Isaac Rosenfeld: A failed genius PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 13 April 2012 00:00
Rabbi James RosenbergRabbi James RosenbergIsaac Rosenfeld (1918-1956) was born in Chicago, where, at the age of 16, he met Saul Bellow (1915-2005); the two young men were to become lifelong friends despite the fact that they were literary rivals.

Many of their contemporaries thought that it would be Rosenfeld, not Bellow, who would one day be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. As it turned out, Bellow wrote Rosenfeld’s obituary for the Partisan Review, which included these dark, dark words: “He died in a seedy, furnished room on Walton Street (Chicago), alone – a bitter death to his children, his wife, his lovers, his father.”

I had never heard of Isaac Rosenfeld or his one published novel, “Passage from Home” (1946), until an acquaintance of mine loaned me a biographical work by Steven J. Zipperstein, “Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing” (Yale University Press, 2009).  In his introduction, Zipperstein explains that it had taken him about 10 years – with many starts and stops – to complete his book.  He acknowledges the oddity and the challenge of choosing to write about a failure even though his subject was a man of extraordinary gifts; in addition to his one published novel, Rosenfeld wrote essays, poetry and hundreds of book reviews for well-respected literary magazines.

Central to Zipperstein’s interest is Rosenfeld’s continuing focus on “the capacity of books to deepen and diminish life, to enrich it but also to render it abstract, fleshless.”  Throughout his tragically short life, he was searching for a balance between head and heart, thought and feeling.  Zipperstein confesses that he resumed his work on the biography “against the background of the end of [his] marriage,” a time when he could draw parallels between Rosenfeld’s deep personal struggle for balance and his own.

“Rosenfeld’s Lives…” shines a light upon the world of the New York Jewish intellectual during the decades of the 1940s and 1950s.  In addition to Bellow, Rosenfeld counted among his friends Alfred Kazin, Delmore Schwartz, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Howe.  Howe, in particular, found in Rosenfeld’s “Passage from Home” a character with whom he himself could closely identify: “the inner experience of a Jewish boy… breaking out of family and entering selfhood: from dark to dark… he suffers, of course, from the same sense of alienation that besets Jews as a group…and the traditional mock-hero of Jewish life, the luftmensch (sic), of whom no one knows how he lives, our intellectual finds recreated in his own being….”

While many of his fellow writers seemed at times to be embarrassed by their Jewishness, Rosenfeld – though often fiercely iconoclastic – did not run away from his Jewish identity.  He was fluent in Yiddish and took delight in the Yiddish stories of both Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Leib Peretz.  Moreover, he still took part in certain Jewish rituals, the Passover Seder in particular.

An especially engrossing theme in Zipperstein’s book is Rosenfeld’s mounting jealousy as Bellow’s literary career takes off with the publications of  “Dangling Man” (1944), “The Victim” (1947) and then in 1953, “The Adventures of Augie March,” which won the National Book Award for Fiction.  With Bellow’s fortunes on the ascent, Rosenfeld’s life went into a downward spiral – his deepening jealousy not only straining his friendship with Bellow but also contributing to the unraveling of his own personality.

Rosenfeld’s behavior became increasingly self-destructive as he sank ever more deeply into an undisciplined bohemian existence in Greenwich Village – with its siren call of freedom from domestic responsibility.  He became obsessed with the bizarre psychological theories of William Reich, who promoted through his “orgone box” the achievement of “total orgasm.”  During this period, Rosenfeld’s marriage to Vasiliki was turning sour, and he remained for the most part remote from his daughter Eleni, born in 1943, and his son George, born in 1947. Even his closest friends were beginning to notice that Rosenfeld was acting more and more like a genius on the skids.

Rosenfeld’s ambitions as a writer knew no bounds.  In a letter to his friend Oscar Tarcov, probably written in 1945, Rosenfeld proclaims: “I want to write so that light spreads from my pages, and everything I touch takes on reality….” It seems to me that despite his prodigious talent, Rosenfeld’s literary aspirations exceeded his abilities; he was too disorganized and, in the end, too dissipated to follow through on any of his sometimes grandiose projects.   It could well be that at some level Rosenfeld understood this about himself and that this realization of his personal and artistic limitations, as much as anything else, led to his fatal heart attack at the age of 38 in that seedy, furnished room on Walton Street.

Rabbi James Rosenberg is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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