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The day after graduating from Columbia University, 56 years ago this month, a 21-year-old writer headed straight to the artists’ colony Yaddo, where Lionel Trilling had secured a room for him. The young man, Sam Astrachan, had caught Trilling’s attention by publishing excerpts from his novel in The Columbia Review. According to contributing editor Josh Lambert, “Trilling, the genteel idol of all of Columbia’s aspiring writers,” requested a room at Yaddo “where the kid could finish his novel about the genesis of a Jewish family in Russia and their transformation into Americans.”
Lambert points out that while Trilling encouraged other Jewish writers like Irving Feldman and Allen Ginsberg, “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.” That summer, Astrachan wrote to Trilling:
“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.”
Astrachan’s debut novel, An End to Dying, signed by publishing house Farrar, Straus and Cudahy that September, “traces the degeneration of a hardy family of nature-loving Russian lumbermen, the Kagans, into a tribe of slick American shysters, the Cohens.” The largely-autobiographical main character, Sam Star, resents his family’s transformation, lamenting that children of immigrants are “sucked into the watered-down version of their parents’ watered-down new world existence.” Astrachan himself was born in 1934 into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants in the East Bronx, though his real-life parents died when he was a teen.
So what happened to Sam 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”? Mixed reviews and poor sales of the hurriedly published novel and its follow-up, The Game of Dostoyevsky, made Astrachan too expensive for Farrar, Straus and Cudahy to publish. Today he lives in the south of France with his wife, Claude Jeanneau, a French sculptor.
“Astrachan says, now, that he has no regrets about publishing so early,” Lambert reports. “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.”
Read Big Bang, by Josh Lambert
Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.