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Sanford Pinsker

Sanford Pinsker is the author and editor of more than a dozen books, including book-length studies of Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Joseph Heller, and J. D. Salinger. He also has published more than 800 articles, essays, editorials, and book reviews, frequently contributing to Georgia Review, Sewanee Review, and VQR. He recently retired after 37 years of teaching at Franklin and Marshall College.


The Tortoise and the Hare; Or, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and the Vagaries of Fiction Writing

Summer 2005 | Essays

In 1959, a thirty-one-year-old writer named Cynthia Ozick was hard at work, in her determined tortoise-like way, on an ambitious novel that, seven years later, would be published as Trust; and also in 1959, a young, in-your-face writer named Philip Roth published Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. Not since Norman Mailer set the literary world on its ear with The Naked and the Dead (1948) had a collection of stories so changed the American cultural landscape. Roth was surely the hare of Aesop’s tortoise-and-hare fable, a young man out of the literary gate before most of his competitors had made it to the track. Not only did Roth speed off with what, in those days, was a prestigious National Book Award, but he also set into motion debates about tradition, responsibility, and the individual artist that would dog his heels from then on—book after book, decade after decade.

Willie Stark and the Long, Thinning Shadow of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men

Fall 2004 | Essays

I would argue that we are still under the mythos of populism, whether it be the relatively mild form promulgated by an aging William Jennings Bryan, who crossed verbal swords in the mid-1920s with Clarence Darrow over teaching Darwin in public schools, or the no-holds-barred demagoguery of the Huey Long who knew how to whip ragtag Louisiana crowds into a frenzy and how to put his stamp—many thought of it as fascist—onto American politics during the Great Depression.

Hating America, at Home and Abroad

Spring 2004 | Criticism

Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World. By Jedediah Purdy. Knopf, February 2004. $14 (paper) Five Shades of Shadow. By Tracy Daugherty. Nebraska, March 2003. $27.95 The idea of America is wrapped around the twin poles of [...]

Henry Adams At Ground Zero

Spring 2002 | Essays

Granted, Adams's persona was firmly wrapped in the mantle of failure—so much so that savvy readers soon suspected that he was protesting just a bit too much about his ignorance and ineptitude. Still, when he writes that "Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts," we can, I think, take Adams at his word. "Inert facts," the material that one dutifully memorizes and then reproduces on exams, were essentially useless because they could not be actively applied to rapidly changing situations. Such "facts" simply sat there, rather like cornflakes in a bowl of milk, and became increasingly soggy. Here it is worth mentioning that Adams's proposed sub-title for the Education was "A Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity." If the Virgin hearkened us back to a simpler age, one that organized and thus unified itself around the force of religion, science often seemed to dump the human component altogether, preferring the disinterestedness that is an essential component of the scientific method.


Final Thoughts, Last Morsels

A Critic's Notebook. By Irving Howe. Edited and introduced by Nicholas Howe. Harcourt Brace. $27.95. Perhaps no one was more skeptical about indulgent collections cobbled together by aging critics or more skiddish about the risks of self-repetition [...]

Newspaper Pieces Between Hard Covers

Winter 2002 | Criticism

However good, most newspaper articles are destined for the same fate as yesterday's lead story—they wrap fish or line garbage cans. Sometimes, however, fate spares them such ignominy and places them between hard covers. This was the case recently when Henry Holt brought out two collections of pieces originally published in The New York Times—one, an investigation of "how race is [currently] lived in America"; the other, a sampling of writers talking about writing. Let me begin with the former, not only because the series was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, but also because race remains a tricky, paralyzing subject. What the editors hatched up was surely an ambitious project, one that promised to be more than the "usual mosaic of dreary census, school, and income statistics, studded with pious quotations from the civil rights era of blessed memory or from academics and clergymen speaking earnestly." The result takes us to a slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, a restored plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and a platoon in Fort Knox, Kentucky. We meet, among others, a white quarterback who played ball at a historically black college, a white rapper on the college lecture circuit, and two young wheeler-dealers, one white, one black, as they make their way up (and down) the e-business fast track. Above all else, the series wanted to give race in America a human face, or perhaps more correctly, a series of human faces. To accomplish this, the Times assigned reporter(s) to cover 15 especially juicy stories, and then gave them the time necessary to watch as the arc of the respective sagas unfolded.


Who Killed Satan?

The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. By Andrew Delbanco. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. $23.00. Depending upon where one's eyes fix, Satan is either alive-and-well (televangelists see his face writ large in secular humanism) [...]

Lyric Poetry’s Saving Grace

Poetry as Survival. By Gregory Orr. University of Georgia Press. $44.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.At a time when review space for poetry books seems even stingier than usual and when only amateur enthusiasts give a fig about the state of contemporary versi [...]

The Moose on the Family Dinner Table

Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society. By John Edgar Wideman. Pantheon. $21.00. Race in America has been compared to a moose on the dining room table: nobody wants to call attention to the carcass despite the fact that an [...]

