Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Big Bang

With Lionel Trilling and Robert Giroux cheerleading, Sam Astrachan had a stellar future. Then the glimmer faded.

Josh Lambert
February 12, 2009

On June 1, 1955, Sam Astrachan graduated from Columbia. On June 2, he moved into a room at Yaddo, the famed artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs. He was 21, one of the youngest writers ever to be so honored, and he had been invited thanks to his professor, Lionel Trilling, at that time the country’s foremost literary scholar.

Astrachan, now living in the south of France, was born in 1934 in the East Bronx, into a large and complex family of Russian Jewish immigrants. His maternal uncles arrived in the U.S. first, and earned fortunes selling furs and working in the shipping industry. His father, Isaac, trained as a doctor in Russia and, once in the Bronx, dedicated himself to treating immigrants and the poor for “fifty cents here, a dollar there,” as the author recalls in an autobiographical novel, Katz-Cohen (1978). When Astrachan was still a teenager, his parents died just a few years apart. An uncle suggested he go to work full-time and enroll in night classes, but Astrachan—who had been nicknamed “Dostoyevsky” when his mother found him reading Crime and Punishment, with tears in his eyes, at age 12, and who, a few years later, read his first short story aloud to his English class at Stuyvesant High School—had set his sights on Columbia, where he could become a writer.

On campus, he made a name for himself in the literary crowd, becoming editor-in-chief of The Columbia Review in his senior year. A friend, Dan Wakefield, describes him in a memoir of the period, New York in the 50s (1999), as the “fledgling novelist who paced Broadway late at night with his hands clasped behind his back.” Trilling, the genteel idol of all of Columbia’s aspiring writers, was so impressed with excerpts of the novel-in-progress that Astrachan published in the Review, and sufficiently sympathetic to Astrachan’s plight as an orphan, that he asked Elizabeth Ames, Yaddo’s director, to set aside a room where the kid could finish his novel about the genesis of a Jewish family in Russia and their transformation into Americans.

After a couple of months at Yaddo, Astrachan returned to Manhattan with a complete manuscript. Trilling then brokered an introduction to another former student, Robert Giroux, the recently named editor-in-chief at Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. “I almost never get myself involved with students who are devoted to creative writing, as it is called nowadays,” Trilling wrote, going on to suggest that Giroux read Astrachan’s manuscript and mentioning that one Columbia colleague had compared the young writer to Thomas Wolfe. “I have it in mind,” he went on, “to bring Astrachan to your attention not as the author of a particular novel but as a writer with a long career before him which you might want to advance and help shape.”

By September of 1955, Giroux had signed Astrachan’s An End to Dying, calling it “one of the most talented first novels to come across my desk in years,” and comparing it to works by Saul Bellow. “We ought to take a lot of time and do a proper build-up,” Giroux suggested in an internal memo, “with advance quotes from people like Bellow and Trilling and Kazin.” The London publisher Victor Gollancz bought British rights to the book for an astonishing $1500, based on Giroux’s and Trilling’s enthusiasm and without even a glance at the prose itself. The young writer, flush with cash, took a celebratory jaunt to Europe. Every indicator augured a colossal debut.

As the months passed, though, problems surfaced. No magazines wanted to print prepublication excerpts, and nobody responded to requests for blurbs. (Trilling remained steadfast in support, but told Giroux that giving “pre-publication statements for promotion purposes” was not his style: “To say yes to some and not to others is an impossible situation for a man who has a great many book-writing friends and acquaintances. . . . I’ll be grateful if your ingenuity can find some way of indicating my strong support of the book without an ad hoc statement.”) In January 1956, Astrachan complained about the book jacket—he felt the photograph made him look too serious, and, contrary to the claim on the inside-front flap that “this is not another autobiographical novel,” insisted on An End to Dying as a fundamentally autobiographical work—but Roger Straus gently informed him it was too late for changes. Then, in April, just as the novel was about to appear in bookstores, Gollancz rescinded his offer to publish in England and asked for his $1500 back. Having only recently read the manuscript, he now predicted it would be one of his “biggest flops,” citing its “positively repellent” subject matter: “Russian background, immigration into America.”

