At Beinecke, papers of Cynthia Ozick now open for ‘delighted discovery’
In late 2008, author Cynthia Ozick received a letter from author John Updike, who reported having pneumonia.
“I returned from Russia with sniffles that wouldn’t go away and now we have unleashed all the diagnostic hounds of Mass. General Hospital,” wrote Updike in the typed letter, dated Nov. 21, 2008. “… They keep trying to get sputum out of me without actually digging for it. Yet.”
Updike, who would die of lung cancer about two months later, was replying to a “gracious and witty” letter Ozick had sent him concerning “The Widows of Eastwick,” his latest and final novel. After discussing his illness, he turned his thoughts to Ozick, a renowned novelist, literary critic, and essayist, complimenting her prose and devotion to other writers.
“But why clutter with such miserable physicality when you write such winged words – you and I among the very few, I think, who still try to describe human experience as an amalgam of matter and spirit …,” he wrote. “You keep not just my but all our spirits up, to the mark, and your selfless enthusiasm for other writers is a lesson and a beacon.”
Updike’s letter is part of Ozick’s literary archive, which the Yale University Library acquired in the fall of 2021 and recently opened to researchers. Comprising 329 boxes, the Ozick papers include correspondence, handwritten and typed drafts of essays, short stories, and novels, and other personal papers dating from her youth through the library’s acquisition of the archive. The papers offer insights into her writing, thinking, and life, as well as those of the many noted writers and editors with whom she corresponded, including Updike, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Gordon Lish, Helen Weinberg, Elie Wiesel, and Merrill Joan Gerber.
Ozick’s papers build on the library’s existing strength in Jewish-American writers, said Melissa Barton, curator of prose and drama for the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where the archive is housed, joining those of Gerber, Gertrude Stein, Larry Kramer, Sid Caesar, Leon Katz, and others.
“Cynthia Ozick is widely regarded as among the greatest prose stylists of her generation, as well as one of the best critics — you will frequently see her referred to as the Athena of American Letters,” Barton said. “She is also well-connected, with correspondence from dozens more notable writers and thinkers across multiple generations. Her papers are sure to be a valuable resource for scholars studying 20th century American fiction, essays, and criticism in many subfields.”
Born in Manhattan in 1928, Ozick, now 95, lives in New Rochelle, New York. A versatile and inventive writer widely praised for her elegant prose style, she has published critically acclaimed novels and short stories as well as scores of essays and works of literary criticism.
Her work appears in prestigious periodicals, including The New Yorker, The New York Review, and The Paris Review. Her first novel, “Trust,” was published in 1966 and her latest, “Antiquities,” in 2021. Her short story, “The Shawl,” which follows three women during their internment in a Nazi concentration camp, and her novel “The Puttermesser Papers,” which chronicles the life of fictional Jewish New York lawyer Ruth Puttermesser, rank, along with other examples of her work, among “the strangest, most intellectually daring, and morally intelligent fiction of our times,” according to The New York Times Magazine.
Before Yale acquired the archive, Barton and her Beinecke colleague Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature, visited Ozick’s home to view the papers, which packed portions of the writer’s basement and attic. Next, Ozick and her family culled and arranged the archive. Then, following a pandemic-related delay, Michael Forstrom, a Beinecke archivist, organized the massive archive to make it easy for scholars to search it and examine the materials in the Beinecke’s reading room.
“I am indebted to the legendary Beinecke for having dignified the innumerable boxes in attic and basement with the lofty term ‘archive,’ and how enthralling was the journey to that aspiration!” Ozick said in a message to Yale News. “First, the suspenseful visit from curators Melissa Barton and Nancy Kuhl, followed later by the climactic presence of Michael Forstrom, the alchemist who turns chaos into category — I had never dared so much as to imagine these magical events. The Beinecke has for so long been less a place than a vision, and I will be forever astonished to think that unknown persons may come to poke among my old papers and all their crossed-out sentences. What was once pure disbelief is delighted discovery.”
The many drafts of stories, novels, and essays contained within her papers provide scholars a behind-the-scenes view of a top-flight writer plying her craft. For example, a handwritten draft of her 1993 New Yorker essay “Rushdie in the Louvre,” which reflects on an appearance by author Salman Rushdie at the Louvre in Paris about four years after Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, had issued a fatwah calling for his death, bears the marks of a hard-working writer. The opening paragraph is crossed out. A substantial portion of the third paragraph, which followed the second attempt at an opening, is struck through.
The draft is accompanied by fan mail praising the published essay. One singles out a sentence Ozick penned to describe Rushdie: “It happens that Rushdie nowadays looks more scribbler than pharaoh: a certain scruffiness of falling-out hair and indecisive beard, the telltale fleshiness of the sedentary penman; the recognizable mien of someone who hates wearing a tie.”
“I love that sentence, too,” Barton said. “Everybody you read commenting on her writing talks about her craft and the beauty and precision with which she constructs sentences.”
Ozick’s voluminous correspondence alone fills 176 boxes. She set aside a “greatest hits” folder of correspondence with famous literary figures, including Bellow, Roth, Updike, and Wiesel.
In a three-page, single-spaced, typed letter from the folder dated July 19, 1987, Bellow, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, apologizes for not writing to Ozick sooner, explaining he could write a book but not a letter and pondering why the challenge of corresponding with friends and acquaintances had become too much for him. He confides that he has become “a loner troubled by longings, incapable of finding a suitable language and despairing at the impossibility of composing messages in a playable key …”
“You are the sort of person — and writer — to whom I can say such things, my kind of writer (without sclerosis in the matter of letters). I stop short of saying that you are humanly my sort. I have no grounds for that. I know you through your books, which I always read because they are written by the real thing. There aren’t too many real things around.”