Magical Realist Biographies: Isaac Babel

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Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel

Born:  12 July 1894

Died:  15 January 1940

Little known fact:

Babel’s short stories characterize his father as an impoverished shopkeeper and his family as destitute, but in fact, his father dealt in farm implements and owned a large warehouse.

 Better-known fact:

On May 15, 1939, four People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) agents took Isaac Babel from his Moscow apartment.   The NKVD—later the KGB—then eliminated his identity as one of the most celebrated writers of his time, making him a nonperson in the Soviet Union; purged his name from literary dictionaries and encyclopedias; expunged his name from university syllabi; and rendered his name unspeakable in public.


Babel’s body of work is small because of Stalin’s control of cultural activity and the destruction of his manuscripts.  However, the range of Babel’s writing is still impressive:  vivid depictions of ghetto life in Odessa through realistic sketches of army life and war.  

Isaac Babel was born in the poor Moldavanka section of Odessa, the one Russian city where a large Jewish population was permitted and the setting for The Odessa Tales and his play Sunset.

Babel entered the Kiev Institute of Finance and Business after the Jewish quota system frustrated his attempt to enroll at Odessa University.  He published his first story in 1913 while still at the Institute and it was there he met Yevgenia Borisovna Gronfein, daughter of a wealthy industrialist, whom he married in 1919. 

Babel moved to St. Petersburg after graduation in 1916 and met Maxim Gorky who published some of his stories in his literary magazine Letopis—the first inflection point of his writing life.  In March of 1918, Babel began contributing to Gorky’s anti-Leninist newspaper until the Bolsheviks shut it down.

The Odessa Party Committee issued Babel credentials as a war correspondent from June through September of 1920, assigning him to General Budyonny’s Cavalry Army during the Soviet-Polish War (February 1919 – March 1921.)

Right after the end of the nearly coincident Russian Civil War (November 1917 – October 1922,) Babel wrote and published most of the Odessa stories.

Babel moved to Moscow in 1923 and began to write the Red Cavalry stories and the publication of those stories was the beginning of Babel’s real fame—the second and most dramatic inflection point.  However, General Budyonny, a Stalinist insider and the commander Babel had served under in Poland, made his first of many attacks on Babel’s Red Cavalry stories in 1924 just after Lenin’s passing and the beginning of Stalin’s rise to power.

In 1925 Babel’s wife emigrated to Paris, determined not to live under Stalinist domination.  Babel unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile with Yevgenia in Paris in 1928, but their efforts did produce a daughter, Nathalie Babel, who became a scholar and then an editor of her father’s work.  

At the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Babel obliquely criticized the cult of Stalin, and in responding to a comment about his modest output, Babel said he was becoming “a great master of the genre of literary silence.” 

Even so in 1936 Babel received a dacha in Peredelkino as one of the leading figures in the Writers’ Union.  But then Gorky died in June and suddenly Babel’s protector within the Stalinist machine was gone.

The NKVD arrested Babel in 1939 for espionage on behalf of France and Austria based on “evidence” provided by NKVD officials and several fellow writers who had been interrogated earlier. 

In 1953 Stalin died and the following year the government officially exonerated Babel and disclosed a death certificate that stated that he died under unknown circumstances on March 17, 1941.

In 1990 real details of Babel’s interrogation and death reached the Soviet press:  Babel had been executed in the Lubyanka prison on January 15, 1940—after three days of torture, a confession he recanted, a twenty-minute trial, and a pre-ordained sentence for an immediate firing squad.  Babel lived out the famous Kafka search for boundaries between the real and the unreal:  a trial with no basis, the irresistible momentum of an irrational force, and a devaluation of truth.

The abrupt social upheaval and the abolition of imperial censorship drove Babel’s generation in Revolutionary Russia to write in new ways about topics reflecting the brutality of the times, in which differences in perception had very real edges that could be used to take one’s life.  We see these consequences in the stacking up of corpses in the hospital in Babel’s “Report from St. Petersburg” and we try to determine the margins of the narrator’s sensitivities as he notices the aristocrats’ disdain for their murderers even in death.

In Babel’s “The Sin of Jesus” he defines the plight of a vulnerable chambermaid in a hotel and we witness an intervention involving a man with a set of wings—forty years before the “Enormous Wings” described by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez.

Isaac Babel, now acknowledged by some as the most sophisticated Russian prose writer to emerge by mid-20th century, was one of the greatest story tellers in European literature and one of its greatest stylists as well—because all his stories and plays sound and feel different.  They are all varied.  There is no single Babelian style.



