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Guest Post: Hilma Wolitzer on Stanley Elkin

It was such glorious fun to be Stanley Elkin’s friend as well as his reader. He was always wonderfully irreverent and free of sentimentality.  Hence the questionably qualified rabbi (in The Rabbi of Lud) who attends an offshore yeshiva in the Maldive Islands, and likens the services of a “Traveling Minyan” to Meals-on Wheels and the U.S. Postal Service in one breathless paragraph.  Stanley was the same way in conversation—fast, articulate and outrageously funny.  Once, when a cousin of his mentioned that an elderly relative was in diapers, and Joan Elkin said she’d want to be shot if that happened to her, Stanley immediately quipped, “Not me.  I’d want to be changed.”
He was notoriously tough on students, and anyone self-proclaimed as sensitive would be gleefully compared to a heavy duty radial tire.  His competitiveness was legendary.  He was only half-kidding when he expressed pleasure at another writer’s bad reviews and/or poor sales.  Yet when he admired something in your work, he’d tell you so in generous terms.  And Stanley was deeply romantic and filled with sentiment about the people and places he loved.  Nothing made him happier, he said, than to sit in his own living room and look at Joan’s paintings.  When I visited him in St. Louis, he pointed out the Gateway Arch with affectionate pride and no jokes about McDonald’s.  He accepted his lousy medical lot (a bum heart and progressive MS) because he believed it was outweighed by his passion for life.  That passion resonates in his work, even in his darkest fiction.
Hilma Wolitzer is the author of thirteen books, most recently, Summer and Reading, from Ballantine Books.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Hilma Wolitzer on Stanley Elkin

  1. Hilma, thanks for this, big time. I’d forgotten the man’s passion for St. Louis, in my brief reminiscence. I now recall a couple of angry, laughing exchanges about the Cardinals, & in particular about their penchant for trading away superb players. “What’d they get for Steve Carlton?” he grumbled. “A box of nails?”

    1. I do remember a few spot on baseball metaphors in Searches and Seizures. Maybe he spoke to Gass about it; I’ve picked them up in him too, including this beauty in his essay about Hawkes from A Temple of Texts:

      “The world is not simply good and bad on different weekends like an inconsistent pitcher…” (230)

      Of course those two must have been rooting for the Cardinals in ’82 when they played my beloved Brew. I was eight, watching every game. I used to hate Whitey Herzog, but he was certainly one of the most intriguing managers.

  2. So on target Hilma. I was there at Bread Loaf as Stanley’s assistant when some unfortunate student wrote a science fiction story and all he said was “I don’t see a story: either they come here or we go there.” This followed by a smart and severe diatribe about there being enough suffering on earth to write about. One of two occasions where i got to be the good cop. The other was with Mark Strand.
    Anyway i really appreciated your piece. And what a good writer he could be.

  3. You guys all make me feel GREAT! I thank the stars for readers and writers like you all! I’d always admired that crew from St. Lou–Elkin, Gass, Nemerov, Urdang, Mona van Duyn, Charlie Newman, and Donald Finkel. I was among them once when very young and shook like a leaf inside, intimidated by everything about them. Later, I got to know Gass and Newman, enjoying extraordinarily deep conversations about Rilke, Kundera, and Kis. And I met Nemerov in Volcano, Hawai`i, of all places, where I was born and where he came to read one evening. What a titan! Elkin I know only from his books and reputation. I appreciate your fond reminiscences!

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