Gollancz was the decidedly universalist, Christian-sympathizing heir of a rabbinical dynasty, but his resistance to An End to Dying can’t be ascribed entirely to distaste for his Jewish roots. As he pointed out, defensively, in a letter to Giroux, he had just purchased Adele Wiseman’s The Sacrifice (1957), which treats material similar to Astrachan’s, because he felt its “superb” quality helped it to transcend what he called the “immense handicap” of its Jewish subject matter.

While Gollancz and Giroux fired angry letters across the Atlantic, An End to Dying appeared in the U.S. to mixed reviews that justified both Giroux’s support and Gollancz’s skepticism. Trade publications raved, and the New Yorker called it “a splendidly affirmative first novel,” but the New York Times was ambivalent: Anzia Yezierska praised Astrachan as “a new talent, one with perhaps a touch of genius,” yet noted that “he does not stop long enough to flesh out his vision and make vital to the reader what is vital to himself,” while an unsigned review observed that the book is “a consummate story-study of a culture and a religion” that “fails . . . to climax.” In Commentary, Suzanne Silberstein agreed, highlighting the book’s “curious unevenness.” When the novel finally appeared in England, in 1958, the Times Literary Supplement echoed these inconclusive assessments: “Astrachan has somehow managed to give us a solid novel though his style is both careless and pretentious.”

Narrated by an autobiographical stand-in for the author—whose name, Sam Star, suggests Astrachan’s vision of himself as a celebrity waiting to be discovered—An End to Dying aspires to relate not just a young man’s maturation, but his complete family history, a project emphasized by the genealogical chart preceding the first chapter. The novel’s first half focuses on Sam’s uncle Jacob Kagan, the grandson of a nearly illiterate fur trader and son of a lumberyard foreman in Russia. Jacob vigorously contradicts the stereotype of the pale Eastern European scholar: a giant—6’4″ and 230 pounds—he “could lift a man over his head and throw him twenty feet.” Refusing to dodge the Tsar’s draft in 1904, he is shot in the leg by his own anti-Semitic officer at the Japanese front. Upon his return to the village of Nishkovitz, he decides to seek wealth: “Not even the czar will spit at a millionaire,” he reasons. Ubermensch that he is (“the truth of life is power,” he remarks at one point), he’s soon the richest Jew in Russia.

The novel’s second half traces the degeneration of a hardy family of nature-loving Russian lumbermen, the Kagans, into a tribe of slick American shysters, the Cohens. Like the Kagans, the Cohens rake in the dough; one of Sam’s uncles is featured in Fortune, lauded as “a poor boy who now controlled millions of dollars.” Sam perceives this not as a happy example of American success, but as a tremendous loss of vitality: “I hate West End Avenue Jews,” he remarks. “They’re all fakes.” As Silberstein pointed out in her Commentary review, Sam personifies Hansen’s Law, an immigration historian’s prediction that third-generation Americans will dismiss their assimilating parents as spiritually bankrupt and idolize their old country ancestors for their perceived authenticity. “I cry,” Sam proclaims, “for all the sons and daughters sucked into the watered-down version of their parents’ watered-down new world existence.” Sam recognizes this emptiness seeping into literature, too: he admires a Yiddish storyteller, Shmyola Bernstein, who hangs around with his family in Russia and France (Astrachan reproduces a couple of his I. L. Peretz-like tales as digressions in the novel), while he disdains Jess Kraut, an American Jewish writer who doesn’t understand Yiddish and hasn’t heard of Bernstein. For ambitious Jess, “In business and art . . . it’s the same thing,” while for Bernstein, “A Jew must always work with the knowledge that he is a Jew.”

