Most of us, if we love an author’s work, recommend it to friends and maybe post a recommendation on-line. But when it comes to the late novelist Stanley Elkin, that just wasn’t enough for Bill Robins.
“I can’t say this more seriously: Elkin is one of the greatest American writers, up there with Herman Melville, James Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway,” he told NJ Jewish News.
After 36 years of steadfast admiration and gathering every reference to his idol that he could trace, Robins — a lawyer turned librarian and teacher, turned municipal administrator — has published a hefty tome on the author, Stanley Elkin: A Comprehensive Bibliography.
In an interview in Scotch Plains in early November, Robins explained that though there would always be more to discover, he finally felt he had gathered enough material to equip other researchers to do justice to Elkin, assist collectors of his work, and bring him other fans.
Elkin wrote, among many works, The Magic Kingdom, The MacGuffin, The Franchiser, The Dick Gibson Show, George Mills, and Mrs. Ted Bliss.
The Jewish American author, who died in 1995 at the age of 65, never made it to the best-seller lists, but he was very widely reviewed and interviewed and received numerous awards, including two National Book Critics Circle Awards.
Robins tracked down every word by him and about him — including material on the Internet and miscellanea like an “I love Stanley Elkin” T-shirt. Elkin himself also gave Robins permission to include a formerly unpublished essay.
Robins struggled to explain what fired such a passion in him. He jokingly alluded to the fact that Elkin — especially as he aged — looked just like Robins’ father. But more seriously, he said he was hooked by the sheer humanity in Elkin’s writing and his characters’ obsessive concern with the mysteries of life. He delighted in Elkin’s language and his ability to plumb the depths of human suffering without cynicism or despair.
The interest began in the fall of 1973. Robins, then a literature student at Washington University in St. Louis, enrolled in a course taught by Elkin. The teacher was somewhat gruff but stimulating. To find out more about him, Robins got hold of his Searches and Seizures, a collection of stories.
He read every word Elkin had published. And, as he went on to study librarianship at the University of South Carolina and law at Seton Hall University, Robins carried on reading his new works and rereading the old ones. It baffled him that so few people know Elkin’s work.
‘A wonderful hobby’
Robins grew up in Hillside and Westfield and lived in West Orange, among other places, before moving to Dunellen, where he is the administrator and municipal clerk. He lives there with his wife, Elizabeth, and their daughters, Gwendolyn and Madolyn. They are members of Temple Sholom, the Reform congregation in Fanwood, where a few years ago he put his librarian skills to work sorting out the temple’s store of books when the congregation moved from Plainfield. He has those books safely stored in his home basement, awaiting the temple’s move to its new premises.
The new book is actually the second version of one he compiled while doing his doctorate in American literature at the University of South Carolina.
Working on his thesis in 1985, he sought an interview with Elkin. “You can’t do a thesis on a living author and not try to interview him,” he said. He was very appreciative of the two hours granted him by the ailing Elkin, “and he did answer the questions I had about his work.”
The bibliography, he said, “was, for most of the time, a wonderful hobby that I eventually upgraded to an obsession, that concluded in a publishable manuscript.” It was accepted by the first publisher he approached, The Scarecrow Press, and the rest is up to the potential hordes of new Elkin fans.