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The following essay appears in American Writers; A Collection of Literary Biographies, Supplement V, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000.  

ERICA JONG  
by Shelley Fisher Fishkin

When Erica Jong published her first book in 1971, she did what many authors do: she held a publication party. But the publication party was held in a fruit and vegetable market, and the author read selections from the book-- a collection of poems entitled Fruits & Vegetables--perched on a crate of grapefruits and oranges. It was a portent of things to come.  Throughout her career Jong would continue to playfully explode conventional expectations about where poetry—and women poets—belonged and whether embracing the flesh of fruits or the fruits of the flesh, in poetry or in prose, Jong would continue to create art that celebrated nature’s earthy bounty.

Jong’s poetry and fiction—particularly her 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying—ignited impassioned debate. Was it art? Was it pornography? And what was a woman doing writing this stuff, anyway? More than any other writer of this era, Jong came to embody the impulse to break out of the stultifying conventions that had so severely limited the roles women could play in American letters. Despite the freshness of her work, however, she is actually heir to a long line of women writers in America—one that begins with seventeenth-century poet Anne Bradstreet, and in the twentieth century embraces figures including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Meridel LeSueur, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Despite the controversy it sparked, Jong’s writing extends a literary tradition established by such quintessentially canonical figures as Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser and Mark Twain.

With her iconoclastic challenges to a literary establishment that had never fully assimilated the achievement of these renegade precursors, Jong pushed American letters to be more open to the idea of a woman writer’s aspirations to come out of the kitchen and dine at the table of literature in her own right. Her poetry, fiction and essays, as well as her much-profiled personal life, depict a particularly robust version of "having it all": bread and roses; work and love; poetry and prose; children and career; laughter and lust; fortune and fame—and fun.


JONG'S BACKGROUND

Erica Jong grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a home in which the arts were central. Her father, Seymour Mann (nĂ© Samuel Weisman), the child of Polish Jews, was a musician. Her mother, Eda Mirsky, the child of Russian Jews who had settled in England before moving to New York, followed the example of her own father (a successful portrait painter and commercial artist) and became a painter. The pair met in the Catskill Mountains when they were teenagers. During the early years of their marriage, Jong’s mother worked as a painter and as a designer of clothing and fabrics, while her father got his first job on Broadway, performing "Begin the Beguine" on stage in Cole Porter’s show Jubilee. But when Eda became pregnant with their first child in 1937, she persuaded her husband to give up show business for work that was more dependable and wouldn’t keep him out at night. He became, as Jong put it, "a traveling salesman of tchotchkes" (household knick-knacks, dolls and gifts). Erica was born in 1942.

She spent much of her childhood in a rambling neo-Gothic apartment that took up the top three floors of a building across the street from the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, in which her grandparents, as well as her parents, lived until shortly after her younger sister was born. Her grandfather’s studio occupied the top floor, and Erica often painted alongside him as a child, with "an extra palette filled with such mellifluous colors as alizarin crimson, rose madder, viridian, cobalt blue, chrome yellow, raw umber, Chinese white," on a little canvas he would stretch for her next to his own. He would rage and roar, Jong recalled, "if I ‘muddied colors’ or failed to take my painting seriously." While Erica’s grandfather had a studio, and her father had an office, her mother had to "set up a folding easel when and where she could and resented this bitterly."

Eda Mirsky had been the best draftswoman and painter in her art school class at the National Academy of Design, and "had every reason to win the top prizes—including the big traveling fellowship—the Prix de Rome." But she was not sent to Rome.

When she won the bronze medal and was told—quite frankly (no one was ashamed to be sexist then)—that she hadn’t won the Prix de Rome because, as a woman, she was expected to marry, bear children, and waste her gifts, she was enraged.

Her mother sacrificed her art to domesticity and paid a constant daily price. "What I remember most about my mother was that she was always angry," Jong recalled.

My mother’s frustrations powered both my feminism and my writing. But much of the power came out of my anger and my competition: my desire to outdo her, my hatred of her capitulation to her femaleness, my desire to be different because I feared I was too much like her. Womanhood was a trap. If I was too much like her, I’d be trapped as she was. But if I rejected her example, I’d be a traitor to her love. I felt a fraud no matter which way I turned. I had to find a way to be like her and unlike her at the same time. I had to find a way to be both a girl and a boy.

Tillie Olsen once observed how "fortunate are those of us who are daughters born into knowledgeable, ambitious families where no sons are born." Jong was such a daughter. Her mother’s stifled creativity and feminist rage, and her father’s need for Erica "to be his son," combined to make a "potent brew" that fueled Erica’s drive and ambition. "The ingredients were just right to make a girl who thought she was allowed to be a boy. But who also had to punish herself for this presumption."