“No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.” 

“The orange sky is rolling across the sky like a severed head, gentle light glimmers in the ravines among the clouds, the banners of the sunset are fluttering above our heads. The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.”



Two collections of short stories: Red Cavalry (1926) and Odessa Tales (1927); two plays: The Sunset (1928) and Maria (1935); several tales and a few film scripts.



Babel, Nathalie (ed.) The Complete Works of Isaac Babel.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.


Richard Perkins is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program.  He is working on an historical novel and is revising a collection of connected stories.  



Kurt Vonnegut: Novelist, Essayist, Satirist, Black Humorist, Science Fiction Writer, Humanist, and Magical Realist

Vonnegut_image 4KURT VONNEGUT, Jr. 

Born:  11 November 1922  

Died:  11 April 2007

Little known fact:

When Kurt Vonnegut died, the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department in New York put their American flag at half staff and rang the fire bell used to honor fallen firefighting brothers. His name is still recorded in an old active fire-fighters roster.

 Better-known fact:

Vonnegut, while a prisoner of war, experienced the Allied firebombing of the city of Dresden in February 1945. The Germans pressed Vonnegut and other POW laborers into cleaning up the carnage, an experience that inspired his famous Slaughterhouse-Five and spawned central themes for at least six other works as well.


Kurt Vonnegut’s inclusion in this column stems from his novel Mother Night—a novel about shades of gray in loyalty and treason. He paints realistic settings and characters and there are momentary distortions (for the characters and the reader) in perceptions of events and people that are not decomposed or explained. He was a cross-genre writer whose early identification with science fiction resulted in sometimes labeling him a genre writer until critical acclaim for Slaughter House Five forced reconsideration of earlier work.

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana to third-generation German-American parents from very successful families. Kurt, as a child of the Depression, saw the economic decline of his family and the emotional consequences of the surrender of a lifestyle that included servants and family vacations by steamer to Europe.

Vonnegut entered Cornell University, majoring in chemistry and working in a commercial operation as the Assistant Managing Editor and Associate Editor of The Cornell Daily Sun. Vonnegut reversed his public anti-war stance after Pearl Harbor, dropped out of Cornell, and enlisted in the United States Army. 

Vonnegut prepared for duty as a member of a reconnaissance squad. He went home on leave for Mother’s Day weekend in 1944 to surprise his family, and his mother, struggling to adjust to middle class life, chose that Mothers’ Day to commit suicide. Mothers in his fiction tend to be morbid, crazy or suicidal according to his biographer and self-destruction is present in most of his works in some way according to well-established critics. 

Kurt fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was captured performing his scouting duties. His internment from December 1944 to May 1945 as a POW included another major formative experience alluded to above that colored his writing for more than fifty years.

After returning from World War II, Kurt Vonnegut married his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, and wrote about their courtship in several short stories. He entered the University of Chicago to study anthropology and began to write for several magazines in the early 1950s. His first science fiction story was “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” for Collier’s Weekly. 

In the 1960s the Vonneguts lived in Barnstable, Massachusetts, where Kurt worked at a Saab dealership and tried to concentrate on his fiction. They had three children of their own and they adopted and raised three of his sister’s children after they lost their parents. He accepted a teaching position in the Iowa Writing Workshop at the point where he was about to give up writing in order to support his large family. The Vonneguts separated in 1970 and later divorced. Vonnegut and his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz, adopted and raised a child together.

According to Vonnegut in Bagombo Snuff Box, the University of Chicago, having rejected his first thesis, accepted his novel Cat’s Cradle as his thesis and awarded him an M.A. in 1971.

Themes of strife, brutality, and spiritual loss developed in his first two novels, Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan, continue into Mother Night. In an interview at the University of Iowa after his arrival, he said this exploration of inner space was more personally disturbing to him because of his war experience combined with his German heritage.

The fictive world of Mother Night is the mind of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American who is a successful writer and playwright in Germany before World War II, who, as the war approaches, rejects the notion he must take a moral stand. However, since a moral response is required once war arrived, Campbell finds a solution (offered by American intelligence services before the war started) in the dual allegiances required for espionage.

