This page is from an archive of Record articles from 1995-2003. For the most recent news, please visit

Widely acclaimed author, professor Stanley Elkin dies

Widely acclaimed author, professor Stanley Elkin dies

Plans are under way for an on-campus memorial service honoring Stanley Elkin this fall. Elkin was the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University, where he served on the faculty for 35 years. Elkin, a resident of University City, died of heart failure at Jewish Hospital on May 31. He was 65.

A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1972 and two heart attacks did not halt Elkin's prolific writing career. His health problems also couldn't keep him from teaching classes at the University and in his home, or from taking travel assignments.

His colleague Wayne Fields, Ph.D., dean of University College and professor of English, said there was never any resignation in Elkin or in the characters he created. Even though Elkin often wrote about illness and mortality, his work was never melancholy, Fields said. "His stories are full of life. There's this wild language stuff going on all the time. The characters in his novels, who are almost always confined in some way, are also breaking their confinements in some incredible fashion.

"They refuse to be constrained even by the threat of death. In his novels dying little kids go to Disneyworld. They don't simply stay home and die. Everything gets more outrageous instead of the notion of learning to live with it. Stanley never learned to live with it and neither do his characters."

Fields called Elkin an "aggressive" MS patient. "Some of the people I have known with diseases like MS just seemed to disappear. He (Elkin), by God, was going to be out there."

Elkin's wife of 42 years, Joan, always was by her husband's side and enabled him to stay active, even after he was confined to a wheelchair, Fields said.

During his career Elkin wrote 17 books -- 10 novels and seven collections of shorter works. His writing has been described as "lyrical, bleak and fantastic" at the same time. Elkin wrote with what critics called an "absurdist bent," creating preposterous fictional characters and situations that allowed him to explore the pain at the heart of the human condition. Josh Greenfeld, in a review for The New York Times, wrote, "I know of no serious funny writer in this country who can match him."

Elkin's novels are populated with a menagerie of characters: slick-talking salesmen, threatening funeral directors, jilted professors, the downtrodden more often than not, who struggle bravely. "The Magic Kingdom" (1985) tells the story of a group of terminally ill children who are taken on an outing to Disneyworld. Naomi Lebowitz, Ph.D., Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, once described Elkin as "a great poet of our pain."

His novel "George Mills," which follows a thousand-year lineage of losers with the same name, from a misguided medieval crusader to a furniture mover in present-day St. Louis, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1982. In a review of "George Mills" Ralph B. Sipper wrote, "Elkin's trademark is to tightrope his way from comedy to tragedy with hardly a slip." (Three other books -- "The Dick Gibson Show" (1971), "Searches and Seizures" (1973), and "The MacGuffin" (1991) -- were nominated for the National Book Award in fiction.) Last year he was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for his collection of novellas "Van Gogh's Room at Arles."

Although he enjoyed high critical praise and international acclaim for many of his books, he never wrote a best seller or realized great popular success. Elkin delighted in language, and his prose is filled with long, loopy sentences containing dashes, parentheses, polysyllables and wordplay. "He has that timing down perfectly," said novelist Geoffrey Wolf in an article for The New York Times. "He pushes you past your endurance, you start to get irritated, he pushes you one inch further and then you love it. When I hear his sentences, I respond with wonder."

A Los Angeles Times reviewer described Elkin as a talented wordsmith who wrote "sentence by bejeweled sentence." His books, however, are not for those with short attention spans. Critics have called Elkin a "writer's writer" and said that he is "an acquired taste." His plots seldom proceed straightforwardly.

"He was like a jazz artist who would go off on riffs," said William Gass, Ph.D., David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities and director of the University's International Writers Center. Gass once said Elkin "has enormous linguistic verve, and he's funny and sad and all the rest of it, but he takes his work to a level that most people are not willing to follow. I don't see him ever becoming a popular writer, because he's too good."

Upon learning of Elkin's death, Chancellor William H. Danforth said, "He was a talented and original writer with a great wit. But I will always think of him as a realist who saw the world and its people with a clear and generous eye."

Elkin was born in the Bronx. His parents, Philip and Zelda, moved to Chicago's South Side when he was 3. His father was a costume jewelry salesman -- a "super pitchman," Elkin said. It was Elkin's father who first inspired him with a sense of story. Elkin began writing stories in grade school. After graduating from South Shore High School in Chicago, Elkin attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, earning a bachelor's degree in English in 1952, a master's degree in 1953 and a doctorate in 1961. He met Joan Jacobson there, and they married on Feb. 1, 1953. He served in the U.S. Army from 1955-57.

Elkin came to Washington University as an English instructor in 1960. By 1969 he had attained the title of full professor. He became the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in 1983.

He was a famed and feared teacher at the University, who didn't want his students to call him Stanley. "I call them Mr., and I expect them to call me Mr.," he used to say. Some students have accused him of being mean. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article Elkin offered this response: "I think some of my students feel that I'm a bit rough around the edges when it comes to dealing with them. I don't see myself as gruff. I see myself as an honest teacher. I never say, 'Hey, don't give up your day job,' but I won't encourage someone who doesn't have what it takes.

"My job is not to tickle them under the wings. Writing is as much an act of criticism as it is of writing."

Students in his workshops have been known to tremble in the wake of his comments. But former student Matt Leibel said he "welcomed the opportunity to have the work discussed on such a high level -- to get that kind of critical feedback."

"His desire, which you can see in his own work, is to push things to extremes and see where they'll take you, in terms of both the sentence and the situation," said former student Elizabeth Graver, now an author herself. "He is a master of metaphor, a meticulous editor. He was a very good teacher for me."

Shortly after coming to Washington University Elkin published his first two novels, "Boswell" (1964) and "A Bad Man" (1967), and a collection of short stories, "Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers" (1966). In the 1970s Elkin completed "The Dick Gibson Show" (1971), "The Franchiser" (1976), and "The Living End" (1979), and a book of three novellas, "Searches and Seizures" (1973).

In 1982 he finished his novel "George Mills," seven years in the making. That same year Elkin was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Elkin later said he thought "George Mills" was the best book he'd ever written and he was worried that he had reached the top of his form and that he might not write any more novels.

But a string of novels followed: "The Magic Kingdom" (1985); "The Rabbi of Lud" (1987); and "The MacGuffin" (1991). His essays were collected in "Pieces of Soap" (1992), and in 1992 he published a collection of three novellas, "Van Gogh's Room at Arles." Along with these works, Elkin also adapted part of his novel "The Rabbi of Lud" into a ballet titled "Notes Toward a Eulogy for Joan Cohen" for the Mid America Dance Company in 1986, and wrote "The Coffee Room" (1986), a radio script first produced by Lorin Cuoco (now the associate director of the International Writers Center) for KWMU-FM in St. Louis, which starred the author; "The Six-Year-Old-Man" (1987), a screenplay; and numerous articles and stories for Harper's, California, Chicago, Playboy, Esquire and other magazines.

At the time of his death he had just completed a novel, "Mrs. Ted Bliss," which Hyperion will publish this fall.

He is survived by his wife, Joan; a daughter, Molly, who lives in Washington; two sons, Philip Elkin of Creve Coeur, Mo., and Bernard Elkin of St. Louis; a sister, Diane Brandwein of Chicago; and two grandchildren.

-- Deborah Parker


Please send comments and suggestions to:
Record Comments < >