Over the past 40 years, Ted Solotaroff has developed a reputation as a distinguished literary critic and editor. Then, in 1998, at 70, he suddenly appeared, full-blown, on the literary stage as a writer, winning the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction for the first volume of his memoirs, "Truth Comes in Blows."
In that narrative, which was also nominated for the National Jewish Book Award, he described a sad, blue-collar American childhood, bracketed by the Depression and World War II; a fractured Jewish world that mirrored the breach between him and his father.
Now Solotaroff offers us postwar America in the 1950s. The memoir, "First Loves," which Solotaroff recalls with an eager and almost innocent candor, is unsparing as it recounts how he fell in love, pursued and eventually married Lynn Ringler, only to lose her as necessary realities -- economic and psychological -- made their claim on his life. It would seem to be a timeless, perhaps universal, story. But in Solotaroff's retelling, it is embedded in a struggle with economic hardship and a sense of despair at being the Jewish outsider. It is a portrait of a particular time and place for Jewish Americans.
Solotaroff emerged from the Navy in 1948 looking for access to America. The G.I. Bill was his ticket out of the house and into to the University of Michigan.
When Solotaroff first meets Lynn at a Long Island summer resort, she is a dining room waitress, smart and beautiful. He, in the more menial role of "staff waiter," is smitten at once. She is more distant and mocking; even rejecting at first. Theirs is not an easy courtship; nor, after its successful arc, an easy marriage. They are battered by poverty, by the struggle to complete college, then graduate school and, eventually, to forge two careers. They are not helped by what sounds like a too early side trip down the road of parenthood and all the accompanying pressures of rearing two young boys.
In the end, it is the personality each has brought to this first love that dooms the marriage. She is bright, funny and ambitious, but also mercurial; dependent as well as rejecting. Near the end of their marital wars they discover that she is bipolar, in need of therapy and psychopharmacological help. He, too, requires a leg up from a therapist.
As he and Lynn dance away from and then toward one another, he recognizes that they each have brought dysfunctional personalities to the marriage bed, almost like a strand of DNA passed along by their parents. Still, letting go seems almost impossible. But at the conclusion of 13 years, in 1963, the end becomes inevitable. With advice from her therapist, Lynn is able to push Solotaroff out of the house, and they are finally free of one another.
The title of the memoir is "First Loves" and clearly it refers to the personal conflict -- the ups and downs of courtship, marriage and divorce; his first love as a young adult. However, much of the passion and pleasure of those days is reserved for Solotaroff's other love -- the path he pursued to become a literary critic. Today, that energy and drive would probably follow a different path to Hollywood and films, especially in Los Angeles. But in the 1950s the noblest profession for a young Jewish intellectual was to become a writer, and the journey often was not the one Solotaroff took through graduate school, writing programs and studying at the feet of the academic New Critics. We meet, through him, writers such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Richard Stern, Commentary Magazine editor Norman Podhoretz and a host of professors and literary critics.
Solotaroff carries the reader along as he struggles to become a writer of short stories, first as an undergraduate in Ann Arbor, Mich., and then as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Soon enough he is forced to face his own limitations: He is not a fiction writer. It helps that one of the competing writers at Chicago is the young Philip Roth.
His professors encourage him to consider a career as a literary critic and scholar. However, nothing in English and American literary studies relates to his own experience or his Jewish identity. Indeed, the process of getting his doctorate looks as though it requires that he assume a different voice and identity, one that is academic, derivative and Christian.
But fortune was with him. The '50s were the decade when Jewish American writers -- Saul Bellow, Malamud and the early Roth -- became a major presence on the literary stage. An appreciative review of Roth's "Goodbye Columbus" for the Chicago Review secured Solotaroff an assignment (with a little help from Roth) from The Times Literary Supplement for a long essay on Jewish American writers; that in turn indirectly landed him a job as an associate editor with Commentary Magazine. He had his own voice now and his own subject, as well. It was a first love that enabled him to enter the Jewish world of letters, which, because of the times, opened the door into America for him.
It was a heady time of discovery, of clearing the way for subsequent generations of Jewish American writers, men and women who would start with a different assumption: of belonging, of knowing that to be Jewish was to be American. Their American experience understandably has occurred in the last quarter of the 20th century, and their memoirs, when they begin to appear in the decades ahead, will illuminate a different Jewish life, complete with its own first loves -- and its own very particular journey, as well. It is almost as though time itself helps define what it is to be a Jew in America.
Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.