Home Boys Between Hard Covers

Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White. By Brent Staples. Pantheon Books. $23.00. Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Black Man in America. By Nathan McCall. Random House, $23.00. Colored People: A Memoir. By Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Knopf. $22.00.    [...]

American Literature and America, 1925-2000

When the likes of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. , William Styron, Daniel Boorstein, and Gore Vidal picked F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as the second most important 20th-century English-language novel (after James Joyce's Ulysses[1922]), many rea [...]

Walt Whitman and Our Multicultural America

"This is a meal equally set." —Walt Whitman Multiculturalism is a spongy term that has occasioned more debate than precise definition. The title of Nathan Glazer's recent book argues that We Are All Multiculturalists Now, but how does this announc [...]

Is the Jewish-American Experience Over?

Fiedler on the Roof: Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity. By Leslie Fiedler. Godine. $19. 95. A History of the Jews in America. By Howard M. Sacher. Knopf. $40. Jewish-American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Jack Fisehel and S [...]

Surveying the Black Intellectual Scene

Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life. By William M. Banks. W.W. Norton. $29.95. Thirty-odd years ago Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual set out to hammer those blacks caught up in integrationist hope, c [...]

Scrapping Over America’s Soul

Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. By James Davidson Hunter. Basic Books. $25. 00. Among the brickbats likely to be thrown at Hunter's study of why we are so embroiled in battles about the family, funding for the arts, education, law, a [...]

Stanley Crouch, Our Black American Mencken

Black Boy, Richard Wright's 1945 account of how (despite the long odds) he became a writer, is now widely regarded as an American classic. Like most black autobiographies, it is the story of escape, whether it be from the shackles of slavery—as w [...]

America’s Conspiratorial Imagination

"That's the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what's real." —Augie March Depending on to whom you listen, the American economy is either temporarily stalled or headed down the slippery slope, but nobody, absolutely nob [...]

O Tempora! O Mores! and All That

The Opening of the American Mind. By Lawrence W. Levine. Beacon Press. 82000 O the times! The customs!" the Roman orator Cicero famously pronounced in his scathing denouncement of Cataline, patrician conspirator against the state. Many have lon [...]

William Faulkner and My Middle East Problem

"Have you noticed how so often when we try to reconstruct the causes which lead up to the actions of men and women, how with a sort of astonishment we find ourselves now and then reduced to the belief, the only possible belief, that they stemmed fro [...]

Muckraking Inside the Ivory Towers

Bright College Years: Inside the American Campus Today. By Anne Matthews. Simon & Schuster. $23.00. Long before Anne Matthews, author of Where the Buffalo Roam and a professor in New York University's graduate journalism program, decided to spe [...]

Is There An American Literary Tradition?

Making American Tradition: Visions and Revisions from Ben Franklin to Alice Walker. By Gushing Strout. Rutgers. $38.00 cloth, $13.00 paper. To write a book-length study exploring the ways in which American writers respond to one another is to ask [...]

What the Sixties Was, and Is

Reassessing the Sixties: Debating the Political and Cultural Legacy. Edited by Stephen Macedo. Foreword by George F. Will. Afterword by Todd Gitlin. Norton. $25.00 A Imost nothing about the cultural marker known as "the sixties" seems especially [...]

Cakes and Ale and English Letters

A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers. By Hugh Kenner. Knopf. $22. 95. That Kenner's latest high-wire act in literary criticism and cultural commentary completes a trilogy that includes A Homemade World (1975) and A Colder Eye (1983) is cau [...]

Climbing Over the Ethnic Fence: Reflections on Stanley Crouch and Philip Roth

Summer 2002 | Essays

As Stanley Crouch likes to tell the tale, he and Philip Roth were having dinner in an up-scale New York City restaurant one evening shortly before their respective novels—The Human Stain in Roth's case, Don't the Moon Look Lonesome in Crouch's—hit the bookshelves. Because both men share a taste for good food, first-rate wine, and sophisticated cultural talk, it must have been quite a time. But at some point in the banter Roth proposed the following bet—namely, that none of the reviewers would mention that their novels were, in large measure, about moving beyond parochial boundaries, or about what I'm calling "climbing over the ethnic fence." At stake was the next dinner, with the loser picking up the check.


More News From Mr. Epstein’s Neighborhood

Once More around the Block: Familiar Essays. By Joseph Epstein. Norton. $16.95. Mr. Epstein likes to think of the pieces he publishes first in American Scholar (a journal he edits) and then between hard covers as "familiar essays," and that, of co [...]

Is “Higher Education” an Oxymoron?

Clueless in Academe. By Gerald Graff. Yale, April 2003. $29.95 Why Education Is Useless. By Daniel Cottom. Pennsylvania, May 2003. $26.50 Letters to Dalton: Higher Education and the Degree Salesmen. By John R. Turner. Word and Image, November 2002. [...]

Can Southern Conservatism Rise Again?

The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. By Eugene b. Genovese. Harvard. $22.50. Harvard University's William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization have an impressive history of th [...]