Last April, Oregon State University held a 100th birthday celebration in honor of acclaimed novelist Bernard Malamud, who taught at OSU for 12 years and wrote some of his most influential work there.
The event included discussions of Malamud’s Corvallis days, readings by students from “A New Life,” his 1961 novel about his OSU experience, historical documents and other displays.
The event has led to increased interest in Malamud, who died in 1986, both on campus and in the community.
This year, J.T. Bushnell, an instructor in the College of Liberal Arts, taught a Malamud class, the first time in university history that an all-Malamud course has been offered. Bushnell also has put together a tour of Corvallis and OSU sights (see information box) relevant to Malamud’s experience here.
“I’m hoping to revive the legacy of Malamud for a number of different reasons,” Bushnell said. “And it’s nice for Malamud to have a place in our curriculum. He deserves to be in it. He gave so much.”
In the audience at that 2014 celebration was Robert Leff, an instructor at Linn-Benton Community College. Leff was so fired up by the event that he read all 55 of Malamud’s published short stories searching for ones to adapt into dramatic readings.
With assistance from Bushnell and Oregon State colleagues Jana Zvibleman and Elena Passarello, Leff eventually narrowed the list to four stories that will be performed this weekend at the Majestic Theatre (see information box for details).
“I hope the production will remind those who know Malamud’s work that he is a major American writer who continues to speak to us in the 21st century, and will introduce Malamud to new readers,” Leff said.
Malamud’s birthday is Saturday. In his honor, The E is examining the man and his Corvallis roots, and offering a preview of the Majestic readings.
Malamud, who was born in Brooklyn in 1914, joined the staff of the English Department at then-Oregon State College in 1949. The liberal arts were called the Lower Division in those days and Malamud taught classes in Quonset huts west of Kidder Hall in what is now People’s Park.
Malamud’s lack of a doctorate —“I was nakedly with out a Ph.D.” he said in an introduction to one of his short story collections — prevented him from being able to teach literature classes at Oregon State. But ironically, a major share of his contributions to American literature were produced when he was in Corvallis.
Malamud’s second novel — he burned his first one upon arrival in Corvallis — was "The Natural,” published in 1952. A story about baseball … and other things, it became a best-seller and spawned a major movie which starred Robert Redford in 1984.
Bushnell thinks Malamud’s next novel, “The Assistant,” a Depression-era tale of a Jewish grocer, published in 1957, is his best. Bushnell calls it “a novel that comes as close to perfection as any I’ve ever read.”
In 1958 Malamud published a short story collection, “The Magic Barrel,” which won the National Book Award. An annual storytelling fundraiser in Corvallis is named for the book.
Malamud left his teaching position at OSU in August of 1961 for a position at Bennington in Vermont. The next month “A New Life” was published. The book is a hilarious and biting satire of life at OSU, which is named Cascadia College in the novel. Sexual hijinks, sclerotic bureaucracy and office politics all play out amid a not-so-thinly-disguised Corvallis in the Eisenhower era.
Was there a backlash in town over the book’s scathing portrayal?
“Oh, yes,” Bushnell said. “People felt betrayed and criticized. There were distinct similarities between characters in the book and members of the (English) department. It was said he could look across the room and point to the people who were in the book. It’s a historical snapshot of the way the department functioned and the university functioned. We now have a reinvented department that Malamud could only dream of.”
Indeed, at the 2014 birthday celebration faculty members noted that much of Malamud’s criticism was valid and that the university ultimately was smart enough to change.
On a drizzly Monday afternoon Bushnell took the Gazette-Times on his tour.
We started at the library in the basement of Kidder Hall. In what used to be called the Kerr library, Malamud wrote the title story of “The Magic Barrel,” on a carrel. The story was first published in Partisan Review in 1952, although Bushnell’s research shows it could have been written as early as 1949, his first year at OSU.
Our next stop is People’s Park, a few steps to the west of Kidder, just beyond Gilkey Hall. Here, Quonset huts used to house the English Department. The huts are long gone, with an evocative “stickwork sculpture” now occupying the spot.