In unwinding this confessional story, Vonnegut provides us with a spy story, a revenge drama, a romance, and parodies of several other forms. The overall impact suggests an infinite number of connections of persons within a person and places within places as seen in the techniques of Jorge Luis Borges. The reader concludes that these convergences blur the edges between life and art—precisely the dilemma and the indictment of Campbell during and after the war. To be any more explicit here would be to ruin a perfectly good read about the relationship between what we imagine ourselves to be and what we become.



“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ . . . and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

“We must be careful about what we pretend to be.”



Player Piano (1952), The Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1962), Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973), Jailbird (1979), Dead-Eye Dick (1982), and Galápagos (1985). 



Writers Guild of America 1960 — Script, 30 Minutes or Less in Program Length

Guggenheim Fellowship 1967 

Hugo Award 1973 — Best Dramatic Presentation Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) 



Richard Giannone. Vonnegut:  A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.:  Kennikat Press, 1977.

Charles Shields. And So It Goes:  Kurt Vonnegut: A Life. New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 2011., Ryan, Modell, Murray & Gordon April 24, 2007.


Richard Perkins is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program.  He is working on an historical novel and is revising a collection of connected stories.  


Magical Realism Biographies: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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            Born: 3 July 1860  

            Died: 17 August 1935


Little known fact:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was the great niece of Henry Ward Beecher (clergyman and social reformer) and his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin).


Better-known fact:           

Gilman’s Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Relations (1898) became a best seller and made her one of very few commercially successful women writers.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s inclusion in this column stems from her famous story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) because it is a frequently cited example of American magical realism produced before the Twentieth Century—particularly in debates in which magical realism is claimed as the domain of Latin American authors in the Twentieth Century.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born on July 3, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of Mary Fitch Westcott and Frederick Beecher Perkins, a librarian and writer. She was an intense promoter of women’s suffrage and argued in speech and print for women’s social and economic independence. She wrote a number of acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction including poems, plays, essays, critiques, short stories and novels still studied today for their relevancy.

Gilman attended the Rhode Island School of Design and subsequently taught art and designed greeting cards. She married a fellow artist, Charles Walter Stetson, in 1884 and had a daughter in 1885. Gilman entered a sanitarium in Philadelphia in 1887, suffering from depression and neurasthenia. Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell (alluded to in “The Yellow Wallpaper”) prescribed a `rest cure’ that discouraged physical or intellectual stimulation and emphasized living ‘as domestic a life as possible.’ After trying this oppressive regimen for three months, Gilman refused to continue, separated from her husband, and moved to California around 1888. She became involved with social reform and feminist groups, and her resulting national and international presence made her an historical figure as well as a literary figure.

In 1900, she married her cousin George Houghton Gilman, a lawyer in New York City. In 1932 Charlotte was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer, and by 1934 she had moved back to California. Her husband died suddenly in 1934, and she died in late 1935 by a self-administered overdose of chloroform.


“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) is a first person narrative of the descent into madness of a young woman:

“There are things in that paper which nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder—I begin to think—I wish John would take me away from here!”           


In “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” fifteen years later, Gilman explains:

When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.”

“Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and — begging my pardon — had I been there?”

“Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.”


When we consider a work of magical realism, what is actually happening in the Newtonian physics-based world is usually called into question, and the pivot of the story is often contingent on the acceptance or resolution of the ambiguity between one or more working perceptions inside individual characters and inside individual readers. Are there forces at work outside the sensory perception of humans?  Or is there just a lot of energy being expended resolving the differences in perception that is being formed in the mind as the brain processes the sensory inputs?  To have a “beholder” linger over such questions is one many writers and artists seek as objectives.

The concepts of the “beholder’s share” and the use of ambiguity in art and literature are well developed—along with the recent advances in the sciences of the mind and the brain—by Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel in The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to the Present. These notions and this science are useful tools for decomposing magical realism.

In her article about why she wrote it, Gilman removes any ambiguity about her intent, reinforces her activist stances, and makes it clear she meant it to be disturbing enough to make readers linger over it.

“It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”



“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Relations (1898), Concerning Children (1900), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), Suffrage Song and Verses (1911), The Man Made World or Our Androcentric Culture (1911), Moving the Mountain (1911), Herland (1915), With Her in Ourland (1916), His Religion and Hers in 1923, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (1935).



In 1994 Gilman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, New York.



Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, The Forerunner October 1913.

Eric R. Kandel. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York:  Random House, 2012. Merriman. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman:  A Biography,” Jalic Inc., 2006. 


Richard Perkins is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program.  He is working on an historical novel and is revising a collection of connected stories and a novella.