Groundbreaking urban historian Richard Wade always told his students, me included, that the true feel of cities was more likely to be found in literature than in scholarly works. That holds true for this metropolis and can be demonstrated through the works of three Jewish writers who grew up in Saint Paul. They had somewhat similar early experiences, but told their stories in different manners—humorous, serious, and nostalgic—and eventually traveled different paths. One thing the trio has in common, however, is the fact that they are still well worth reading.
William Hoffman: Neighborhood Nostalgia
When the people around us and the little worlds they live in are so real and so much a part of our everyday lives, all that is needed for those of us who write is to be able and willing to perceive with our heart as well as with the eye and to listen.
William Hoffman (1914–1990) was born in an attic apartment over a blacksmith shop, the middle of seven children of Russian Jewish immigrants. He was writing in seventh grade and edited his school’s paper. After graduating from Humboldt High School, he went to the University of Minnesota and ended up with a journalism degree in 1935. He served in the Army from 1942 to 1946. Throughout life, he was engaged in social welfare and community work, crediting Miss Currie of Neighborhood House for fueling his compassionate nature.
The West Side neighborhood that Hoffman remembered was a self-contained community. As he put it, “Were it not for the lure of the Wilder Public Baths and a department store offering Green Stamps, no one would need to leave this area except to be buried.”
Those Were the Days (1957), Tales of Hoffman (1961), Mendel (1969) and West Side Story II (1981) are collections of semiautobiographical vignettes about Jewish life in Saint Paul, mostly on the West Side. They often deal with intergenerational tensions and changing lifestyles. Typically, the Yiddish-speaking mothers live for their children and are hurt when those children stray from traditional ways. The older men are often portrayed through their involvement with religious rituals and the work needed to provide for their families.
In the West Side it was bad, too, but when had it been good? Here, though, the people did not look into garbage cans or buy canned mackerel, for buffalo and carp could still be had for the catching. But more important, the inhabitants thereof had known adversity before, as they had known terrible pogroms and suffering in the little villages thousands of miles away. So they girded their loins for the great depression which cast its shadow over the fair land of promise. . . . These were the proud and stubborn people of the West Side who labored valiantly to hide their despair and fear of unemployment and a lean table from their neighbors and from their children.
—William Hoffman, Tales of Hoffman
Max Shulman: Comedic Compositions
Facts are essential to comedy. . . . Recognizable facts and verifiable details give the appearance of reality you need to make comedy stand up . . . you’ve got all the rules of fiction to follow in humor writing—plus you’ve got to make somebody laugh too.
Some men love women, some love other men, some love dogs and horses, and occasionally you find one who loves his raincoat. Me, I love a hotel.
Humorist Max Shulman (1919–1988) was the son of an immigrant Russian house painter. One reviewer has suggested that he used humor as a way of making a life of poverty more bearable. He started writing as a child and graduated in 1936 from Central High School while living at 701 Selby. He majored in journalism at the University of Minnesota, received his degree in 1941, and served in the army during World War II.
One of Shulman’s Minnesota Daily columns caught the attention of a Doubleday editor, who asked him to submit a novel. It became Barefoot Boy With Cheek (1943), a satirical look at life at the U of M. Its opening lines are characteristic of his style: “St. Paul and Minneapolis extend from the Mississippi River like the legs on a pair of trousers. Where they join is the University of Minnesota.” It was later adapted for a Broadway play that ran for two years.
Some of his next novels—all of them humorous—were at least partially set in Minnesota, but the plots of later ones mostly occurred outside the state. Shulman consistently published short stories in magazines such as Collier’s, Esquire, and Playboy. He is probably best known for a television series based on his 1953 novel, The Many Loves of Doby Gillis. His last book, Potatoes are Cheaper (1971), was a humorous yet sentimental look at his childhood and young adulthood in the Selby-Dale area.
On March the 14th, 1936, Pa went down to the St. Paul public library just like he did every day as usual. Not that he was such a great reader; in fact he could hardly read at all, not in English anyhow, except maybe for eviction and foreclosure notices. He could read Yiddish all right, but that didn’t help since there were no Yiddish books in the St. Paul library. But Pa went every day anyhow. What else could he do? He didn’t have a job to go to, and if he stayed at home Ma would give him the whammy all day long. So where else could he find that was (a) warm; and (b) free?”
—Max Shulman, Potatoes Are Cheaper
Norman Katkov: Noted Novels
Every Friday afternoon, after school, I walked to the branch library in St. Paul. I got four books—that was the limit. . . . On the way home there was a Goodwill store right near my house, and they had used pulp magazines. . . . I always had a nickel, so I’d buy two or three of those. . . . So, I was always reading, and I suppose the writing came from that.
Norman Katkov was born near Kiev in the Ukraine in 1918 and came to Saint Paul with his parents around 1921. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1940 with a journalism degree. During World War WII, he was in the Army and put out a post newspaper, sometimes sending stories to the Pioneer Press. This connection later got him a job at the paper.
His first novel, Eagle at My Eyes (1948), set in Saint Paul and White Bear Lake, centered on the problems of intermarriage and anti-Semitism. His second, A Little Sleep, A Little Slumber (1949) is the story of a Jewish family on the West Side flats and includes the subtheme of illegal immigration. Scenes are also set in downtown and several neighborhoods. Katkov shifted focus in Eric Mattson (1964), a novel set in a hospital probably patterned after the one run by the University of Minnesota.
What chance did we have, even from the start? How fall in love with a woman who was actually verboten? She was a goy, and I knew all Gentiles were against us from the time I was ten. We lived on Colorado and Greenwood then, in a neighborhood of section hands, South St. Paul stockyards workers and still poorer Jews. Even at that age Ma had gotten her points across: I always had to be in shouting distance, and there were certain things I couldn’t do. . . . Most of the kids slid on the hill which started on the dead end and ran down to near the railroad tracks. Not me. I had to slide behind the house and so did most of the Jew-boys in the neighborhood.
—Norman Katkov, Eagle at My Eyes
Katkov’s later novels, which often had medical themes, were not set in Minnesota. He was a prolific magazine writer whose stories frequently appeared in Saturday Evening Post. After he moved to California, he started to write scripts for television shows and became well known for his work on the medical drama Ben Casey.
Katkov is in his early nineties, no longer actively writing, and lives in Los Angeles. You could send him a birthday card on July 26. His work and those of Hoffman and Shulman all appear to be out of print, but they are available in local libraries and used-book stores and are regularly listed on eBay.
Steve Trimble lives in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood on Saint Paul’s East Side. Steve has taught at local colleges and, while he has degrees in history, tries to write books and articles in a way that regular people will enjoy them—usually in local newspapers or in the Ramsey County History magazine. His house near Indian Mounds Park is filled with books and odd collections mostly garnered at garage sales.