We leave campus and head toward 2860 Arnold Way, a house that Malamud rented and where he wrote “The Assistant.” Bushnell has found local telephone directories that note he lived there in 1954, and his sense is that he might have been there a year before that.
In 1955, Malamud bought a house a few blocks away at 445 N.W. 31st St. His two children, Paul and Janna, attended the old Harding Elementary School, which was right across the street. Malamud bought the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house for $12,570. It sold in 2008 for $365,000, although it currently is estimated to be worth approximately $340,000.
Back on campus the tour concludes at Moreland Hall, where Room 214 includes a wall of historic photos of Malamud and some of his colleagues and friends. Upstairs is the Malamud Room, a student lounge that features books, photos and other artifacts. The university also is constructing a digital archive that reflects his career at OSU.
“I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Oregon — its vast skies, forests, coastal beaches — and the new life it offered,” Malamud wrote in the introduction to his selected stories.
And he left town after writing the most memorable book that has ever been written about Corvallis.
“The Magic Barrel,” “Steady Customer,” “The Jewbird” and “A Wig” will be performed Saturday and Sunday at the Majestic. Leff adapted the first two stories. Passarello, an OSU English professor, and playwright David Turkel adapted the other two pieces.
“The show is a celebration of Bernard Malamud and his writings,” Leff said, noting that “Steady Customer” and “A Wig” are less well-known and “probably new to many in the audience."
Six actors will be used: Debbie Wright, Ariel Ginsburg, Chris Kastet, Tim Jaeger, Karen Berg and Dennis Fisher.
“I volunteered because I had worked in theater before,” Passarello said, “and I thought it would be a fun opportunity to exercise those muscles. Once I realized how hard adapting short stories for the stage was, I put David, my playwright boyfriend, in a headlock and forced him to help me out.”
Passarello also said, “I’m excited to celebrate anything that promotes the literary traditions of this university, and I’m so proud of Robert Leff for bringing Malamud’s work to life for Corvallis audiences.”
The weekend shows are essentially a one-time-only enterprise. Leff noted that the agreement the production reached with Malamud’s estate limits the production to one weekend and prohibits the publishing or recording of the show.
Leff also notes that there is another piece of Malamud history in the area. The author once rented a room in the Julian Hotel on Southwest Second Street. Through his window he could see a business sign that said JIM the FIX’R. The sign inspired the name of his 1966 novel “The Fixer,” which won the Pulitzer Price.
The sign is in the Benton County Historical Museum in Philomath. Just another thread in the Malamud tapestry that weaves through the Corvallis area.
WHAT: Original adaptations of four of Bernard Malamud’s short stories
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
WHERE: Majestic Theatre, 115 S.W. Second St.
INFO: 541-738-7669 or majestic.org
Here is a look at Oregon State University and Corvallis sights relevant to Bernard Malamud’s tenure:
KIDDER HALL BASEMENT: Malamud wrote the story “The Magic Barrel” in a carrel in what was the old Kerr library
PEOPLE'S PARK: Quonset huts on this spot west of Kidder used to house the English Department where Malamud taught
2860 N.W. Arnold: Malamud rented the house in the early to mid-1950s and likely wrote “The Assistant” there
445 N.W. 31st: Malamud bought the house in 1955 and lived there until leaving Corvallis in 1961
MORELAND HALL: Photos of Malamud are on the walls of Room 214, a classroom and conference room. Upstairs is the Malamud Room, which includes photos, books and other memorabilia
BORN: April 26, 1914, Brooklyn, N.Y.
DIED: March 18, 1986, New York City
EDUCATION: bachelor’s from City College of New York (1936), master’s from Columbia (1942)
TEACHING POSTS: Oregon State (1949-61), Bennington College (1961-86), visiting lecturer at Harvard (1966-68)
MAJOR WORKS: Novels “The Natural,” “The Assistant,” “A New Life” and “The Fixer” and short story collection “The Magic Barrel”
HONORS: National Book Award for “The Magic Barrel” and “The Fixer”; Pulitzer Prize for “The Fixer”
MORE INFO: The Bernard Malamud Papers at Oregon State University, scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/coll/malamud/index.html