Literary awards come and go, but some just stick around quietly separating young writers with promise from those dripping with glitz — especially these days, when hype and hard cash are being thrown at writers in the under-30 class. All of which makes the Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award worth celebrating as it approaches its 40th anniversary.
On April 10, Dara Horn will receive the 2002 Wallant award for “In the Image” (W.W. Norton), a remarkably sophisticated first novel and one that reflects her studies in modern Hebrew literature. The judges were Daniel Walden, longtime editor of the Studies in American Jewish Literature,(University of Nebraska); Lillian Kremer, editor of the recent Routledge two-volume encyclopedia “Holocaust Literature,” and, in the interest of full disclosure, myself.
Horn, a frequent Forward contributor, has said that “In the Image” was an effort to see if the techniques by which modern Hebrew writers incorporated the Hebrew Bible into their secular fiction might work in English. As it turns out, they do. After completing her post-undergraduate studies in Hebrew literature at England’s Cambridge University, she is now finishing her doctorate in Yiddish literature at Harvard. She is a remarkably gifted writer, especially when one realizes that she has never taken a creative writing course and that “In the Image” is her first attempt at writing fiction.
The Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award, consisting of a handsomely illustrated certificate and a $500 cash prize, began as the inspiration of Fran and Irving “Chick” Waltman, a West Hartford, Conn., physician. Both had long been interested in the arts and especially in Yiddish and Jewish-American culture. In 1953, Fran formed a Hadassah reading group that gradually made its way through the novels of Edward Lewis Wallant, today best known for his novel “The Pawnbroker” and the film version that starred Rod Steiger. After Wallant’s untimely death (from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm) in 1962 at age 36, she wanted to do something to memorialize his name. With her husband’s support, the Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award was born. Its purpose is two-fold: to remember Wallant’s contribution to Jewish letters, and to honor a contemporary Jewish-American writer for — and here I quote from the statement that the Waltmans originally drew up — “a creative work of fiction (novel or collection of short stories) that has significance for the American Jew.”
The first award was presented in 1964 to Norman Fruchter for his novel “Coat Upon a Stick.” The panel of judges included Lothar Kohn, a professor of modern languages at Central Connecticut College; Rabbi Samuel Dresner, a theologian at Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass., and the author of some 18 books pertaining to Jewish theology, and Chana Rosen, a teacher and critic. The award ceremony was held at the Hartford Jewish Community Center. The following year Harold Ribalow, the critic who was instrumental in bringing Henry Roth’s long-forgotten masterpiece “Call It Sleep” into paperback, replaced Rosen.
When the Department of Jewish Studies was established at the University of Hartford in l986, the Waltmans felt that the award should be in an academic setting; “We have had the support of the university ever since,” Fran Waltman told the Forward. So far as I know, the Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award was the first one designed to seek out writers at the
beginning of their career and to honor their potential as much as their achievement. Indeed, the award is one of the first to single out Jewish-American writers for attention.
Over the years some very impressive Jewish-American writers have stepped to the lectern to receive their awards and to deliver remarks that, taken together, constitute a history of where Jewish-American fiction once was and where it is now going. When I asked the Waltmans if there were some winners they especially admired, they demurred, saying, “For us this is like picking our favorite child.” However, by simply ticking off the names of such earlier writers as Hugh Nissenson (“A Pile of Stones,” 1965), Chaim Potok (“The Chosen,” 1967), Cynthia Ozick (“The Pagan Rabbi,” 1971) and Arthur Cohen (“In the Days of Simon Stern,” 1973), along with more recent selections such as Melvin Jules Bukiet’s “Stories of an Imaginary Childhood” (1992), Rebecca Goldstein’s “Mazel” (1995), Thane Rosenbaum’s “Elijah Visible” (1986), Allegra Goodman’s “Kaaterskill Falls” (1998) and Myla Goldberg’s “Bee Season” (2000), one begins to see how impressive the winners of this award have been.
Even more telling, perhaps, are the years in which no award was given. This did not happen often — a half-dozen times or so during the award’s 40-year history, with the latest in 2001 — but when no winner was announced, the decision reflected the feeling of the judges that it was more important to maintain the award’s high standards than it was to make previous winners share space with dubious literary company.
I have been a judge of the Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award for 15 years — long enough to know that picking winners is an art rather than a science. As the late Irving Howe liked to quip, Jewish fiction is like the Jews themselves — easy to recognize but hard to define. In most cases, winners of the Wallant award simply announced themselves as I began turning the book’s first pages. Other judges had much the same experience, which accounts for the extraordinary number of times that our votes were unanimous. Granted, not all our authors ended up fulfilling the hopes we had in their first books, but many have and will continue to do so.