Noah Gordon was an American Jewish author born in Worcester, Massachusetts. His work is often considered to fit into literary and historical fiction, with some of his novels being set in contemporary settings, and other of his novels being historically rooted. As well, his novels are considered to have a commercial rather than literary focus. Noah Gordon is often remembered better in Europe, where his work enjoyed more popularity during his lifetime than in the United States.
Noah Gordon's works were awarded Spain's Silver Basque Prize for a bestselling book in 1992 and 1995. His novel Shaman won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians as the best historical novel of 1991 and 1992. He was voted "Novelist of the Year" by the readers of the Bertelsmann Book Club.
Noah Gordon was born, as the second child, to his father, Robert Gordon, a pawnbroker in Worcester, Massachusetts and his mother Rose. Gordon was named after his maternal grandfather, Noah Melnikoff, a bookbinder who died months before he was born. He grew up in a working class neighborhood, where he felt like an outsider because of his Jewish heritage. He studied at Grafton Street Junior High School and Classical High School. During his time there, the United States entered the Second World War and Gordon was eager to join the war.
In February 1945, after graduating, he was able to enlist in the military. Initially interested in joining the Navy, Gordon wore glasses and was colorblind, and when he volunteered, he was assigned to the United States Infantry. Before he could be deployed, the war was ended with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gordon completed his service as an Army clerk in San Francisco.
Following his discharge, Gordon took advantage of the GI Bill and attended Boston University. Pressured by his parents, Gordon entered medical school and studied medicine for one semester before switching his major to journalism without telling his parents. During this time, Gordon met Lorraine Seay, who was studying at Clark University, and the two began dating. In 1950, Gordon received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism, after which he earned an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Boston University, and Seay received her Bachelor of Arts degree in German from Clark University.
Post-graduation, the couple moved to New York. Here, Gordon received a job as a junior editor in the periodicals department of the Avon Publishing Co., and the couple were married. Gordon worked at Avon for two years, before moving to write for the magazine Focus. The couple enjoyed the romance of living with packing-case furniture in an attic apartment in Brooklyn, until their first child was born, shortly after which the couple returned to Massachusetts.
Once back in Massachusetts, Gordon worked to make it as a freelance journalist before landing a job as a reporter for his hometown newspaper The Worcester Telegram. In 1959, he was hired by The Boston Herald, a morning newspaper, where he worked as a time as a general assignment reporter. During his time at The Herald, Gordon worked as an editor of The Journal of Abdominal Surgery and was shortly after was appointed The Herald's science editor. This led to Gordon writing freelance scientific and medical articles, which he sold to The Saturday Evening Post, Coronet, The Saturday Review, The Reporter, Medical World News, and Medical Tribune, among other periodicals.
Dr. Harry Solomon was offered a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to start a psychiatry journal. Dr. Solomon had previously met Noah Gordon and offered Gordon a chance to edit the new journal, Psychiatric Opinion. Gordon accepted, and edited the journal for a few years before he was asked to found and publish a hard-data research journal in the field of human stress. This led him to form a blue-ribbon international editorial board of bench scientists and published The Journal of Human Stress. However, the duties of publishing these journals interfered with Gordon's then blossoming novel writing career, and in 1975 his wife took on the burden of publishing the journals.
Beginning in 1960, while working at The Herald, Gordon was invited to observe autopsies and ask questions with Dr. Richard Ford, the head of the Harvard Medical School. This informed the first two novels Gordon published. His first two novels were paperback novels about nursing, one of which became a back-of-the-book novel in Redbook Magazine. Even with his flourishing journalism career, Gordon continued to desire to be a serious novelist. And this led him to submit an outline for a novel to his literary agent, Patricia Schartle, and his agent returned with a contract from a publisher.
The contract offered some financial support for Gordon and his wife, which would be able to keep them for a year despite the mounting costs of three children, mortgage payments, car payments, and the usual costs. Despite the inherent risk, Gordon's wife Lorraine supported his decision, and he began writing The Rabbi. The book drew on some of Gordon's experience of an American Jewish family, and garnered favorable reviews while it was on The New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks.
Following the success of The Rabbi, Gordon went on to publish The Death Committee, about the formative years of three young doctors in a Boston teaching hospital. And, once his wife took over the burdens of journal publishing, Gordon was able to publish The Jerusalem Diamond.
