“A Drugstore in Winter” by Cynthia Ozick (1982)

October 24, 2014 | Posted in Essays in America | Tags: ,

Interview in The Guardian, 1 July 2011
Photograph: Tim Knox

Cynthia Ozick was born on April 17, 1928 in New York City to Russian immigrants William Ozick and Celia Regelson. A year later, they sold their drugstore in Manhattan and moved to the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx, where they bought a new pharmacy. (It is this drugstore that Ozick writes about in her essay “A Drugstore in Winter.”) In 1952, at the age of twenty-four, Ozick married lawyer Bernard Hallote; she spent the first many years of their marriage working on a philosophical novel that never got published. She was thirty-seven when her first novel Trust was published in 1966. Ozick didn’t let her “late start” get in the way, though. Essays, short stories, and eventually more novels followed; in 1966, she published a story called “The Pagan Rabbi,” which was then included in her first short story collection, The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories published in 1971. Over the course of her career, Ozick went on to publish six novels, seven collections of short fiction, seven essay collections, and several plays. Of them, she is perhaps best known for her 1989 short story “The Shawl.” Ozick received many awards and grants for her work, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship among them. In 2000, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her essay collection, Quarrel & Quandary.

Essay’s Form

Ozick’s voice, in a lot of ways, is pretty straightforward in “A Drugstore in Winter,” but for when it isn’t, the key to understanding this essay is to read it very closely. While presumably that’s the way we should be reading any essay, it feels particularly urgent with Ozick’s writing here because she packs so much into every line. For instance, take the line, “I am familiar with every frog-haunted monument: Pelham Bay Park is thronged with WPA art–statuary, fountains, immense rococo staircases cascading down a hillside, Bacchus-faced stelae–stone Roman glories afterward mysteriously razed by an avenging Robert Moses.” This single sentence is filled with historical references and rich details that can easily be overlooked or passed by if not understood by the reader. In this interview with Ozick on The Morning News, the interviewer asks her about the “frogs grunting” in her novel Heir to the Glimmering World, which clearly deals with similar themes. Her response offers insight relevant to both the novel and the essay at hand: “And in the ’30s, there were just masses of WPA sculptures and statuary and fountains and there was one particular fountain with frogs in it…All that beautiful sculpture and statuary which was put up by true artists under WPA in the middle of the Depression, Robert Moses came and simply swept away.” Having a fuller context of the piece allows readers to understand and enjoy it on a deeper level.

Additionally, I found Ozick’s poetic language to be striking. Phrases like, “a closed parenthesis mouth, and silver Dickensian spectacles (The Best American Essay of the Century, p.490),” and “he wears his small skeptical quiet smile and receives the neighborhood’s life-secrets (p.492)” show off the author’s skills as a writer.

Immediate Context

This essay was first published in The New York Times Book Review for “The Making of a Writer” column on January 31, 1982 with a different title: “Spells, Wishes, Goldfish, Old School Hurts.” Other writers that contributed pieces for that series were John Sayles, Helen Yglesias, Max Apple, Leonard Michaels, Richard Price, Richard Yates, Paula Fox, and Michiko Kakutani in 1981; John Barth, Francine du Plessix Gray, and James Merrill in 1982 (the same year Ozick’s piece was published); and Donald Hall, Wright Morris, and Eudora Welty in 1983, to name a few.

1982 marked the fifteenth year anniversary of Editor’s Choice, a list The New York Times Book Review put together of what they considered to be the best books of the year. Some of their picks that year were The Burning House by Ann Beattie, Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee, and Beck is Back by John Updike. Theatre critic D. J. R. Bruckner was an editor of The New York Times Book Review the year Ozick’s essay was published.

