Professor of English, Emeritus
1933 – 2003
Leonard Michaels, professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley, a short story writer and novelist, died of complications from lymphatic cancer on May 10, 2003 in Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. He was 70 years old. One of the most widely admired prose stylists of his generation, with an uncanny ear for sentence rhythm, he was a writer of the kind who might have rewritten the first sentence of this paragraph 20 times. A fabulist and miniaturist, admirer of Franz Kafka and Isaac Babel, often associated during his lifetime with the American Jewish writers of the previous generation, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, he was also, for a quarter of a century, a gifted teacher of young writers.
He was born in Manhattan on January 2, 1933, and grew up on the Lower East Side. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and he spoke only Yiddish until the age of six. He attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City, where he studied painting, entered New York University at the age of 16 as a premedical student, and graduated in English in 1953. He made two runs at graduate school before getting a Ph.D. on his third assay. From 1953 to 1956, he attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and received a master’s degree in English. He returned to New York to write, then in 1958 began graduate school again at Berkeley, left in 1960 to take a position as assistant professor of English at Paterson State College in New Jersey, where he taught for one year, and then in 1962 he returned to Ann Arbor to complete his Ph.D. studies. It was also in that year, when he was 29, that he sold a first story to Playboy, for $3,000, something like half an instructor’s annual salary at the time. He began teaching at the University of California, Davis in 1966, and finished a dissertation on the poetry of Lord Byron, just as his brief, elegant, phantasmal stories about New York began to be widely published in literary magazines. He received his Ph.D. in 1967 and became an assistant professor at Berkeley in 1969, the year of the publication of his first book of short stories, Going Places, which was nominated for the National Book Award in fiction and was received with extraordinary praise. “The most impressive new American writer to appear in years,” Susan Sontag wrote. “A most gifted new writer,” John Hawkes wrote, in a citation for a literary prize, whose treatment “of anxiety and life-drive strike me as remarkable.”
An anatomist of relationships, Michaels had many of them. He was married first to Sylvia Bloch of New York, who committed suicide in 1963. He met his second wife, Priscilla Older in Ann Arbor, and they came together to Berkeley where his sons Ethan and Jesse were born. His third wife was the poet Brenda Hillman, whom he met in Iowa City in 1975 and married in 1976 in Berkeley. They had one daughter, Louisa. He married Katharine Ogden in 1994, and they lived in Italy, dividing their time between the Tuscan countryside and Rome.
His second collection of stories, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) also received wide praise and was listed by The New York Times as one of the year’s outstanding works of fiction. It was followed by a novel, The Men’s Club in 1981, and then by two books of what he described as “autobiographical fiction,” Shuffle in 1990 and Sylvia in 1992. A book of his essays, often indistinguishable in technique from his stories and autobiographical fictions, To Feel These Things, was published in 1993. Time Out of Mind, a selection of brief aphoristic prose from his journals and diaries, was published in 1999. A book of new and collected stories, A Girl With a Monkey, appeared in 2000, and a book of posthumous stories is forthcoming. He was also the editor, with Christopher Ricks, of The State of the Language, an anthology of essays surveying the condition of written and spoken English. The book was published by University of California Press in 1980 and reissued with new essays in 1990. With David Reid and Raquel Scherr, he edited West of the West, a book of essays, fiction, and journalism about California. Michaels reviewed fiction for The New York Times and was a frequent contributor of short prose to Threepenny Review, whose editor Wendy Lesser remarked of his prose style, “He worked at the sentence level like a poet. He heard the rhythms of his own sentences and he knew how to use them.”
As a teacher, he brought his passion for language to the task. “I sometimes thought,” his colleague Alex Zwerdling wrote in a eulogy delivered to the Berkeley English department, “that injunction in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style —‘Omit needless words’—had been carved into his brain before he learned to talk.” He is said to have startled students of both critical and creative writing by commenting for a whole page on the first three sentences of what they had submitted. He was also, as an analyst of literature, capable of spending an entire class discussing one or two sentences in a story by Franz Kafka or a line in a poem by Wallace Stevens. His most popular course was a study of the autobiographical genre from the Confessions of Augustine and the Confessions of Rousseau to his own favorite work of autobiography, the Essays of Montaigne, to contemporary examples in which, it was said, his eye for sentence rhythm was coupled with the laser by which he detected verbal imprecision and dishonesty.
“The first thing to be said about Leonard Michaels’s stories,” the novelist and short story writer Charles Baxter wrote in a review of A Girl with a Monkey in the San Francisco Chronicle, “is that they are brilliant. Sentence by sentence, they have an electric charge. Rage, intelligence, and obsessive restlessness animate these stories to such a degree that their explosive materials seem ready to ignite at any moment.” Baxter’s review is interesting not only because he is himself such a good writer, but because, a half-generation younger than Michaels, he gives us a view of what Michaels’s stories meant to younger writers. “In Michaels’s first two books the mixture of mordant political commentary and dramatic blackouts created a new terse form in the American short story. In their flash and intensity these stories anticipated the sudden fiction form two decades later, though Michaels was always smarter and more stylish than his imitators. What he does, no one does better.”
In the last decade of his life he found his way back to his métier and was publishing in The New Yorker, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere, a cycle of stories about a Berkeley mathematician named Nachman, who seemed, as a sort of stand-in for their author, a fresh point of view from which to meditate on the themes of reasonableness and the unreasonable heart. His stories, as Charles Baxter remarked, had always been “relentlessly smart about characters who are helplessly at the service of their impulses.” This sense of contradiction which gave his early stories their suddenness, terrible comedy, and—to use a Michaels phrase—their awareness of our constant “proximity to annihilation”, finds a new, more mellow and, though still dark, rather sweet focus in these later stories. His readers sensed that he was writing at the top of his form in the last few years of his life; and his family and friends reported that he was, for a fatalist and comedian of the dire, quite happy in his expatriate life.
He retired from the university in 1994 and was living near Florence with his wife Katharine Ogden at the time of his final illness. His children, Ethan, Jesse, and Louisa, were at his bedside in Berkeley in his last days, and scores of his friends, former students, and fellow writers attended the funeral and memorial service, also in Berkeley.