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The Essays of Leonard Michaels

The Essays of Leonard Michaels

by Leonard Michaels, Katharine Ogden Michaels (Editor)

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Leonard Michaels was a writer of unfailing emotional honesty. His memoirs, originally scattered through his story collections, are among the most thrilling evocations of growing up in the New York of the 1950s and '60s—and of continuing to grow up, in the cultural turmoil of the '70s and '80s, as a writer, teacher, lover, and reader. The same honesty and


Leonard Michaels was a writer of unfailing emotional honesty. His memoirs, originally scattered through his story collections, are among the most thrilling evocations of growing up in the New York of the 1950s and '60s—and of continuing to grow up, in the cultural turmoil of the '70s and '80s, as a writer, teacher, lover, and reader. The same honesty and excitement shine in Michaels's highly personal commentaries on culture and art. Whether he's asking what makes a story, reviewing the history of the word "relationship," or reflecting on sex in the movies, he is funny, penetrating, surprising, always alive on the page.

The Essays of Leonard Michaels is the definitive collection of his nonfiction and shows, yet again, why Michaels was singled out for praise by fellow writers as diverse as Susan Sontag, Larry McMurtry, William Styron, and Charles Baxter. Beyond autobiography or criticism, it is the record of a sensibility and of a style that is unmatched in American letters.

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…it packs a lot of punch and is filled, as was all his work, with sentences that border on poetry…you'll look for a long time to find writing as good as this and thinking as clear.
—The Washington Post
Megan Buskey
…showcases Michaels's timing, wit and instinctively good prose. Whatever the subject matter—and the essays here range from Edward Hopper to the Rita Hayworth vehicle "Gilda" to Yiddish, his first language—Michaels channels the full force of his intellectual and narrative abilities into a voice that is at once sensitive and unyielding.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

These essays, spare and elegant as Michaels alights on a range of subjects, follow the late writer's own precept: "I think we name ourselves, more or less, whenever we write, and thus tend always to write about ourselves." This pungent collection, by a quizzical New York Jew who never quite assimilated, divides into two sections: critical essays and autobiographical essays. Many of these works first appeared in the Threepenny Review, among other publications. The first part includes a brilliant essay "On Love" and another on "Having Trouble with My Relationship." The latter breezily covers figures as diverse as Pope, Larkin, Heidegger and Kafka. Other figures and subjects blowing through these pages include Bellow, Nabokov, Kubrick, Edward Hopper, Wallace Stevens Rita Hayworth, and how to watch a movie. The best and most penetrating essays come in the second section, as Michaels gives a wincing account of family bedtime stories-on pogroms-a happier set of epiphanies on his father, a wise Yiddish-speaking barber; and yet another describing fish-out-of-water experiences at Berkeley. All told, these are soul-baring occasional pieces by a writer's writer and a master stylist. (July)

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Library Journal

In this definitive collection of short nonfiction essays by Michaels (1933-2003), author of Sylvia and The Men's Club, we find two smaller collections of essays-critical and biographical. Michaels analyzes story parts and the origins of the word relationship and its deeper meaning in literature; he pays tribute to an anonymous author, all the while philosophizing and quoting Sartre, Genet, Plato, Joyce, Montaigne, and the Bible. The author writes of being the son of Jewish Polish immigrants, learning English from a neighbor, and growing up in New York City, and he describes his time spent in Michigan, California, and France, among other places. Although the literary references can be overwhelming, there is no arguing that Michaels is an intelligent author, philosopher, and critic of popular culture. Michaels explains that we write about ourselves to learn about ourselves, and he acknowledges that trying to write nonfiction is an act of insanity. This collection, edited by Michaels's widow, is recommended for academic and larger public libraries.
—David L. Reynolds

Kirkus Reviews
A collection of articles by celebrated author Michaels (The Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels, 2007, etc.). Divided into two distinct halves, the volume serves as an assemblage of the author's nonfiction work, much of which was published late in his life. "Critical Essays" includes several free-flowing, loosely constructed entries on a variety of big, important topics like love, death, art and literature. Despite their seemingly heroic ambitions, most of these pieces are brief and playful in their approach-this unassuming manner makes for entertaining reading. In "Some Examples of Murder," Michaels selects great moments from the Bible, Nabokov, Bellow and Kafka and props them up next to each other in an effort to unearth connections and underlying truths. The second section, "Autobiographical Essays," is less successful, mainly because it reflects a more conventional form and style. While many of these nostalgic stories of youth and adulthood are well-written, few are revelatory. At a mere five pages, "The Abandoned House" stirringly captures the inherent fear and recklessness of prolonged adolescence, while "Kishkas" provides a droll assessment ozf the film adaptation of The Men's Club. The best essay is "The Zipper," which centers on Rita Hayworth's role in Gilda and the emotional reaction it caused in the teenaged Michaels. The story successfully synergizes the book's two halves, ably combining the critical eye of the first section with the self-reflection of the second. Contains weaknesses, but largely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating.
From the Publisher

