In his New York City journalism career, Stephen Shepard rose to the top in both magazine writing and academia. He served as editor-in-chief of Business Week for 20 years, then became the founding dean of the graduate school of journalism at the City University of New York, the first and only publicly supported school of its kind in the Northeast.
But in recent years, Shepard has been reflecting on a different kind of writing — namely, fiction.
Specifically, Shepard is focused on what he describes as the golden age of Jewish-American writers, beginning in the 1950s and continuing through later decades, including Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick.
Shepard credits these writers, in part, with bringing him back into the fold of Judaism, and lately, he’s been giving them another look.
In his book club of fellow alte kockers (old farts), as he jokingly calls them, he reread three novels by Nobel Prize winner Bellow. He returned to his alma mater, the City College of New York, to study the works of another Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer. And most recently, he wrote a memoir, “A Literary Journey to Jewish Identity: Re-Reading Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Ozick, and Other Great Jewish Writers.”
Poignantly, the self-published book came out just a month before Roth’s death on May 22 at age 85.
“He loomed so large for so long,” Shepard said.
The same can be said for the other writers profiled in the book, who also include playwright Arthur Miller and a non-Jewish literary lion, John Updike, who wrote three novels about a fictional Jewish-American writer, Henry Bech. Of the seven, Ozick is now the only living writer; she turned 90 on April 17.
“I don’t know if I left anybody major out,” said Shepard, who will speak about the book at the 92nd Street Y later this year. “It’s hard. You have to make decisions, choices. I had to limit myself and choose these seven.”
Of that number, Shepard said, “Bellow, Malamud and Roth are considered the big three,” and as he revisited the works of this trio, he revised his opinion of them.
“I appreciated Roth more as I reread him,” Shepard said. “He was one of the few writers who got better with age. He wrote a lot of his books — ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’ ‘American Pastoral,’ ‘The Human Stain’ — well into his 50s, and his last book at 77 years old. It’s an amazing trajectory from when he started as a 26-year-old with ‘Goodbye, Columbus.’”
While Roth’s most famous work might arguably be “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Shepard has high praise for another novel, “The Ghost Writer,” which he calls a turning point in his career.
“It’s just a really terrific novel,” Shepard said, in which the author “really finds a voice for himself in the story” through a new character, Roth’s fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman.
“I felt less enthusiasm for Bellow,” Shepard said, calling him “not a terrific storyteller [with] narrative or plot, compared with Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Philip Roth.”
“His genius was in creating very memorable characters — Herzog, Tommy Wilhelm of ‘Seize the Day,’ Henderson the Rain King … Also, his language is very rich in metaphor, very erudite,” Shepard said.
Shepard reread Bellow’s novels “Herzog,” “Seize the Day” and “The Adventures of Augie March” with his book club, which includes several names well-known in journalism, such as Samuel Norich, president of The Forward, and Jack Rosenthal, a former New York Times editor.
“I would say the group shared my view of a certain disappointment in Bellow,” Shepard said.
Around the same time, Shepard discussed another Jewish Nobelist — Singer — in a classroom setting at City College New York (CCNY).
“Like so many others in the class at City College, his novel ‘Enemies, A Love Story’ stuck with me,” Shepard said. “It’s the only one of his novels set in America, about a Holocaust survivor who hid away in Poland during the war and went to the US after the war. It’s very good.”
Shepard also gained perspective from his classmates in the course — “students of normal college age, who were themselves mostly immigrants,” he said.
“It was very interesting hearing their thoughts about Singer’s immigrant experience. In the short stories, it was very clear why Singer had such universal appeal. Most, all of [the students] were of color, immigrants. The students appreciated him. It was a unique experience for me in the context of the classroom: 10 students, not one Jewish, not one white,” Shepard said.
Shepard could reflect on the changes at CCNY since his own undergraduate days, when it was “the Harvard of the proletariat” for Jews who found the gates of the Ivy League closed to them because of quotas.
Anti-Semitism affected Shepard’s early life in other ways. His family wondered whether prejudice thwarted an uncle who received a master’s degree from MIT but could not find work in private industry. To shield themselves, the family name was changed from Shapiro, and they downplayed their origins.
“If you asked them about Eastern European roots, they said they did not know,” Shepard said. “My mother called it ‘becoming modern.’ I always had a sense, growing up, that Jews were kind of victims.”
This included learning about the Holocaust. “Having a sense, growing up, that Jews were quite often victims, I very much had no interest to be a victim,” said Shepard. “Assimilation, for me, was a form of disguise.”
Yet he remained interested in reading Jewish writers. “Part of why I would do it was to see how they influenced my sense of being a Jew,” Shepard said. “Eventually, I returned. A lot of it is because of my current wife [journalist Lynn Povich]. She’s more observant. We raised our children Jewish.”
He has seen, over the years, how some writers also grapple with issues of Jewish identity, including playwright Miller with the title character in “Death of a Salesman.”
“Arthur Miller always denied Willy Loman was a Jewish character, just a guy in Brooklyn,” Shepard said. “He wanted an Everyman for the success of the play. A lot of people thought that because Arthur Miller was Jewish, Willy Loman was Jewish.”
“Fifty years later,” said Shepard, “Miller admitted [Loman was modeled after] his uncle Manny Newman. [Loman] is a very powerful character, and the play is very powerful, probably for reasons that have nothing to do with Judaism.”
Shepard was also able to connect with another compelling character — Holocaust survivor Rosa Lublin in Ozick’s “The Shawl,” who helped him understand the complexity of the Shoah.
In the novel, Rosa’s daughter is killed in a concentration camp. She herself relocates to the American Midwest.
But, Shepard said, “she’s totally alienated. She can’t get over the Holocaust. It’s a very powerful story.”
Perhaps the unlikeliest member of the seven writers profiled in the book is Updike.
“Of course, he’s the quintessential WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) writer,” Shepard said. “He decided he would start writing something about Henry Bech, a Jewish writer.”
In “that day and age,” Shepard said, a non-Jewish author creating a Jewish character was “not so farfetched” — although Ozick disagreed.
“Cynthia Ozick had a great objection to the character of Henry Bech — an ‘inauthentic Jew,’ was what she said,” Shepard recalled. “She had her own version of what it meant to be a Jew. Henry Bech did not pass muster for her.”
As for Bech himself, Shepard called his character “a very secular, assimilated Jew,” and said he thought Updike’s three Bech books were “very good.”
“They were interesting books, satirizing writers in America, their desire and need to sit down and write books,” Shepard said. “They invited comparison to the Hollywood celebrity status certain writers have.”
“Updike is a terrific writer. It was a pleasure to read him… No American writer, or any Jewish major writers, commented on the books except for Ozick. I thought the criticism was a little unfair. It was a matter of opinion and judgment as to how authentic Henry Bech is,” he said.
All of the authors Shepard revisited helped him reflect favorably on his own largely secular Judaism.
“I think I’m influenced by Jewish writers,” he said. “We think they’re reflecting society, that literature reflects society. It does. It also influences society. Jewish writers, in many cases, write about secular Jews… Not too many write about religious beliefs. It sort of made it okay to be a secular Jew. It permitted me to downplay my own religious ties, and deepened everything else about being Jewish.”