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Fellows Find: Finding humanity in the Isaac Bashevis Singer correspondence

Undated photo of Isaac Bashevis Singer, with wife Alma in the background. Unidentified photographer.
Undated photo of Isaac Bashevis Singer, with wife Alma in the background. Unidentified photographer.

Alexandra Tali Herzog, PhD candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, visited the Harry Ransom Center in June 2011 on a dissertation fellowship to investigate the Isaac Bashevis Singer collection. In her dissertation, she examines the interplay between demonology, libertinism, and religion in Singer’s work. Drawing from the theoretical frameworks of both Kabbalah and gender theory, Herzog analyzes Singer’s unorthodox conception of love and sexuality, attending to his recreation of an erotic, subversive “underworld” in the Eastern Europe of his writings—one permeated with mysticism, magic, demons, and antinomianism.

With the very generous support of a dissertation fellowship, I had the incredible opportunity to spend four weeks at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the treasure trove that is the Isaac Bashevis Singer archive. With its 176 boxes and adjacent collections, the impressive Singer archive covers the period from 1935 until Singer’s death in 1991—although I found a few manuscripts from as early as 1923 and as late as 1995.

As a Singer scholar, the most striking discovery for me was the Center’s impressive holdings of unpublished correspondence, a testament to how prolific a letter writer Singer was. These letters show Singer’s constant reflection on ongoing political and social events, the complexity of his writing process, as well as his interest in literature in general. A prominent Jewish American, a Yiddish writer and Nobel Prize winner, Singer was also—as this unique collection of correspondence reminds us —a complex human being who was witty, charming, brilliant, and not to be trusted in the matters of the heart!

Exceptionally poignant are the exchanges between Singer and his second wife Alma—or “Papa-Pu” and “Mama-Pu,” as they used to call each other—before and during their marriage: “You have all the qualities of a lover—none of a husband,” Alma writes to Singer. These invaluable letters shed much light on their relationship and the tormented life Alma had before she left her first husband and their children to marry Singer. It is well known that Singer was unfaithful to his wife and had multiple affairs. However, it is less acknowledged that Alma was aware of his infidelity and seemed to accept it under the condition that what Singer felt for her was true love and not some volatile feeling.

In a letter, she writes: “As far as your letter is concerned, I am not disappointed. I took it for granted that you have a girlfriend there and I don’t see why you are so embarrassed—you are not even in N.Y. in the least faithful to me—and why should you be so in the country? I have only the choice to come to you and to surrender finally or to put up with the matters as they are.”

In a note hand-written in pencil, dated 19.1.38, Singer writes: “I must tell you that I love you so very much—you will not believe nor understand—but it is true, you are my life. What happens besides you is only framework—but I only love you—and this is all that matters.”

Similarly, years later on September 6, 1970, he still presents the same honesty: “I hope you are well and that you can forgive me my follies. No one is perfect. Nothing can diminish my love for you.” He signs this letter to her (as he did many others): “Your most devoted pig.” As with many other women in Singer’s life, Alma not only nurtured him romantically, but she was also involved in his writing career, pushing him to publish in certain journals and helping him get some business contacts.

Aside from the rich personal life to which the correspondence attests, it is also interesting to uncover Singer’s interactions with other writers. For example, I was not aware of his friendship with the American writer Henry Miller. It is well known that when Henry Miller turned 86, he went on a heavy campaign to get the 1978 Nobel Prize. He encouraged his friends, publishers, and acquaintances to participate in a letter-writing campaign in his support. In this context, he asked Singer to write him a letter of support for the prize. Interestingly (and ironically) that is the year that Singer received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Their correspondence is very interesting as it is both personal and professional.

The Harry Ransom Center houses a treasure of marvels, and I am very much looking forward to analyzing the data that I have assembled, which offers a glimpse of the charm and genius of a Yiddish writer who became part of the American literary canon.