As well, 1982 was also the year Ozick published Levitation: Five Fictions, her third collection of short stories. In a New York Times Book Review that came out on Valentine’s Day 1982 (just two weeks after “Spells” came out) Leslie Epstein wrote: “The prospect of reviewing a new book by Cynthis Ozick game me great pleasure, since I believe her two previous collections – The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories and Bloodshed and Three Novellas – to be perhaps the finest work in short fiction by a contemporary writer…” but then of Levitation, “But a closer reading has proved unsettling. Each of these works, however dazzling, original and even beauteous, does shy crucially from the kind of resolution we rightly demand from imaginative fiction.”

Subsequent Appearances

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/women-write-susan-cahill/1101075921

After the essay first appeared in The New York Times Book Review, it was then collected in Ozick’s second essay collection Art & Ardor, which came out in 1984. In Art & Ardor, the essay is then titled “A Drugstore in Winter.” It has appeared in other collections, as well. Still with the title “A Drugstore in Winter,” it has been anthologized in The Best American Essays of the Century edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan, in 2000; and in Women Write: A Mosaic of Women’s Voices in Fiction, Poetry, Memoir, and Essay edited by Susan Cahill, in 2004.  Prior to both, the essay appeared with its original title,  “Spells, Wishes, Goldfish, Old School Hurts” in Growing up Jewish: An Anthology edited by Jay David, in 1996.

In Understanding the Essay edited by Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter, literary critic Sven Birkerts writes, “The piece was published in The New York Times Book Review in 1982, back when that weekly supplement allotted space for the occasional free-standing rumination, but even so it is by almost any standard a short essay: fourteen paragraphs, only a few of them long, and several quite short.” On her Web site, writer Ayelet Waldman said of Art & Ardor, “I feel like I learned more about writing from this small essay collection than from anything I ever read before.”

Bibliographical Materials                                                                                        Biography Bibliography                                                                                                                                         Lowin, Joseph “Cynthia Ozick (1928 – .) “Jewish Virtual Library. Web.  http://www.virtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Ozick.html

Austerlitz, Saul “Cynthia Ozick: Ozick’s version of Jewish literature is more than Yiddish words and slapstick.” My Jewish Learning. Web. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/culture/2/Literature/Jewish_American_Literature/1970-2000/Cynthia_Ozick.shtml

Ozick, Cynthia. “A Drugstore Eden.” The New Yorker. 16 Sep. 1996: 56-67. Web.  http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=1996-09-16#folio=056

Smith, Dinitia. “She May Offer Cookies, But She Still Wields A Ferocious Golem.” The New York Times. 5 July 1997. Web.   http://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/05/arts/she-may-offer-cookies-but-she-still-wields-a-ferocious-golem.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

Brockes, Emma. “A life in writing: Cynthia Ozick.” The Guardian. 1 July 2011. Web.  http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2011/jul/04/cynthia-ozick-life-writing-interview

“Cynthia Ozick.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 5 Dec. 2013. Web.  http://en,wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynthia_Ozick

Essay Form Bibliography:                                                                                                               The Best American Essay of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 490-496. Print.

Birnbaum, Robert. “Cynthia Ozick.” The Morning News. 14 Dec. 2004. Web.  http://www.themorningnews.org/article/birnbaum-v.-cynthia-ozick

Immediate Context Bibliography:                                                                               Columbia Libraries Information Online search: “The Making of a Writer” + New York Times  http://ow.ly/rEu5N

Epstein, Leslie. “Stories and Something Else.” The New York Times. 14 Feb. 1982. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/02/14/books/stories-and-something-else.html

Fox, Margalit. “D. J. R. Bruckner, Columnist and Critic, Dies at 79.” The New York Times. 20 Sept. 2013. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/21/books/d-j-r-bruckner-columnist-and-critic-dies-at-79.html?_r+=0

Subsequent Appearances Bibliography: 

Understanding the Essay. Ed. Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2012. 81-89. Web  http://books.google.com/books/about/Understanding_the_Essay.html?id=DCCZA2hEm8gC

Waldman, Ayelet. “BooklogArchives: 2008.” Ayelet Waldman. Dec. 2008. Web. http://www.ayeletwaldman.com/book-log/archives/2008/

Text and images: Jesse Sposato