A Literary Legend Spares Nothing in His Latest Memoir

By Leonard Kriegel

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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First Loves: A Memoir

By Ted Solotaroff

Seven Stories Press, 299 pages, $24.95.

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Memoir demands the writer be committed to the truth about himself and the truth about others and, though all are ego-driven, the best reflect not merely the author’s life but the world that endowed that life. In his 1998 memoir, “Truth Comes in Blows” (W.W. Norton & Co.), editor and literary critic Ted Solotaroff focused as much on his father as on himself, and the result was a moving account of the bitterly intense relationship between a Jewish-American father and his Jewish-American son. It had one fault, as I wrote at the time in these pages: the author’s refusal or inability to bring to that struggle of Jewish fathers and sons rakhmones, or compassion, for each of them.

Solotaroff played an uncommonly important role in shaping the American literary scene from the 1960s through the Reagan era, as the associate editor of Commentary magazine, then editor of New American Review and as an editor at Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. His latest memoir, “First Loves,” is infused with the weight of the human situation, which is the essence of what we mean by rakhmones, and it makes this book an even better memoir than its rather impressive predecessor. Solotaroff is as unsparing in his portrait of himself as a young man trying to achieve the secular Jew’s goal of mentshlikhkayt as he is in showing that self in the world.

Just as his father is the driving force of “Truth Comes in Blows,” the woman who is first his lover and then his wife dominates “First Loves.” Her presence anchors his world, holds it in place. A burden and a joy, the source of pleasure and pain, Lynn Ringler became Solotaroff’s focus from the moment the 20-year-old Navy veteran saw her emerge from the ocean at the Lido Beach Hotel in New Jersey. Her “brooding inner life” dominated their time together and defined his own quest for a meaningful life. Years passed, ambitions changed — but the neurotic yet vital Lynn remained the woman who brought the world home, often with love, more often with the impassioned cruelty of the psychologically damaged.

But Solotaroff’s story is not only about his marriage. It is also about the course an idealistic young navy veteran aspiring to a career as a labor lawyer takes in becoming a literary man — writer, critic, editor, another in the long line of urban Jews intent on climbing the walls of high culture. However singular, it is a story that was also characteristic of many other young American Jews in the 1940s and 1950s. “First Loves” is the author’s story, yet it speaks for a substantial segment of postwar America. As representative of the 1950s as he is of his struggle for a literary presence, his book reflects the anxiety and pleasure of the intellectual young in midcentury America.

If less sexually “free” than our own time, the decade was also more imaginative. “First Loves” depicts the “greatest generation’s” return to a nation that was not yet comfortable with its role as biggest kid on the international block. Those for whom consciousness was formed during the aftermath of World War II will, I suspect, find that the book demands a personal response. Whether writing of undergraduate days at the University of Michigan or Greenwich Village in the 1950s or graduate school at the University of Chicago, Solotaroff makes his world ours. At Chicago, he at first finds himself overwhelmed by an academic world that is still an extension of WASP America. Yet intellect and art prove richer then than they are today, even as the quest for reputation transforms Solotaroff’s love of literature. And neither he nor Lynn is spared as he shows the fervor with which a generation embraced psychoanalysis as a religion that promised salvation.

Solotaroff views his friends in the same intensively combative manner that he views the university. A fellow New Jersey native, Philip Roth, will choose the career Solotaroff wants but can’t pursue, because he isn’t convinced his talent is great enough and because he must care for his two young sons and his increasingly neurotic wife. Roth will become a successful writer and Solotaroff will become a successful editor, after Norman Podhoretz offered him an position at Commentary. Roth, Podhoretz, Malamud and numerous other literary luminaries crisscross throughout the pages, always in human form.

Yet more interesting than the book’s literary figures are Ringler and Solotaroff, the couple whose marriage is at this memoir’s heart. Solotaroff treats their relationship with the honesty of a man willing to savage memory in the memoirist’s pursuit of the self in the process of formation. As they inflict the pain of love on each other, their struggle is made the reader’s gift — and this time with rakhmones, both for Solotaroff’s scarred wife and for the author himself. What more can we ask of anyone willing to offer his life up to our judgment?

Leonard Kriegel’s last book was the memoir “Flying Solo: Reimagining Manhood, Courage, and Loss” (Beacon Press, 1998).

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