(Jong would recognize the tensions that she felt as typical of her generation. "We held ourselves back in misplaced loyalty to our mothers," she wrote in Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir [1994]. "Since they were not fully free to be assertive, we stayed chained to their limitations as if this bondage were a proof of love…In midlife, with time beating its wings at our backs, we finally snatched the courage to break free. We finally let go of that ambivalence that was our mothers’ collective lot—and we crashed through the glass ceiling inside ourselves, to real freedom.")

From her earliest years, Jong wrote, as well as painted—notebooks, stories, journals, and poems. After graduating from the High School of Music and Art, she attended Barnard College, where she was the editor of the literary magazine and produced poetry programs for the campus radio station. She received her B.A. in 1963 (Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude). Few women writers graced the syllabi in any of her literature courses. "Poetry meant William Butler Yeats, James Dickey, Robert Lowell. Without even realizing it, I assumed that the voice of the poet had to be male."

One of "the most notable and faintly horrifying memories" from Jong’s college years was 

of the time a distinguished critic came to my creative writing class and delivered himself of his thundering judgment: "Women can’t be writers. They don’t know blood and guts, and puking in the streets, and fucking whores, and swaggering through Pigalle at five A.M…." But the most amazing thing was the response—or lack of it. It was 1961 or ’62, and we all sat there, aspiring women writers that we were, and listened to this claptrap without a word of protest.

In 1965, two years after she graduated from Barnard, Erica earned an Master of Arts in English from Columbia University and planned to go on for a doctorate in eighteenth-century English literature when she found herself more drawn to the creative writing that was taking increasing amounts of her time and attention. In 1966, after marriage to a fellow graduate student, Michael Werthman, ended in divorce, Erica married Allan Jong, a Chinese-American psychiatrist. The military sent him to Germany shortly after the marriage, and Erica accompanied him there, where she taught at the University of Maryland Overseas Division and pursued her writing. (She had also taught English at the City University of New York in 1964-1965 and at Manhattan Community College from 1969 to 1970).

Her first book of poetry, Fruits and Vegetables was published in 1971 to critical acclaim. Before her second book of poems—Half-Lives—was published in 1973, Jong had won an award from the American Academy of Poets, the Bess Hokin prize from Poetry Magazine, a Borestone Mountain Award in poetry, the Madeline Sadin Award from the New York Quarterly, and the Alice Faye di Castagnolia Award from the Poetry Society of America. But the event that would catapult Jong from a promising young poet to a world-famous writer was the 1973 publication of her boldly iconoclastic first novel, Fear of Flying, a book that would become one of the top ten bestsellers of the decade and that would earn Jong a permanent niche in American literary history.

"I started with poetry," Jong wrote in What Do Women Want? Bread Roses Sex Power (1998), " because it was direct, immediate, and short. It was the ecstasy of striking matches in the dark. I went on to fiction because fiction can contain satire and social comment and still tell stories." Other novels continued to appear every three or four years during the next two decades: How to Save Your Own Life (1977), Fanny, being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones, (1980), Parachutes & Kisses (1984), Shylock’s Daughter: A Novel of Love in Venice (formerly titled Serenissima: A Novel of Venice) (1987), Any Woman’s Blues (1990), and Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters (1997). Other volumes of poetry appeared as well —Loveroot (1975), At the Edge of the Body (1979), Ordinary Miracles (1983), Becoming Light: New and Selected Poems, (1991), as did memoirs (The Devil At Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (1993) and Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir (1994), a collection of essays What Do Women Want? Bread Roses Sex Power; a multi-genre book about witches, and a children’s book about divorce.

During this enormously productive period, Jong also divorced her second husband, Allan Jong, married and divorced her third husband, writer Jonathan Fast, with whom she had a daughter, Molly Miranda Jong-Fast, and married her fourth husband, Ken Burrows, a lawyer. She was elected President of the Author’s Guild, serving in that capacity from 1991 to 1993, and has been active in a number of other professional organizations (including PEN, the Authors League of America, the Dramatists Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, the Poetry Society of America, the National Writers Union, and Poets and Writers.) 

She was awarded the Premio International Sigmund Freud (Italy) and the United Nations Award of Excellence for literature. She also became an increasingly visible presence on television talk shows and in the feature pages of newspapers and magazines, her life often receiving the kind of media scrutiny usually reserved for elected officials, movie stars and royals.

