Framingham State English Dept. Head
By Susie Davidson
FRAMINGHAM - Miriam Levine, author of Devotion: A Memoir, three poetry collections, and A Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, has released her first novel, “In Paterson”.
Levine chairs the English Department at Framingham State College, where she teaches creative writing and literature. She’s received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, grants from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and has been a fellow at Yaddo and Hawthornden Castle. She’s taught Israeli Literature of the Twentieth Century, and is planning a seminar on Jewish-American writers. Her work has been published in the Paris Review, Kenyon Review, and Harvard Review, among myriad other publications.
“I was raised in a Jewish American family,” she says, “and I draw upon the lives of Jews in America for themes in my writing.”
“In Paterson”, a dark, 1940s portrayal of the Jewish immigrant, loosely echoes a real life New Jersey domestic tragedy. European furrier and widower Ben Shein, her protagonist, is still consumed with the memory of his wife Tess. Nonetheless, he remarries young and beautiful shopgirl Judith Karger, against the prescient advice of his brother Nat. The resultant degeneration of the union leaves Shein’s only child Susan caught in a bitter tangle between father and stepmother.
Other foreboding challenges proliferate the scenarios of the novel, including the gloomy setting of Paterson itself. Despite their outward fortune, the Sheins are tragically victimized by both the unsavory projections of a madman, Joe Mavet, and even the very nature of their business, where they work with the skins of dead animals. It’s a stark overall image of assimilation struggle amid personal disappointment, one that Levine knows herself, in at least some of its elements.
“I grew up in Passaic, NJ,” she says, “was a member of the Passaic YMYWHA, attended the Y summer camp and studied at Temple Emmanuel. My maternal grandparents were from Lodz, my paternal grandparents from a shtetl near Bialystok.
“My early family life in Paterson was troubled,” she continues. “My mother's sister, who lived with us, was mentally ill. My mother suffered from what they now call "post partum depression." My father was on the verge of abandoning us.”
Instead, the house was abandoned. “The Paterson house was torn down years ago,” she adds, “repossessed by the bank, now a weedy lot.”
Less than a year old, Levine began a new life in Passaic in the family’s small apartment near her grandmother. “I lived in the close, dense life of that apartment, full of immigrants,” she says.
She recalls first telling her father of her career choice, following her first year at Boston University. It wasn’t favorably received. “I was nineteen, and had written a few poems. I was up late watching a film on our small, black-and-white TV about Edgar Alan Poe, with his drinking, drugs, and madness - the quintessential, romantic doomed writer. My father silently came into the room. "That's what you like? That’s what you want to be?" Her mother was slightly more supportive. Yet, her father was still alive when she began to publish, and, “I hadn't destroyed myself.”
Her book “Devotion: A Memoir” spells out these early times. “The past is over, isn't it?” she questions.
Apparently not, if “In Paterson” is any indication of the weight of life’s experience still coursing through this prolific writer, teacher and department head’s sensibilities.
Currently, Levine is at work on a new novel and a poetry collection.