Highlights of a Life
“Thomas Berger belongs, with Mark Twain and [H.L.] Mencken and Philip Roth, among our first-rate literary wiseguys.”
– John Romano, New York Times Book Review
“I identify morally with only a handful of souls (a good many of them ghosts on the order of Nietzsche, Melville and Gen. ‘Chinese’ Gordon, the self-made martyr of Khartoum, who said: ‘Our mission in life is the government of self; it is not to remedy or to rule the world… Therefore I have no great interest myself in vast schemes to better the flesh.’)”
– Thomas Berger, New York Times Book Review, April 6, 1980
Thomas Berger was born in Lockland, Ohio, a small neighborhood just north of Cincinnati, on July 20, 1924. He was the son of Thomas C. Berger, a business manager in the public school system in suburban Cincinnati. Young Thomas attended public schools in Cincinnati, and he worked at a branch of the public library while attending Lockland High School. He graduated in 1940, when he was only fifteen years old. “I wanted to be some kind of writer from about the time of my freshman year in high school, on,” he said in the Cincinnati Enquirer in January, 1959.
Berger went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, but left college in 1943 to join the army during World War II. When the war ended he entered Berlin with the U.S. Army occupation forces. He returned to the States in 1946, completing his bachelor’s degree, cum laude, at the University of Cincinnati in 1948.
After graduation, Thomas Berger moved to New York City, never again to live in Ohio. Ten years later, a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer asked him why he moved to New York, and he replied, “Because it is the center of cultural power in the United States. I suppose this is the reason I came East originally. The reason why I stay here is probably apathy.” Later in the interview, Berger commented:
I always wanted to come East because I used to be a cultural snob; then, too, I wanted to get away from home and make my own way. I do not regret having done so. (I don’t even regret my snobbery – a novelist learns to love his past and present weaknesses; at least they are his own.) Intellectually, New York is more sophisticated than any other section of America that I know of, including Cincinnati. No patriotism to one’s home town can blow that fact away.
But Berger wasn’t altogether keen on New York City either, telling the same reporter that he “detested” living there, and that the city made him “uneasy.” In his correspondence with the literary critic Zufikar Ghose [https://www.compedit.com/bergerobserv.htm], on February 19, 1974 Berger said that he didn’t like Boston because
Provincial American cities evoke in me a terrible feeling of desolation as evening falls and the citizenry retires to home, hearth, peevish wife and importunate children. Whereas in Manhattan at any hour of the night one can step into the street and encounter a werewolf or at least a derelict who will vomit on one’s shoes.
Five years later, Berger commented to Ghose, “I couldn’t myself survive in any society that eliminated its eccentrics, perverts, monsters, and madmen.”
Shortly after moving to the Big Apple, Thomas Berger signed up for a writing workshop at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, and there he met Jeanne Redpath, a painter who would become his wife in 1950. That same year, Berger began graduate school at Columbia University. Although he finished the requisite coursework for a Master of Arts at Columbia, he never completed his thesis. In 1951, Berger left graduate school for a staff job at the New York Times Index. He would also work as associate editor at Popular Science Monthly for a short time,before committing himself completely to writing.
Berger said in a 1980 interview with Richard Schickel for the New York Times Book Review: “It requires little courage nowadays for me to discard an unsuccessful piece of work. The real nerve was required in 1956, when after two and a half years of writing I suddenly understood that there was only a handful of pages of [my first novel] ‘Crazy in Berlin’ worth preserving, and I discarded the manuscript and started over.”
Crazy in Berlin was published, at last, in 1958. Its central character, Carlo Reinhart, is a Jewish German-American soldier in occupied Berlin, after World War II. Reinhart returns in three more of Berger’s books: Reinhart in Love (1962), Vital Parts (1970), and Reinhart’s Women (1981). In the New Leader, Jib Fowles described Reinhart as “neither a comedian nor a scapegoat, but he was never far from things comic or painful…. Like most of us, Reinhart could not qualify as a hero or anti-hero; he got through.” A Newsweek reviewer wrote, “Reinhart is an unlikely hero: fat, ‘bloated with emptiness,’ scorned by women and animals, looked through as though he were polluted air, in debt, a voyeur, ‘redundant in the logistics of life,’ he nonetheless is a splendid man. He is novel, quick to forgive and hope.”
