Dave Margoshes’s loving fictionalized memoir about his father, Harry (1893-1975), is artfully executed in this collection of 14 loosely linked stories, for the most part tracking his father’s life before the author was born in 1941. Straddling a fine line between creative documentary and fiction, Margoshes has struck a delicate balance that seduces the reader into believing the narrator’s claim that from the age of 13 on, he heard most of his father’s stories first-hand.
Although Margoshes calls himself “an itinerant journalist covering everything from politics to murder to cat shows for daily newspapers in eight cities,” he, unlike his father, uncle and grandfather, all of whom wrote for New York Yiddish newspapers, has written more than a dozen books, including three novels, Drowning Man, I am Frankie Sterne and We Who Seek: A Love Story, and a short-story collection, Bix’s Trumpet, which won the 2007 Regina Book of the Year Award.
At 27, Harry Margoshes left New York for Chicago, where he lived for several months, holed up in a cheap hotel, writing the bulk of a novel long-hand. When his money ran out, he burned the manuscript and went to Cleveland for a job in the newsroom at Der Velt, a.k.a. The Cleveland Jewish World. Starting fresh, Harry changed Margoshes to Morgenstern, meaning “rising star,” and began to hone his journalist skills by translating the news from the Associated Press into Yiddish. “The trick was not so much to translate literally as to read the story, absorb it, and write it fresh in Yiddish as if the story were his own.” The circulation of 50,000 for Der Velt was a fraction of what he would have four years later, when he returned to New York to work at Der Tog (The Day).
Harry was employed for most of his writing career at Der Tog (read by a large proportion of the roughly 2 million Jews then living in New York City), where he covered the labour beat and regularly attended the conventions of the largest unions, which in those days were largely made up of Jews.
At Cleveland’s Der Velt, he also wrote an advice column called Yente Schmegge. The story The Wisdom of Solomon (winner of the 2009 Journey Prize) deliciously documents Morgenstern’s strategy as a young and rather inexperienced young man who discovers the safest things he could say in response to the moral advice his readers were seeking was: “Follow your heart.” He also learned that a vague solution was often far better than a definitive one.
This sitting on the fence, a trademark of fiction writers, plays a significant role in Margoshes’s retellings. On a deeper level, his father’s unrealized dream of becoming a novelist drives the son’s narration, rendering each retelling particularly intimate. A Book of Great Worth is a grand tribute to Harry Morgenstern, resourcefully approximating the novel his son believes he could have written, but never did.
Editor's note: The print version and an earlier online version of this story contained incorrect information. This version has been corrected.