Magic Barrel: What’s that name all about?

From Jana Zvibleman’s 2006 introduction to the Magic Barrel

Leo Finkle and Pinya Salzman were two European Jewish immigrants in New York City. They were the protagonists in a short story titled The Magic Barrel. So, our evening here tonight should be named after some buba monsa about a rabbinical student and a marriage broker?

It might be because of the author of that Magic Barrel story. Bernard Malamud is one of the famous people Corvallis can claim. “Bernard slept here,” you know. He wrote fiction that has a notable place in American literature, and he wrote some of it just a few blocks from this theatre. Malamud said in the introduction to a collection of his stories that “The Magic Barrel” was created “in a carrel in the basement of the library at Oregon State, where I was allowed to teach freshman composition – but not literature, because I was nakedly without a Ph.D.”

When I first heard of this Magic Barrel literary reading, I hadn’t yet read the naked instructor’s story. I knew this event raises money for the Linn Benton Food Bank, and I figured  the title referred to some folk legend – something about abundance, like  bottomless pots, hens that lay golden eggs, loaves and fishes, and soup from stones. It fit, right after harvest time in this fertile valley – sharing food and getting ready to collect candy and give thanks for zucchini and turkey for all.
But I sought out the Malamud story.  I had to really hunt in it for the reference to a barrel. The story goes that the marriage broker carried around cards on which he wrote pertinent details about potential wives. At one point Salzman said “You wouldn’t believe me how much cards I got in my office. The drawers are already filled to the top, so I keep them now in a barrel.”

But Leo the rabbinical student – he was needy yet very particular – he rejected one-by-one the contents of the barrel. The would-be wives that the broker brought out were too defective, or too used, or too this or that – in the bachelor’s opinion.

Ah, but with magical realism, Leo himself reached in Salzman’s “barrel,” and what he found surprised everybody.

I assume that Malamud was referencing some old, old Yiddish folk tale.

So I’m back to “is the magic barrel the right name for this gathering?” Maybe there are a lot of eligible wives -  or husbands – in the audience? You can meet around the barrel by the food later. We do know that our hometown is a cornucopia of other types. Like – is there a massage therapist in the house? And this year Corvallis made headlines for having more scientists per capita than any other American city.

And of course, we also have artists, including literary artists. Mr. Malamud slept and wrote here for just a few years, and just once upon a time.

It’s today’s writers  – the living-and-registered-to-vote kind – that the Barrel committee fishes around for, with the hard task of pulling up to this stage just a few. There are, we know, good writers still in the barrel, many right in this audience.

Some of the magic tonight is us all gathering together around the fire – and gathering food to share -  and it’s magic that we’re about to enjoy wonderful, diverse versions of our shared story.

Let’s reach in.   May your barrels always be full.

As Salsman would say, “Go. Enjoy.”


Quotes by Bernard Malamud about Corvallis, Oregon

from the introduction to The Stories of Bernard Malamud, 1983

“New York had lost much of its charm during World War II, and [in 1949] my wife and I and our infant son took off for the Pacific Northwest when I was offered a job in Corvallis, Oregon. Once there, it was a while before I had my bearings . . .  I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Oregon, its vast skies, forests, coastal beaches, and the new life it offered, which I lived as best I could as I reflected on the old. . . .  “

“I didn’t much worry about what I was asked to teach at the college so long as I had plenty of time to work. My wife, wheeling a stroller, handed me sandwiches at lunchtime through the window of the Quonset hut I wrote and taught in . . .”

“It was a while before I was at ease in the new culture  . . . At first I felt displaced – one foot in a bucket – though unafraid of  – certainly enjoying – new experience. Yet too much was tiresome. Oregon State, a former land-grant college, had barely covered its cow tracks; Liberal Arts was called the “Lower Division,” to no one’s embarrassment . . . “

“About three years later and a few stories in print, to my surprise, . . . [a publisher] wanted “The Magic Barrel,” a story . . .. I had written it in a carrel in the basement of the library at Oregon State, where I was allowed to teach freshman composition but not literature because I was nakedly without a Ph.D. Later, they permitted me to offer a night workshop in the short story to townspeople who, for one reason or another, wanted to take a writing class; I earned about a hundred dollars a term and got more pleasure than I expected.”

“Before we expected it we were on our way abroad . . Partisan Review had recommended me for a Rockefeller Grant; and the college, somewhat reluctantly, kicked in with my first sabbatical leave.”

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