Jong’s famously autobiographical fiction, jarringly honest poems, and compellingly candid memoirs have been taken to heart by women readers around the world struggling with the age-old challenges that Jong’s mother faced, and that Jong herself negotiated with such aplomb. There is the challenge of how to have life and love, a satisfying role in the world and a satisfying someone to share it with. And there is the challenge of how to combine meaningful work and maternity—in Jong’s mother’s case, art and children; in Jong’s, art and a child. (Jong notes that she "waited until I was fledged as a writer before I succumbed to the seductions of motherhood. Fear of Flying was my emancipation proclamation—which also, by chance, gave me the material success to support the child I bore.") And there is the challenge, ultimately, of forging a sense of identity as a woman in the modern world. It is Jong’s sensitive exploration of all of these challenges that allows her to connect so deeply with her readers.

Jong’s strategy for overcoming the obstacles (ambivalence, mixed signals, timidity, fear) that threaten to thwart the aspiring woman writer involves a combination of artistic innovation, humor, courage, brutal honesty, and an unsparing willingness to mine her personal past for the stuff of poetry and fiction. This approach has been both highly effective—and costly. As she observed, in Fear of Fifty, she has 

written openly about sex, appropriated male picaresque adventures for women, poked fun at the sacred cows of our society. I have lived as I chose, married, divorced, remarried, divorced, remarried and divorced again—and, still worse, dared to write about my ex-husbands! That is the most heinous of my sins—not having done these things, but having confessed to them in print. It is for this that I am considered beyond the pale. No PR can fix this! It’s nothing more or less than the fate or rebellious women. They used to stone us in the marketplace. In a way, they still do.

Jong has received more than her share of harsh treatment from critics and still smarts from the pain. She has probably been the object of more acerbic ad hominum (or ad feminum) attacks than any woman writer of the late twentieth century from reviewers whose objectivity is compromised by the often barely-masked misogynist, and sometimes anti-Semitic tone that underlies their attacks, as Charlotte Templin shows in her illuminating study, Feminism and the Politics of Literary Reputation: The Example of Erica Jong. And while some critics—usually but not always male—seem to have been incensed by the transgressive nature of Jong’s work, other critics—usually but not always female—have taken issue with it for not being transgressive enough. Novels—like Fear of Flying—that were seen as revolutionary when first published sometimes appear to later feminist critics as retrograde or ultimately reactionary. Indeed female-initiated sex itself, a symbol of freedom during the heady heyday of women’s liberation, would be construed by feminists in the 1980s and 1990s as a snare and a delusion that trapped women in their bodies with as much damage as the domesticity of the fifties trapped women in the home.

Targeted by traditionalist critics for being too subversive and targeted by radical critics for being too reactionary, Jong has been wounded but not vanquished. She has dealt with change—change in her life, in American society, in gender relations, in women’s roles in our culture—by writing about it. In 1998 in What Do Women Want? Jong writes,

[W]hen I look back on the years since I left college and try to sum up what I have learned, it is precisely that: not to fear change, nor to expect my life to be immutable. All the good things that have happened to me in the last several years have come, without exception, from a willingness to change, to risk the unknown, to do the very things I feared most. Every poem, every page of fiction I have written has been written with anxiety, occasionally panic, and always uncertainty about its reception. Every life decision I have made—from changing jobs to changing partners to changing homes—has been taken with trepidation. I have not ceased to be fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of change, the fear of the unknown. I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: Turn back, turn back; you’ll die if you venture too far.

Although in her fame, her visibility, and her achievement as a writer surely Erica Jong is exceptional, in her "fears and feelings," Jong claims to be "just like my readers." In What Do Women Want? she explains,

As a writer, I feel that the very source of my inspiration lies in my never forgetting how much I have in common with other women, how many ways in which we are all similarly shackled. I do not write about superwomen who have transcended all conflict. I write about women who are torn, as most of us are torn, between the past and the future, between our mothers’ frustrations and the extravagant hopes we have for our daughters.

It is possible that some day there may come a time when the conflicts and challenges that animate Jong’s work will strike readers as preposterously dated. When that time comes, her poems and novels and essays will provide the historian with invaluable information about that time in the distant past when (for example) women felt bold if they recognized and acted on their sexual impulses, but men felt normal; when achieving a sense of self independent of a partner of the opposite sex was harder for women than for men; when the challenge of having both meaningful careers and children was something men took for granted but women had to struggle with; when critics tended to praise certain habits of prose when they encountered them in male authors, but damn them when they encountered them in female authors. Until that time, however, Jong’s willingness to grapple with these and other issues in person and in print will continue to pull readers into her orbit.

 

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Erica Jong
Photo Credit: Mary Ann Halpin