S. N. Behrman

Samuel Nathaniel Behrman

Born: June 9, 1893
Died: September 9, 1973

Biography

Samuel Nathaniel Behrman was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on June 9, 1893. He was the third child of Joseph and Zelda Behrman, Jewish immigrants living on Worcester's East Side. He was the first of their children to be born in America, his two older siblings were born when his parents were still in Lithuania. His father was a religious man, and would often sit in silence for hours studying his books of the Jewish religion. This most often occurred when his parents had some sort of argument, something that Behrman never really understood when he was growing up. His mother was a quiet person, and Behrman was always bewildered with his parents' relationship. The relationship seemed to him almost impersonal, with all their tenderness spent on the children instead of on each other.

Growing up in Worcester, Behrman lived at 31 Providence Street, across from the Shaaria Torah Synagogue, in one of the many triple-deckers in the Worcester area at the time. Although most of the triple-deckers were in need of some sort of repair, the backyards were filled with all sorts of cherry, pear, and apple trees.

Summers on Providence Street, Behrman suggests in The Worcester Account, were almost a blur, all mixing together save for a few moments that always stand out. He tells about his obsession with Ada Summit, the belle of Providence Street, even though she had a steady boyfriend in Morton Leavitt. Behrman tells of his dislike of Leavitt when he talks about his baseball playing days as a child. Behrman was near-sighted and had trouble throwing, which led to his always being sent to play the outfield, where he would cause the least amount of interference with the rest of the game. To go along with his relegation to the outfield, Leavitt always held Ada over his, and anyone else's, head. He would let any of the other boys hold her hand, albeit while he stood with a stopwatch for a minute, seemingly amused by his control.

It was fortunate that Behrman had a best friend to spend time with, Daniel Asher, or Willie Lavin as Behrman calls him in his book The Worcester Account. At the end of the book Lavin commits suicide. This suicide brings about a curious question that Behrman had wondered about in his childhood. His father had told him about the true Name of God, but had warned against seeking it. If one got too close to the Name, or actually discovered the Name, one would cease to exist, for it was too great a thing for any mortal being to know. Asher had always been the type of person who questioned everything, a trait that Behrman admired. The question came to Behrman of whether or not Asher had actually searched for the Name, and possibly got too close to discovery of the sacred Name.

The Worcester Account is an account of Behrman's childhood and growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 1893 to shortly after he moved to New York City in 1917. The book is not so much a continuing narrative as a set of individual short stories that form his childhood. Characters remain constant, and each separate story is arranged in chronological order, although one may have nothing to do with the previous or the next. Most of the stories were originally published in The New Yorker magazine. In his book he changes his best friend's name, Daniel Asher, to Willie Lavin. Many attribute this name change to Asher's mental illness and suicide at the end of the book. The Asher family felt great sensitivity about revealing the circumstances of Daniel's death.

In 1899 Behrman entered Providence Street School; in 1907 he began attending Classical High School. It was in school that Behrman developed his passion for literature; the written word simply excited him. He would spend hours in the library, and would buy nickel paperbacks when he could. Mostly they were stories by Horatio Alger, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys style, but anything would do. While at Classical High School he even started an after school reading club of sorts. He and a group of his friends would get together with a particular teacher to discuss literature that they had been recently reading.

In 1911 Behrman toured with the Poli vaudeville circuit performing in a skit that he wrote, essentially his first real work that was performed. He returned to Worcester in 1912 due to failing health and entered Clark College, now Clark University, as a special student. His father died in October of that year.

While at Clark College he had several essays published in The Clark College Monthly, where the more scholarly students printed their compositions. He became an assistant on the Clark publication board, but eventually was suspended from Clark for his refusal to attend Physical Education classes. Upon suspension from Clark, he entered Harvard, where he sold his first story, "La Vie Parisienne," for fifteen dollars. He graduated from Harvard in 1916 with a Bachelor's degree.

In 1917 he moved to New York City to try to live and work as a writer. While in New York, he worked towards his Master's degree from Columbia, studying under Brander Matthews. His received his Master's in 1918, and spent the next two years working for The New York Times. Dan Asher played an advisory role by encouraging Behrman to continue his writing. Behrman had been offered a job teaching for the University of Minnesota for a twelve hundred dollar salary. He took the job on recommendations from Asher.

In the early 1920s, Behrman had written a few plays, although they were never produced. In 1925, Behrman recalls reaching "a low point in my material condition and in morale." He had to face the fact that he was unable to make a living and, even worse, that he did not have ideas to work on for his writings.

A turning point in Behrman's career occurred in 1926 when he collaborated with a more established playwright, Owen Davis, on a play called The Man Who Forgot. The breakthrough of his career occurred soon afterwards when the Theatre Guild presented his play, The Second Man (1927), which Behrman had dedicated to his brothers.

Throughout the rest of his life Behrman could not resist the economic lure of writing for Hollywood. For the next twenty-five years Behrman wrote screenplays and plays for Hollywood and Broadway productions. In total, he wrote eighteen plays, two of which were collaborations with other authors. His first non-fiction book, Duveen, appeared in 1952. Shortly afterwards, in 1954, The Worcester Account was published, perhaps his most significant book length piece of prose, detailing the stories of his boyhood in Worcester. He continued to write and publish until his death. For literary historians, Behrman is noted for his plays, but his prose works are attract more attention among the public. He died of apparent heart failure on September the 9, 1973, in New York.

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Quotes

Psychoanalysis makes quite simple people feel they're complex.
S. N. Behrman
The ability to laugh at its own pretensions and shortcomings is a true mark of the civilized nation, as it is of the civilized human.
S. N. Behrman