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Shouting Down the Silence

Shouting Down the Silence: A Biography of Stanley Elkin

David C. Dougherty
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Shouting Down the Silence
    Book Description:

    Shouting Down the Silence presents the first complete biography of Stanley Elkin, a preeminent novelist who consistently won high marks from critics but whose complexities of style seemed destined to elude the popular acclaim he hoped to attain. From the publication of his second novel, A Bad Man, in 1967 to his death in 1995, Elkin was tormented by the desire for both material and artistic success. _x000B__x000B_Elkin's novels were taught in colleges and universities, his fiction received high praise from critics and reviewers (two of his novels won National Book Critics Circle Awards), and his short stories were widely anthologized--and yet he was unable to achieve renown beyond the avant-garde, or to escape the stigma of being an "academic writer." He wanted to be Faulkner, but he had trouble being Elkin._x000B__x000B_Drawing on personal interviews and an intimate knowledge of Elkin's life and works, David C. Dougherty captures Elkin's early life as the son of a charismatic, intimidating, and remarkably successful Jewish immigrant from Russia, as well as his later career at Washington University in St. Louis. A frequent participant at the annual Bread Loaf Writers' conference, he was the friend--and sometime antagonist--of other important writers, particularly Saul Bellow, William Gass, Howard Nemerov, and Robert Coover._x000B_ _x000B_Despite failed attempts to bridge the gap from his academic post to wide popular success, Elkin continued to write essays, stories, and novels that garnered unerring praise. His was a classic dilemma of an intellectual aesthete loath to make use of the common devices of popular appeal. This book details the ambition, the success, the friction, and the foibles of a writer who won fame, but not the fame he wanted._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09101-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 “A Sum of Private Frequencies”
    (pp. 1-7)

    More than a decade after his death in 1995, Stanley Elkin’s place in twentieth-century literary history appears to be even more in question than it was during the final decade of his life. He emerged from the cultural and literary revolutions of the 1960s as a prominent Young Turk, a radical innovator in both style and theme, whose influence among the literary community was by 1980 almost universally acknowledged. One could confidently have predicted that he would be recognized by future generations as a leading figure in the literary history of his time. He won many major awards; in his...

  5. 2 When Stanley Elkin Was a Little Boy: New York and Chicago, 1930–48
    (pp. 8-22)

    About Elkin’s early life we only have sketchy details. There are documented facts, such as his education in Chicago public schools, and friends recall trips they took together. But most stories of Elkin’s childhood are exactly that—stories, many told by Elkin, or secondhand anecdotes by friends and relatives. This dependence on oral history compounds the biographical challenge for three obvious reasons: first, the majority of people who actually knew Elkin as a child are deceased; parents, uncles and aunts, teachers, rabbis, and other supporting adults are long gone, so the anecdotes are for the most part secondhand. Close childhood...

  6. 3 College, Graduate School, and the Army, 1948–57
    (pp. 23-40)

    As a youth Elkin had traveled extensively in the United States. The family made annual trips to New Jersey and visited relatives in Brooklyn and New York. His sister has photographs of Stanley in the Rockies, the Grand Tetons, the nation’s capital, and the Alleghenies. But it was a short journey, from Forest Park to Champaign-Urbana, that would make the most profound change in his young life. Although the distance was merely 130 miles, he would undergo profound personal and intellectual transformations. As the first member of his immediate family to go to college, Stanley enacted the American dream of...

  7. 4 Family Crises, Graduate School, and a Literary Career, 1957–60
    (pp. 41-55)

    For many academics, graduate school is a hard time. Teaching assistants are notoriously underpaid. There are papers to be written, research, intense reading assignments, and seminar preparation. Then there’s always the looming specter of comprehensive exams, seemingly designed to remind the student how little he or she actually knows about the discipline, and the challenge of learning to teach undergraduates and the real mastery of material that university teachers need. And of course there are inexhaustible but exhausting reams of undergraduate papers to read, mark, return, and cope with disappointment and griping. Finally, there’s long-term anxiety about the doctoral thesis,...

  8. 5 “Become a Strong Man”: St. Louis, Europe, First Base, Full Houses, and the Big Time, 1960–65
    (pp. 56-80)

    In the late summer of 1960, Stanley, Joan, and Philip moved to St. Louis. They rented an apartment on Leland Avenue in University City, a hefty walk from Washington University, where Elkin was about to launch his teaching career. St. Louis was a new community to learn about, a mid-sized, middle-American city, whereas Stanley identified himself as a New Yorker and a Chicagoan. He had a new job with new colleagues; very soon he’d encounter challenges in managing the time he needed to teach and write. An unfinished dissertation weighed against an expectation that an earned doctorate would be a...