“The new book that dazzled me most this past year, and that I loved the most, was The Essays of Leonard Michaels. . . . [It has] some of the greatest essays I know; they will break your heart and excite your thinking at the same time. Michaels had a trenchant, elegantly forceful style that cut to the bone.” —Phillip Lopate, TheMillions.com

“Leonard Michaels is much beloved by other writers--first and foremost for the angle and thrust of his sentences . . . [He] is as good as any writer you're likely to run across.” —Alex Abramovich, Bookforum

“Brilliant, funny, uncategorizable . . . Rather than aiming for a place beyond language, [Michaels] scratches at experience that's below it: the shivers and shakes that make us embrace, murder and argue with our fellow lonely and desiring human beings.” —Laurie Stone, Los Angeles Times

“Emotionally responsive and intensely intellectual . . . [Michaels's essays] are jewels of experimentation in understanding and feeling.” —Gerald Sorin, Ha'aretz

“A great pleasure . . . These [are] wonderful, surprising essays . . . sharp, funny, opinionated, observant, concise.” —Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

“Brilliant, funny, uncategorizable . . . Rather than aiming for a place beyond language, [Michaels] scratches at experience that's below it: the shivers and shakes that make us embrace, murder and argue with our fellow lonely and desiring human beings.” —Laurie Stone, Los Angeles Times

“Spare and elegant . . . These are soul-baring occasional pieces by a writer's writer and a master stylist.” —Publishers Weekly

“[Brilliant] as an essayist . . . Michaels always brought rigorous intelligence and an understated sensitivity to his subjects. In their lightness of movement and depth of attainment, his longer essays resemble most those of Michel de Montaigne.” —Wyatt Mason, Harper's Magazine Sentences Blog

“A perfectly fitting introduction to the work of one the best writers of the post-WWII era . . . amoung my favorite pieces of writing in any form.” —David Bezmozgis, National Post

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Read an Excerpt

what’s a story?


THRUSTING FROM THE HEAD of Picasso’s goat are bicycle handlebars. They don’t represent anything, but they are goat’s horns, as night is a black bat, metaphorically

Come into the garden . . .

. . . the black bat night has flown.

Metaphor, like the night, is an idea in flight; potentially, a story:

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.

Here, the metaphorical action is very complicated, especially in the syllables of the second line, bubbling toward the period—the way the old lady had children—reflecting her abundance and distress. The line ends in a rhyme—do/shoe—and thus closes, or contains itself. With her children in a shoe, the old lady is also contained. In effect, the line and the shoe contain incontinence; but this is only an idea and it remains unarticulated, at best implicit.

"Can you fix an idea?" asks Valéry "You can think only in terms of modifications." Characters, place, and an action "once upon a time" are modifications deployed in rhythm, rhythmic variation, and rhyme—techniques of sound that determine the psychophysical experience, or story, just as the placement, angle, spread, and thrust of the bicycle handlebars determine horns, a property of goat, its stolid, squat, macho bulk and balls behind, like syllables of a tremendous sentence.

Lo even thus is our speech delivered by sounds significant: for it will never be a perfect sentence, unless one word give way when it has sounded his part that another may succeed it.

Saint Augustine means perfection is achieved through the continuous vanishing of things, as the handlebars vanish in the sense of goat, as the dancer in the dance, as the bat in the night in flight.

Here is a plain sentence from Flannery O’Connor’s story "Revelation," which is metaphorical through and through:

Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps.

Those pumps walk with the weight and stride of the moral being who inhabits them, as she inhabits herself, smugly, brutally, mechanically good insofar as good is practical. The pumps vanish into quiddity of Turpin, energetic heave and thump.

Taking a grander view than mine, Nabokov gets at the flow and sensuous implication of Gogol’s story "The Overcoat."

The story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

No absolute elements, no plot, only an effect of passage, pattern, and some sort of change in felt-time. The temporal quality is in all the above examples; it is even in Picasso’s goat, different parts vanishing into aspects of goat, perfection of bleating, chomping, hairy, horny beast.

The transformation, in this seeing, is the essence of stories:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears.

