When an English translation of "Gimpel the Fool" appeared in the Partisan Review in 1953, a number of American intellectuals and literary critics suddenly discovered that some of the most interesting 20th century fiction had been appearing for some years in the Jewish Daily Forward -- in Yiddish.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, who died Wednesday at age 87, first came to America in 1935, the year after his first novel was published in Poland. He had been something of a fixture at the Forward ever since, with a number of stories and serialized novels appearing there.
The son and grandson of rabbis, Mr. Singer was intended for the same career, and actually began his rabbinical studies. But, partly under the influence of his brother, he abandoned those studies for the secular life of a writer of fiction.
His early stories were soaked in the atmosphere of the Polish shtetl, a world of dybbuks and demons, with memories of Hasidism and of false messiahs. But most importantly, the stories and novels are firmly placed in a specific and recognizable physical world, a world in which human emotions (including erotic ones) are strong, sometimes anguished, but always believable, and frequently co-existent with ironic perceptions and judgments.
The later stories extend to the lives of immigrants in New York -- and even to those who have left New York for Florida and a second exile. It is a long way from the Polish shtetl to Miami, as from the Jewish Daily Forward to the New Yorker, but Mr. Singer's fiction travels those distances, and his characters remain familiar in whatever setting.
Mr. Singer believed that the "essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect," and he never forgot the author's duty to "keep the reader interested." As his Nobel Prize citation in 1978 recognized, his "impassioned narratives" reflect the life of "suffering modern man."
As his literary career developed, Mr. Singer attracted an audience far larger than his original Yiddish one. Some liberal Jews actually came to dislike his fiction intensely: It was not at all "enlightened" or revolutionary, and it sometimes represented precisely the dark traditions of superstition and demonic possession that they most wished to reject.
But others came to love his work, to feel it created lives and fates with which they could identify.
In the preface to one of his later works, "Old Love," Mr. Singer remarked that while many young people believe in revolutions, "most older people have learned that hatred and cruelty never produce anything but their own kind.
"The only hope of mankind is love in its various forms and #F manifestations -- the source of them all being love of life, which, as we know, increases and ripens with the years."
Joseph H. Summers is Roswell S. Burrows Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Rochester.