Rosenfeld's Lives


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Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing

Steven J. Zipperstein

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A haunting consideration of the extraordinary mind of Saul Bellow’s unjustly forgotten friend and literary rival and the extremes of the writing life

Born in Chicago in 1918, the prodigiously gifted and erudite Isaac Rosenfeld was anointed a “genius” upon the publication of his “luminescent” novel, Passage from Home and was expected to surpass even his closest friend and rival, Saul Bellow. Yet when felled by a heart attack at the age of thirty-eight, Rosenfeld had published relatively little, his life reduced to a metaphor for literary failure.

In this deeply contemplative book, Steven J. Zipperstein seeks to reclaim Rosenfeld's legacy by “opening up” his work. Zipperstein examines for the first time the “small mountain” of unfinished manuscripts the writer left behind, as well as his fiercely candid journals and letters. In the process, Zipperstein unearths a turbulent life that was obsessively grounded in a profound commitment to the ideals of the writing life.

Rosenfeld’s Lives is a fascinating exploration of literary genius and aspiration and the paradoxical power of literature to elevate and to enslave. It illuminates the cultural and political tensions of post-war America, Jewish intellectual life of the era, and—most poignantly—the struggle at the heart of any writer’s life.

Steven J. Zipperstein is Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, Stanford University. His previous books include The Jews of Odessa, which received the Smilen Award, and Elusive Prophet, which received the National Jewish Book Award. He lives in Menlo Park, California.

"Steve Zipperstein’s nuanced meditation helps to ensure that the literary genius of Isaac Rosenfeld, and the multiple lessons of his brief, exhilarating, but ultimately heartbreaking life, will not be soon forgotten."—Arnold Rampersad author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography

"This long-awaited biography of Isaac Rosenfeld is far more than a brilliant analysis of the man, his work, and his demons. It is a profound—and profoundly moving—meditation on the fragility of creativity, the caprices of reputation, and the doom of those whose lives are thereby made and unmade."—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza

“Steve Zipperstein writes with such clear-eyed empathy, such patience for his subject's foibles, and such a refreshing lack of moralistic judgment that Isaac Rosenfeld comes to seem like a character Chekhov might have invented—had the Russian master lived to observe the passionate literary friendships and the dog-eat-dog struggles of mid-20th-century New York intellectual life. Rosenfeld's Lives is a fascinating and cautionary tale about how much character, talent, and luck weigh in the mysterious balance that tips a writer toward fame or failure.”—Francine Prose 

"Isaac Rosenfeld was a major critic and writer of the post World War II period, from Chicago by way of New York and Greenwich Village, whose first novel seemed to  promise--as did the early novels of his close friend, Saul Bellow--that great things could be expected to follow. Alas, they did not, and Rosenfeld died young. Steve Zipperstein has reconstructed from what was left behind a fascinating story bringing to life the generation of Jewish writers and critics who emerged from what was still a Yiddish-speaking immigrant world.  Rosenfeld's Lives is a remarkable achievement."—Nathan Glazer, author of From a Cause to a Style


“It is both beautifully written and meticulously researched.”—Jacob Heilbrunn, (review entitled “The Summer's Best Serious Book”)

"Zipperstein has done, in this study, something usually relegated to the domain of novelists: by celebrating the insecurities, the brilliance...of an
individual, he has brought us a little closer to understanding what it means to be human."--Jewish Quarterly

“Isaac Rosenfeld. . . was many things to many people, but no one would say he wasn’t bright. If anything bound the many threads of his dissolute life, incisively recounted in Steven Zipperstein’s biography Rosenfeld’s Lives, it was his intellect, his supreme conviction from childhood onward that what made life worth living was the thought that went into it.”

--Dara Horn, The Jewish Review of Books

"[A] deeply contemplative book. . . . Rosenfeld's Lives is a fascinating exploration of literary genius and aspiration and the paradoxical power of literature to elevate and to enslave. . . . Zipperstein has written a deeply felt but no-holds-barred American fable. Master of a lean, unadorned prose, Zipperstein offers a study evocative of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night or a Greek tragedy. A masterful work, highly recommended for all libraries."—Jewish Ledger

"More than an examination of the life and work of its subject and certainly more than an attempt to make more of the man than his legacy warrants, Rosenfeld's Lives illuminates what it must have been like to be a young Jewish intellectual of that time and place and to live a life fervently devoted to books and ideas. . . . [Zipperstein] writes with passion for his subject, and with enormous sympathy. . . . Rosenfeld's Lives offer an analysis of the man his work that is intimate and scholarly, full of private musings, and fascinated by and insightful about some of the most famous people and texts of the twentieth century."—Anita Norich, Association of Jewish Studies Review

Finalist in the 2010 National Jewish Book Award in the Biography, Authobiography, and Memoir Category sponsored by the Jewish Book Council
ISBN: 9780300171532
Publication Date: March 29, 2011
288 pages, 5 7/8 x 8 15/16
13 b/w illus.