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

Life is remembered as a dream, her as a "thing," and himself not feeling. Amid all this absence is an absence of transition to the second stanza. Suddenly:

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course;

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

The transformational drama is deliberately exemplified, in the best writing lesson ever offered, by Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. He tells how he forces himself to remember having seen the cowardly and inept bullfighter, Hernandorena, gored by a bull. After the event, late at night, slowly, slowly, Hemingway makes himself see it again, the bullfighter’s leg laid open, exposing dirty underwear and the "clean, clean, unbearable cleanness" of his thighbone. Dirty underwear and clean bone constitute an amazing juxtaposition—let alone transformation of Hernandorena—which is redeemed (more than simply remembered) half-asleep, against the blinding moral sympathy entailed by human fears.

In this strenuous, self-conscious, grim demonstration of his art, Hemingway explicitly refuses to pity Hernandorena, and then he seizes his agony with luxurious exactitude. Though he does say "unbearable," he intends nothing kindly toward Hernandorena, only an aesthetic and self-pitying reference to himself as he suffers the obligations of his story, his truth, or the truth.

The problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of "and then") and the latter belong to art. Most impressive in the transformations above is that nothing changes. Hernandorena is more essentially himself with his leg opened. Wordsworth’s woman is no less a thing dead than alive. The handlebars, as horns, are fantastically evident handlebars.


IN CHEKHOV’S GREAT STORY "The Lady with the Dog," a man and a woman who are soon to become lovers sit on a bench beside the sea without talking. In their silence the sea grows loud:

The monotonous roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, or the eternal sleep waiting for us all. The sea had roared like this long before there was any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, the utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of life on our planet, and its never-ceasing movement toward pefection.

But this man and woman care, through each other, about life, and they transform themselves into the creatures of an old and desperately sad story in which love is the vehicle of a brief salvation before the sound of the sea, the great disorder that is an order, resumes and caring ceases.

The man’s feelings in the story, like those of Wordsworth and Hemingway in their stories, are unavailable in immediate experience. He lets the woman go, time passes, then it comes to him that he needs her, the old story.

The motive for metaphor, shrinking from

The weight of primary noon,

The A B C of being.

The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

He goes to the woman’s hometown, checks into a hotel, and is greeted by the sight of

a dusty ink pot on the table surmounted by a headless rider, holding his hat in his raised hand . . .

A metaphor. To find his heart, he lost his head. Nothing would be written (ink pot) otherwise; nothing good, anyhow, and that is the same as nothing. "There is no such thing as a bad poem," says Coleridge. In other words, it doesn’t exist.

The best story I know that contains all I’ve been trying to say is Kafka’s:

A cage went in search of a bird.

Like the Mother Goose rhyme, it plays with a notion of containment, or containing the uncontainable, but here an artifice of form (cage rather than shoe) is in deadly pursuit of spirit (bird rather than children). A curious metaphysic is implied, where the desire to possess and the condition of being possessed are aspects of an ineluctable phenomenon. (Existence?) In any case, whatever the idea is, Kafka suggests in eight words a kind of nightmare—chilling, magnificently irrational, endless—the story-of-stories, the infinitely deep urge toward transformation. "One portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring," says Blake, a great storyteller obsessed with cages and birds.


THE ABILITY TO TELL A STORY, like the ability to carry a tune, is nearly universal and as mysteriously natural as language. Though I’ve met a few people who can’t tell stories, it has always seemed to me they really can but refuse to care enough, or fear generosity, or self-revelation, or misinterpretation (an extremely serious matter these days), or intimacy. They tend to be formal, encaged by prevailing opinion, and a little deliberately dull. Personally, I can’t carry a tune, which has sometimes been a reason for shame, as though it were a character flaw. Worse than tuneless or storyless people are those with a gift for storytelling who, like the Ancient Mariner (famous bird murderer), go on and on in the throes of an invincible narcissism, while listeners suffer brain death. The best storytellers hardly ever seem to know they’re doing it, and they hardly ever imagine they could write a story. My aunt Molly, for example, was a terrific storyteller who sometimes broke into nutty couplets.

I see you’re sitting at the table, Label.

I wish I was also able.

But so long as I’m on my feet,

I don’t have to eat.

I went to visit her when she was dying and in bad pain, her stomach bloated by a tumor. She wanted even then to be herself, but looked embarrassed, slightly shy. "See?" she said. "That’s life." No more stories, no more rhymes.

Published as "What’s a Story?" as an introduction to Ploughshares, Spring 1986, edited by Leonard Michaels.

Excerpted from The Essays of Leonard Michaels by Katharine Ogden Michaels.

Copyright © 2009 by Katharine Ogden Michaels.

Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

Leonard Michaels (1933-2003) was the author of six collections of stories and essays as well as two novels, Sylvia and The Men's Club. His Collected Stories and novels are available as FSG Classics

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