Berger’s first two Reinhart novels established him as one of the funniest – and most serious – writers alive. In 1962, he was awarded a Dial fellowship for outstanding work in progress on Little Big Man, the book which would make Thomas Berger a force to be reckoned with. It tells a tale about the Old West, through the eyes of Jack Crabbe, supposedly the only soldier who survived the battle of the Little Big Horn, led by General George Custer. In 1965, the book won Berger a Western Heritage Award, and a Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Little Big Man was not an immediate success, however, when it was first published in 1964. In fact, it wasn’t very well-known before its 1970 motion-picture adaptation, starring Dustin Hoffman. The movie helped to bring awareness to the book, but many critics now feel that the film does not do justice to Berger’s creation. Michael Harris, of the Washington Post Book World, calls the novel “nothing less than a masterpiece. American history itself provided Berger with his types… and in blowing the myths up to ridiculous proportions he paradoxically succeeded in reclaiming history.”
Neighbors, published in 1980, is a farce set in a suburban neighborhood, “parodying all the rituals of neighborliness—the competitiveness, the bonhomie, the striving for civility in the face of what seems to be barbarism,” according to New York Times contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. In a 1980 interview, with Richard Schickel of the New York Times Book Review, Thomas Berger said of Neighbors, “As my 10th novel, begun at the close of my 20th year as a published novelist, it is appropriately a bizarre celebration of whatever gift I have, the strangest of all my narratives… the morality of this work, like that of all my other volumes, will be in doubt until the end of the narrative – and perhaps to the end of eternity, now that I think about it.”
Thomas Edwards of the New York Times Book Review wrote that “Neighbors proves once again that Thomas Berger is one of our most intelligent, witty and independent-minded writers, that he knows, mistrusts and loves the texture of American life and culture as deeply as any novelist alive, and that our failure to read and discuss him is a national disgrace.” Perhaps Berger got his moment of glory when he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Feud, in 1984.
But Berger himself seems content to evade stardom; in the 1980 Schickel interview he said, “I’m afraid that I can see nothing of mine ever making a big splash in my lifetime.” He commented, “the real truth about me is that I am monstrously lazy. To walk abroad one must put on one’s shoes and shave.”
Is Berger truly lazy? He describes his work habits to Schickel: “I seldom get to work before 10 am and then I never write more than four hours. Indeed, two hours would usually be more like it, two hours of actual composition, that is.” To Ghose, Berger commented: “Beginning a book is always difficult for me, and I squander several hours each day before settling down and squeezing out a page—at the end of which I feel extraordinarily well, not only because I’ve done something but also because I can have a drink as reward.”
Berger wrote 23 novels in a period of 46 years, an average of one every two years – a feat that hardly suggests laziness. Berger said to Schickel, “I need some rest between novels, but I can never take much, because real life is unbearable to me unless I can escape from it into fiction. An exception might be made if I could experience something remarkable in actuality, but I find that the older I get the less fecund becomes my non-literary fancy: I’ve either done it or I don’t want to.” He said to Ghose, “I’m never comfortable unless I am working, however much, when working, I yearn to finish what I’m working on.”
In spite of all of his sarcasm, wittiness and cynicism, Berger continues to write, perhaps quite simply because he loves the English language. “A writer’s first and last job is to learn his craft, to learn to use his beautiful, powerful, beloved language; the rest he gets from life,” he said in the 1959 Cincinnati Enquirer interview. To Schickel in 1980, about the publication of Neighbors, Berger said:
I should like the reader to be aware that a book of mine is written in the English language, which I love with all my heart and write to the best of my ability and with the most honorable of intentions – which is to say, I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody’s pity. (I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody else’s business.)