Praised as a “writer’s writer” for her unique voice and deft style, Hortense Calisher was little known outside the literary community despite winning the highest honors for her novels and memoirs. Calisher began writing after her divorce in her mid-thirties, drawing on her father’s Southern roots and her own experiences as a New York Jew in suburbia to create complex portraits of Jews as outsiders. Honored for her writing with two Guggenheim Fellowships and a National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award, Calisher evolved as a writer throughout her career, writing some of her most ambitious and ground-breaking work in her seventies and eighties and continuing to write and publish until the last years of her extraordinarily long life.
Hortense Calisher was a significant presence in American letters for over forty years, producing novels, short stories, and memoirs of striking originality and intelligence. A relatively late bloomer—she published her first story in 1948 at age thirty-seven—Calisher’s output was impressive: six collections of short stories and novellas, twelve novels, and two autobiographies. She received much critical recognition for her work, including O. Henry Awards for her stories, a National Book Award nomination, two Guggenheim Fellowships, honorary doctorates, and a National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award (1989). She served as president of American PEN (1986–1987) and of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1989–1990). Yet despite the high regard in which the literary community holds her, popular fame has not followed. Calisher’s novels are densely textured works that have earned her the label “writer’s writer.” If there is anything her critics can agree on, it is that she was a consummate stylist.
Early Life and Education
Hortense Calisher was born in New York City on December 20, 1911, the elder of two children of Joseph Henry and Hedwig (Lichstern) Calisher, a German Jewish emigré twenty-two years her husband’s junior. Calisher’s grandfather, born in 1832, was a leader in the Richmond, Virginia, synagogue; he and his family moved to New York City in the late 1800s. Calisher’s father, born in 1861, possessed “a towering pride in his Jewishness and in his southernness” (Herself 59). An autodidact who, his daughter imagined, may have spoken Hebrew with a drawl, Joseph Calisher was a manufacturer of perfumes, soaps, and talcs. He and his future wife, a native of Frankfurt, Germany, met at the Saratoga races in upstate New York. The portrait of him that emerges from Calisher’s autobiographical stories is of a southern fin de siècle dandy as intent on the art of living well as on making a living. Hedwig Calisher, on the other hand, was a steely-minded perfectionist for whom hard work and respectability were life’s cornerstones. Reminiscing about her household, Calisher observed that its clashes of cultures and personalities were “bound to produce someone interested in character, society, and time” (Current Biography Yearbook)—in other words, a writer.
In the very depths of the Depression, in 1932 Calisher graduated from Barnard College with a major in English and a minor in philosophy. She then worked for the New York Department of Public Welfare, visiting 175 families a month. In 1935, Calisher married engineer Heaton Heffelfinger. They had two children, Bennet, now deceased, and Peter, “a kind of art ombudsman,” in his mother’s words.
Initial Writing Career
Calisher spent the 1940s moving from one suburb to another. It was a period of estrangement, as she recounted in her memoir, Herself: “As a New Yorker I am out of it in one way, as a Jew in another (almost all engineers at this time were, like my husband, Christians). And as a secret artist (for I continue writing poems in between the housework) in a third way, perhaps the most significant” (28–29). Eventually, Calisher turned to writing stories, the first of which she composed in her head while walking her son to school. “The Middle Drawer,” which appeared in The New Yorker in July 1948 and won an O. Henry Award, was the first of a dozen autobiographical stories. Three years later, in 1951, the publication of her first book of stories, In the Absence of Angels, established her reputation as a formidable presence in American fiction.
With major life and career changes in the 1950s, Calisher came into her own as a writer. She and her husband divorced. She was twice a Guggenheim Fellow (1952 and 1955), and in 1956–1957 she was an adjunct professor of English at Barnard College. This was the first of over a dozen adjunct or visiting professorships she held. In 1958, she was a U.S. Department of State American specialist’s grantee to Southeast Asia, traveling extensively and giving lectures. On May 23, 1959, Calisher married the writer Curtis Harnack, past president (1971–1987) of the artists’ colony Yaddo.
Continuing to write and publish short stories, Calisher spent several years writing her first novel, False Entry (1961). Spanning decades and worlds—from an upper-middle-class Jewish family of Golders Green, London, to a Klan-dominated Alabama town, and, finally, to a New York City version of the London family—the novel marked a major shift in Calisher’s fiction. What most bewildered many longtime readers of Calisher’s short stories was the complexity of style and form. Cast as his memoir, the novel is an ambitious attempt to explore an intricate, even Jamesian, consciousness. Never content simply to repeat past successes, Calisher would continue in future novels to stretch the bounds, formally and stylistically.
