Malamud worked for a year at $4.50 a day as a teacher-in-training, before attending college on a government loan. He received his B.A. degree from City College of New York in 1936. In 1942, he obtained a Master's degree from Columbia University, writing a thesis on Thomas Hardy. He was excused from military service in WWII because he was the sole support of his widowed mother. He first worked for the Bureau of the Census in Washington D.C., then taught English in New York, mostly high school night classes for adults.
Starting in 1949, Malamud taught four sections of freshman composition each semester at Oregon State University (OSU), an experience fictionalized in his 1961 novel A New Life. Because he lacked the Ph.D., he was not allowed to teach literature courses, and for a number of years his rank was that of instructor. In those days, OSU, a land grant university, little emphasized the teaching of humanities or the writing of fiction. While at OSU, he devoted 3 days out of every week to his writing, and gradually emerged as a major American author. In 1961, he left OSU to teach creative writing at Bennington College, a position he held until retirement. In 1967, he was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1942, Malamud met Ann De Chiara (November 1 1917 - March 20 2007), an Italian-American Roman Catholic, and a 1939 Cornell University graduate. They married on November 6 1945, despite the opposition of their respective parents. Ann typed his manuscripts and reviewed his writing. Ann and Bernard had two children, Paul (b. 1947) and Janna (b. 1952). Janna Malamud Smith is the author of a memoir about her father, titled My Father is a Book.
He completed his first novel in 1948, but later burned the manuscript. His first published novel was the The Natural (1952), which has become one of his best remembered and most symbolic works. The story traces the life of Roy Hobbs, an unknown middle-aged baseball player who reaches legendary status with his stellar talent. The Natural also focuses upon a recurring writing technique that marked much of his work. This novel was made into a 1984 movie starring Robert Redford (described by the film writer David Thomson as "poor baseball and worse Malamud").
Malamud’s second novel, The Assistant (1957), set in New York and drawing on Malamud's own childhood, is an account of the life of Morris Bober, a Jewish immigrant who owns a grocery store in Brooklyn. Although he is struggling financially, Bober takes in a drifter of dubious character.
In 1967, his novel The Fixer, about anti-semitism in Tsarist Russia, won the both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His other novels include Dubin's Lives, a powerful evocation of middle age which uses biography to recreate the narrative richness of its protagonists' lives, and The Tenants, an arguably meta-narrative on Malamud's own writing and creative struggles, which, set in New York, deals with racial issues and the emergence of black/African American literature in the American 1970s landscape.
Malamud is also renowned for his short stories, often oblique allegories often set in a dreamlike urban ghetto of immigrant Jews. Of Malamud the short story writer, Flannery O'Connor wrote: "I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself." He published his first stories in 1943, "Benefit Performance" in Threshold and "The Place Is Different Now" in American Preface. In the early 1950s, his stories began appearing in Harper's Bazaar, Partisan Review, and Commentary.
Most of the stories in his first collection, The Magic Barrel (1958), depict the search for hope and meaning within the bleak enclosures of poor urban settings. The title story focuses on the unlikely relationship of Leo Finkle, an unmarried rabbinical student, and Pinye Salzman, a colorful marriage broker. Finkle has spent most of life with his nose buried in books and therefore isn’t well-educated in life itself. However, Finkle has a greater interest – the art of romance. He engages the services of Salzman, who shows Finkle a number of potential brides from his "magic barrel" but with each picture Finkle grows more uninterested. After Salzman convinces him to meet Lily Hirschorn, Finkle realizes his life is truly empty and lacking the passion to love God or humanity. When Finkle discovers a picture of Salzman’s daughter and sees her suffering, he sets out on a new mission to save her. Other well-known stories included in the collection are: The Last Mohican, Angel Levine, Idiots First, and The Mourners. This last story focuses on Kessler, the defiant old man in need of "social security" and Gruber, the belligerent landlord who doesn't want Kessler in the tenement anymore.
Writing in the last second half of the twentieth century, Malamud was well aware of the social problems of his day: rootlessness, infidelity, abuse, divorce, and more. But he also depicted love as redemptive and sacrifice as uplifting. In his writings, success often depends on cooperation between antagonists. For example, in The Mourners landlord and tenant learn from each other's anguish. In The Magic Barrel, the matchmaker worries about his "fallen" daughter, while the daughter and the rabbinic student are drawn together by their need for love and salvation.
Saul Bellow, also quoting Anthony Burgess: "Well, we were here, first-generation Americans, our language was English and a language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us. Malamud in his novels and stories discovered a sort of communicative genius in the impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York. He was a myth maker, a fabulist, a writer of exquisite parables. The English novelist Anthony Burgess said of him that he 'never forgets that he is an American Jew, and he is at his best when posing the situation of a Jew in urban American society.' 'A remarkably consistent writer,' he goes on, 'who has never produced a mediocre novel .... He is devoid of either conventional piety or sentimentality ... always profoundly convincing.' Let me add on my own behalf that the accent of hard-won and individual emotional truth is always heard in Malamud's words. He is a rich original of the first rank."
"I write a book or a short story three times. Once to understand her, the second time to improve her prose, and a third to compel her to say what it still must say."
"It was all those biographies in me yelling, 'We want out. We want to tell you what we've done to you.'"
"Once you've got some words looking back at you, you can take two or three — or throw them away and look for others."
"Where there's no fight for it there's no freedom. What is it Spinoza says? If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature it's the lesser evil to destroy it."
"All men are Jews, though few men know it."
"Life responds to one's moves with comic counterinventions."
"Without heroes we would all be plain people and wouldn't know how far we can go."
"Life is a tragedy full of joy."
"I write...to explain life to myself and to keep me related to men."
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
O. Henry Award
Given annually since 1988 to honor Malamud's memory, the PEN/Malamud Award recognizes excellence in the art of the short story. The award is funded in part by Malamud's $10,000 bequest to the PEN American Center. The fund continues to grow thanks to the generosity of many members of PEN and other friends, and with the proceeds from annual readings. Past winners of the award include John Updike (1988), Saul Bellow (1989), Eudora Welty (1992), Joyce Carol Oates (1996), Alice Munro (1997), Sherman Alexie (2001), Ursula K. Le Guin (2002), and Tobias Wolff (2006).