The Gordon family moved to Ashfield in the Berkshires, where with the peace of a new, quiet home, the author was able to outline and write a trilogy of books following different generations of the fictional Cole family. The first book of The Cole Trilogy was The Physician, the second of the series was Shaman, and the third book of the trilogy was Matters of Choice.
The first novel in the trilogy, The Physician, marked a change in Gordon's career. Leading up to the publishing of the novel, Gordon's editor had left for another publishing house, and his literary agent had retired, leaving him as an "orphan" author, with no one in the publishing house to properly champion his work. On release, The Physician only sold 10,000 hard cover copies in America, which was considered a disastrous sales figure for a commercial novel.
However, a year later, a publisher from Germany named Karl H. Blessing read the book in New York and invited Gordon and Lorraine to meet him in New York. There, Blessing put the couple up in a fancy hotel, hired a limo to take them to a Broadway show, and treated them to dinner. Blessing was able to leave dinner that night with the German rights. From there, Blessing went on a marketing campaign for the book across Germany, which included an attempt to put a reading copy of the book in the hands of every clerk in every book store in Germany. This resulted in sales figures of the book topping a million in the first year of publication and in hardcover.
In Spain, a similar popularity grew, although the publication of The Physician in Spain was almost an accident. It began with a Spanish publisher's sales manager who had sprained their ankle and confined to their home reading Gordon's novel in their boredom. Once back on his feet, the sales manager championed the book at his publisher, and began marketing campaigns. And, on release, The Physician saw a near similar level of popularity in Spain. And between Germany and Spain, the novel spread across Europe. The popularity of the novel saw it eventually sell around 10 million copies. And the popularity extended to an attempt to publish an unauthorized Chinese version, which Gordon became aware of when a translator reached out to the author to ask him for a translation of a Jewish expression.
There have been some attempts to understand the surprising popularity of The Physician in Germany and Spain. In part, this has been explained by the near half-a-million dollars spent by the German publisher in marketing the book. Another explanation which has been offered, in part by author Yascha Mounk, was the German youth's contemplation of their country's history and the crimes in that history. This trend began in the 1960s, but reached a fever pitch in the 1980s with the anniversary of the beginning of the war. Yascha Mounk described the country as having come down with philosemitism, and all things Jewish became fashionable as Germans took it upon themselves to create what Mounk refers to as a guilt-ridden renaissance of all aspects of Jewish culture.
There was a similar movement occurring in Spain at the same time. According to Ilan Stavans, an Amherst professor studying Jewish and Hispanic culture, the young Spanish democracy in the 1980s had found renewed interest in its Jewish history as the 500th anniversary of the Inquisition approached. Fitting Gordon's novels into this cultural trend has in part, by both thinkers, been suggested by the appeal of the books which offer an easy-to-read explanation of Judaism in plot-driven tests. This has been reflected in the lack of popularity of other books, such as those by Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud, all children of Jewish immigrants who wrote popular books in the 1960s, but have been considered less accessible for European audiences in part due to the books Yiddishisms and pre-packaged kugel of mid-century Jewish America.
Meanwhile, Gordon's novels offered historical fiction, set in European history. In speaking around these topics, Gordon has never claimed to cater to an audience, nor has he ever considered or expressed himself as an ambassador of Jews or as a historian. Instead, Gordon has suggested his popularity is indebted to his talent as a storyteller, and writing about what the author found engaging.
The success in Europe eventually came to define the remainder of Noah Gordon's work. He was consistently invited to Europe, especially to Germany and Spain, to speak about his work and for book signings. The author's final two novels, The Last Jew and The Winemaker were written in part from his experiences during these trips, during which he was able to visit many of the places he was writing about.
The popularity of his work in Europe also put Noah Gordon in a unique position of enjoying bestseller status outside of the United States. His books have since been adapted, with the German version of The Physician, Der Medicus, was adapted in 2013 to an English film by German director Philipp Stolzl. It was a box office success, and earned it's producers a Bogey award. A musical based on the book was also staged in Spain in 2018.
Matters of Choice (Third book in the Cole Family Trilogy)
Shaman (Second book in the Cole Family Trilogy)
The Death Committee
Author of 'The Physician' Noah Gordon dies aged 95 | DW | 23.11.2021
Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com)
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