The 1960s saw a great creative outburst: four novels and three collections of novellas and short stories. Calisher’s second novel, Textures of Life(1963), is a domestic novel of manners exploring the initiations into life undergone by young newlyweds. True to form, Calisher followed it, in 1965, with a very different work. Journal from Ellipsia, an antic novel of interplanetary encounters, explores the often uneasy relationship between science and the humanities. Eight years after her first novel, Calisher published its companion, The New Yorkers (1969). In this sprawling social drama, the focal point is the New York Jewish family introduced in False Entry. Here, as throughout Calisher’s fiction, it is character rather than racial or ethnic backgrounds that most engages her. Jewishness is a given rather than a dramatic element.
In the 1970s, Calisher turned to more recognizably contemporary subjects. The coming of age of two New Yorkers is told in Queenie (1971) and Eagle Eye (1973). Standard Dreaming (1972) and On Keeping Women (1977) dramatize middle-aged identity crises. During this decade, Calisher also published an atypical memoir, Herself (1972), a mix of reminiscences, essays, reviews, and musings. In 1975, her Collected Stories appeared to predominantly enthusiastic reviews. Curiously, many of the critics who preferred her stories to her novels cited contradictory criteria. Some praised the stories for their intricate plots, others for the richness of characterization as opposed to plot. The wide divergence of critical response underscores Calisher’s impressive imaginative and formal range.
In 1983, at age seventy-two, when most novelists are hardly breaking new ground, Calisher published perhaps her most ambitious novel, Mysteries of Motion. Her work throughout the 1980s only confirmed her reputation as a writer with a voracious imagination and searing intelligence. In 1985, she published Saratoga, Hot, a collection of “little novels,” and in 1986, The Bobby-Soxer, the only one of Calisher’s novels set in a small American town. A year later Calisher published Age, an unflinching yet elegant novel about old age. Calisher’s second memoir, Kissing Cousins (1988), followed. For the first time since the autobiographical stories, Calisher wrote of her household’s unique blend of German and southern Jews, of northern and southern sensibilities. A fictional Jewish family takes center stage in Sunday Jews (2002), a novel which “might be said to have a Wharton-ish feel to it, that is, if Wharton had written about assimilated Jews rather than status-conscious WASPS.” Calisher then returned to her own memories as the source for her third autobiographical work, Tattoo for a Slave (2004).More than thirty years after publishing her first memoir, she once again traced her family’s years in the South and their transformative move up north, evoking the dichotomy between Southerner and Jew, old and young, American and immigrant. Ironically, the protean nature of this writer may have contributed to her work not being better known. She could not be neatly categorized as primarily a “writer’s writer,” a Jewish writer, or a New York writer. Instead, she continued to spin out new variations on a theme that was both universal and deeply personal.
Hortense Calisher died in 2009 at the age of 97.
Age. Thorndike Press, 1987.
Introduction to The Beautiful and the Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Modern, 2002.
The Bobby-Soxer. Doubleday, 1986.
The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher. Arbor House Publishing, 1975. Reprint 1984.
Eagle Eye. Arbor House Publishing, 1973.
False Entry. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1961.
Herself. Arbor House Publishing, 1972.
In the Absence of Angels. Little Brown & Co., 1951.
In the Palace of the Movie King. Random House, 1994.
In the Slammer with Carol Smith. Marion Boyars Publishers, 1997.
Journal from Ellipsia. Little Brown & Co., 1965.
Kissing Cousins. Grove Press, 1988.“The Middle Drawer.” The New Yorker (July 1948).
Mysteries of Motion. Doubleday, 1983.
The New Yorkers. Little Brown & Co., 1969.
On Keeping Women. Arbor House Publishing, 1977.
Queenie. Arbor House Publishing, 1971.
Saratoga, Hot. Doubleday, 1985.
Standard Dreaming. Arbor House Publishing, 1972.
Sunday Jews. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.
Tatoo for a Slave. Harcourt, 2004.
Textures of Life. Little Brown & Co., 1963.
Introduction to The Turn of the Screw and In the Cage, by Henry James. Modern Library Classics, 2001.
Calisher, Hortense. Letter to author, May 21, 1995.
Snodgrass, Kathleen. The Fiction of Hortense Calisher. University of Delaware Press, 1993, and “Hortense Calisher: A Bibliography, 1948–1986.” Bulletin of Bibliography 45 (March 1988): 40–50.
“Sunday Jews.” Publishers Weekly, 2002
Who’s Who of American Women. Marquis Whos Who, 1993.