  9. 6 “Convicted of His Character”: Kibitzers, A Bad Man, Additions, and Catastrophe, 1965–68
    (pp. 81-105)

    The Elkins returned from Massachusetts in triumph. Stanley looked forward to a tenured appointment and an end to the anxiety of negotiating teaching contracts compatible with his writing commitment, but there would be friction sustaining these agreements for several years. He was in the final stages of preparing his collection of stories, which would culminate the work of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and would become his best-selling title, appearing in several editions, throughout his career. WhenCriers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Crierscame out to rave reviews and excellent sales in 1966, Elkin found himself among the literary...

  10. 7 “Strange Displacements of the Ordinary”: Recovery and The Dick Gibson Show, 1968–70
    (pp. 106-120)

    Although he was laid up for only a few months after his heart attack, the world Elkin encountered during his recovery was transformed. Many cultural and political currents had been gathering force during the past four years, and the spring he spent in recovery saw two events that forever changed the United States. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4. Across the nation, protests, riots, and anxiety followed. Two months later, on June 5, presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles, culminating a decade during which America reverted to...

  11. 8 “Blessèd Form”: Novellas, a Sabbatical Year Abroad, and a Death Sentence, 1971–73
    (pp. 121-140)

    Despite Elkin’s and many of his friends’ concerns over the direction in which the country was heading under the Nixon presidency, his family was prospering in St. Louis, where a stimulating social life continued to evolve around his university affiliation and the broader literary community. Bernard recalls that when he was a child, his father enjoyed walking the quarter mile to school, then returning in mid-afternoon with Howard Nemerov, who often used the tall gray house as a watering hole onhisway home. There was a lively mix of university politics, serious discussions, and gossip among several friends, especially...

  12. 9 “Making America Look Like America”: Hollywood Beckons, a Breakthrough Novel, and a Cane, 1974–77
    (pp. 141-162)

    The journey back to St. Louis led to reunions with friends and university colleagues as well as a return to the daily grind of class work. Returning to his Parkview home was a special joy because the family had felt cramped in their Putney flat. Because Stanley was experiencing few symptoms of his newly diagnosed illness, he had some time to adjust to his changed prospects. He didn’t need a cane, he wasn’t using a walker, he hadn’t moved into a wheelchair, though he knew these were coming. He realized an inevitable process of deterioration awaited him, but for the...

  13. 10 Heaven and Hell, St. Louis and Mexico, the First Crusade, and South America: Life’s Greatest Hits and a Major Disappointment, 1978–82
    (pp. 163-193)

    The decade’s final years were the most prosperous and controversial of Elkin’s writing life. Despite his disappointments about the movie of “ The Bailbondsman” and the failure to filmThe Art of War,renewed interest in filming his works flourished as his most influential work to date,The Living End,amused, delighted, or shocked various audiences. Unlike its protagonist, God, who “never found my audience,” Elkin found himself in the unusual position of having the literary community’s attention in ways he’d dreamed about but had never before experienced. With his multiple sclerosis under control, his novels being optioned for films,...

  14. 11 Disney World and Alaskan Rabbis: A Masterpiece, a Flop, the Elkin Essay, and More Bad Medical News, 1983–88
    (pp. 194-216)

    Of course Elkin was disappointed with the poor receptionGeorge Millsreceived in the bookstores despite excellent reviews and a major national award. It was his most ambitious undertaking, and, he was positive, his best novel. Critics and judges got it. So why didn’t the public get it? Why didn’t people buy it? Why did the stores keep sending back returns? But that’s not why he decided to end his career as a novelist. He’d made that decision while writingMills,and it may account for the self-indulgences that fueled returns and consumer disinterest. Having decided thatMillswas his...

  15. 12 “But I Am Getting Ahead of Myself”: Back to the Movies, Another Trilogy, More Awards, and the Last Years, 1989–94
    (pp. 217-240)

    In a poignant moment from “Pieces of Soap,” Elkin confesses that his lifetime habit of collecting mini-soaps from hotels and conference centers, a hobby that undoubtedly traces to his father’s nomadic lifestyle and the souvenirs Phil brought home from his travels, had recently undergone a radical change. For many years friends, admirers, colleagues, and associates sent him hotel soaps from exotic and ordinary places around the world. The essay joyfully acknowledges that with these, like much of his life and art, excess was Stanley’s rule. Various baskets and hampers contained five or six thousand mini-bars. But by the early 1990s...

  16. 13 “The Stanley Elkin Chair”: The Silence Descends, Posthumous Fiction, and Awards
    (pp. 241-250)

    During the early 1990s, the Elkins’ home life changed once more, and some of it wasn’t because of Stanley’s worsening physical condition. Philip married in August 1990 and settled in suburban St. Louis. Two years later, he and Marilyn welcomed a daughter and by all accounts Stanley was a doting grandparent. Jessica delighted in the recently installed stair-glide, gleefully riding up and down with her grandfather. He enjoyed reading to her, though, Philip suspects, the books weren’t always nursery rhymes. Elkin’s personal correspondence from the period often celebrates the great happiness Jessica brought into the Westgate house. Two years later...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 251-270)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-274)
  19. Index
    (pp. 275-282)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 283-284)