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Birth of "writer's writer" Hortense Calisher

December 20, 1911
The front cover of Hortense Calisher's Sunday Jews (Harcourt Books, 2002).

The daughter of a Southern Jewish perfume-maker and a German immigrant, author Hortense Calisher was born on December 20, 1911 in New York City. She wrote about her own family in three memoirs. The last one, Tattoo for a Slave (2004), traces the history of her father’s family from before the Civil War to her own lifetime.

Calisher graduated from Barnard College, where she studied English and philosophy, in 1932. After working briefly for the New York Department of Public Welfare, Calisher got married, moved to the suburbs, and occupied herself mainly with raising two sons. Her first published short story, “The Middle Drawer,” composed while walking her son to school, appeared in the New Yorker in 1948. This story, which won the O. Henry Award, drew upon themes from Calisher’s own life. Most of Calisher’s stories, published in seven short-story collections, along with 15 novels including False Entry and Sunday Jews, feature Jewish characters, but their ethnic identity is usually part of the background rather than the centerpiece of the narratives.

Calisher published her first book of short stories, In the Absence of Angels, in 1951, and her first novel, False Entry, in 1961. She was a Guggenheim Fellow twice and a National Book Award Finalist three times. Though popular fame eluded her, she was lauded as a "writer’s writer" with a wide imaginative and formal range, and has been both praised and criticized for her intricate plot and rich character development.

Calisher lived in New York City and was the past president of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and of PEN. She died at the age of 97 on January 13, 2009.

Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 201-202; www.harcourtbooks.com/bookcatalogs/bookpage.asp?isbn=0151009309&option=authorbio; "Hortense Calisher, Author, Dies at 97," The New York Times January 15, 2009.


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Birth of "writer's writer" Hortense Calisher." (Viewed on March 3, 2024) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/20/1911/hortense-calisher>.