of the constraints of family life. Her characters and their responses to the upheavals and vagaries of contemporary life become a source of comedy. No one escapes Goodman’s ironic parody, not the tolerant academic, nor the would-be converts, nor the expatriate Anglophile, and least of all the politically correct, all targets of her satiric wit. While The Family Markowitz gets at the heart of tensions specific to American Jews at the end of the century—interfaith marriages, religious observance—it also speaks to the concerns of contemporary American life in general: the place of the aged, the intrusions of popular culture, and the possibilities for self-transformation within the politics of everyday living.

Goodman’s novel, Kaaterskill Falls, on the other hand, takes us inside the conscripted and insular world of the ultra Orthodox, the followers of the Rav Elijah Kirshner, who leave the city to summer in a small community in upstate New York. With biblical resonance, Goodman contemporizes the struggle between two brothers vying for their father’s blessing. The tension between pious succession and secular transgression, while located in the dichotomous polarizing of the brothers, permeates the Jewish community at large, where the Rav believes there is “no room for compromise, there is no sustenance outside the community.” This position, as Goodman so acutely and compassionately articulates, inevitably is threatened by the seductions of the outside world.

Goodman is among the new generation of American Jewish writers whose fiction embraces the subtleties of American postmodernity while recognizing the continuing place of Jewish history and identity. While, as Ed Markowitz concedes, “the generations are sort of flipping over” (“Fantasy Rose”), there is, as Andras Melish insists, finally “no way to conceive, to picture, someone else’s life…no way to transfer memories” (Kaaterskill Falls). Goodman, however, does exactly that: she recreates believable characters whose stories, past, present, and future, converge indelibly on the pages of her fiction.

NPR interview excerpt: “Goodman’s nimble language, usually displayed in her characters’ sharp readings of one another, is one of the great pleasures of her writing. The other is her ability to integrate serious metaphysical questions into her entertaining comedies of manners. The way in which The Cookbook Collector ultimately veers off from a mere riff on Sense and Sensibility raises crucial doubts about the value of a well-ordered life, as well as the existence of a benevolent God. In Austen’s original, Elinor, the practical one, was rewarded for having two feet on the ground. That was the late Enlightenment talking through Austen. But here, in Goodman, Modernity pulls the rug out from under Emily’s feet.”

One response to “Allegra Goodman

  1. En.Topodin.com April 20, 2015 at 6:34 am

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