Trilling encouraged many young Jewish writers—Irving Feldman, Ivan Gold, and Allen Ginsberg, for example—but Astrachan’s embrace of an earthy Russian Jewish past rather than the materialistic American present goes a long way towards explaining Trilling’s zealous support of him. In an introduction to Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, first published in 1955, Trilling infamously argued that Babel’s fascination with two qualities “made his art”: the brutal violence of the Cossacks and the soulfulness of poor Polish Jews. Trilling contrasted these with the effeteness and spiritual bankruptcy of Babel’s assimilated Odessa Jewish community. It doesn’t take a psychologist to recognize that Trilling was projecting onto Babel his own failings and his disdain for American Jewish life, as he had remarked in a 1944 symposium that “as the Jewish community now exists it can give no sustenance to the American artist or intellectual who is born a Jew.”

Astrachan’s Jacob Kagan personifies both of the qualities Trilling projected onto and admired in Babel. After reading Trilling’s essay during that summer at Yaddo, Astrachan wrote him an enthusiastic letter, pointing out the continuities:

Certainly, if the Jew is to accept the heritage not simply of the ghetto and the concentration camps, but of the Old Testament, he must search out the primitive and appreciate that purity of action. In the first part of my book, Kagan must be seen as a man of natural force and abilities, to be contrasted in the second part with the new-type ghetto mediocrity of the family after arrival in New York City.

Since the recent publication of an unfinished novel unearthed in Trilling’s papers, Cynthia Ozick, Louis Menand, and other critics have observed that Trilling should be understood not just as the major critic of his time, but as a frustrated novelist bitterly disappointed that his fame derived from essays and not fiction. No wonder, then, that he championed a precociously talented student who could flesh out his own theory of Jewishness in a novel; Trilling had managed to express it only in his literary criticism. Trilling’s “support was that of a father,” Astrachan remarked in a recent phone interview, “who let himself think that he himself might want to be living the life that I was living. Because he always wanted to be a writer, a fiction writer.”

As much as it may have gratified Trilling, though, the rush to publish An End to Dying may not have served Astrachan well in the long run. The book sold poorly, and his follow-up, The Game of Dostoyevsky, appeared in 1965 to little fanfare. After a second commercial failure, Giroux couldn’t afford to publish more of Astrachan’s work. A short novel, Rejoice, was published by Dial Press in 1970, and Katz-Cohen, a massive autobiographical saga, appeared from Macmillan in 1978.

Having married Claude Jeanneau, a French sculptor, in 1959, Astrachan split his time, beginning in the 1960s, between Provence and Detroit, where he taught creative writing off and on at Wayne State University. He retired in the late 1990s to Gordes, in the South of France, writing to his old Columbia classmates that if they are “passing through this part of France, Sam will keep a light on for you.” In 1994, his wife translated a brief, and atypically non-autobiographical, novel Malaparte in Jassy (1989), and since then his books have appeared solely in French. Published by a respectable small press, they mostly mine Astrachan’s life and memories, as his debut novel did, and receive favorable notices in Paris; in 1996, Le Nouvel Observateur preferred Astrachan’s Hôtel Seville: Rockaway Beach 1947 to John Irving’s The Imaginary Girlfriend, while Le Monde praised Treife (2004). Few people in America recognize Astrachan’s name anymore—when the New Haven Review published a brief sketch of his in 2007, the editors referred to him as “an American master . . . now unknown in his native country”—and An End to Dying is never mentioned by scholars of American Jewish literature.

Astrachan’s story should serve as a reminder that it is nothing new when publishers push fledgling writers into print, accompanied by press releases celebrating the precocity of young genius—and that, best intentions notwithstanding, such headlong rushes in literary activity may be not only commercial missteps, but unfair exploitations of the ambitions of youth. In December of 1955, Astrachan mentioned to Straus that when he’d looked over his proofs, “It was actually the first time that I’ve read the book through. It is very uneven but if I had to rewrite it, I really don’t know how I would change it.”

Astrachan says, now, that he has no regrets about publishing so early. That he was able at that age to compose a novel as rich and complex as An End to Dying, a forceful tribute to his family history and to Trilling’s thought, is impressive enough. We’ll never know whether a longer road to publication—a year or two sweating through a rewrite, maybe—would have been the apprenticeship he needed to achieve something even greater.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.