Bookish Birthdays: Erica Jong

26th Mar 2012

In the first twenty-one years of my not-so-feminist life, I could count not just one hand but on one finger the number of times I’d heard the name Erica Jong.

This was, as it happens, via the song Highlands by Bob Dylan; after a number of awkward exchanges with a waitress in a restaurant, she proposes that Dylan doesn’t read female authors, and he then defends himself:

“Well”, she says, “You just don’t seem like you do.” I said,”You’re way wrong.” / She says “Which ones have you read then?” I say, “I’ve read Erica Jong.”

Born 26th March 1942 in New York, Erica Jong was the middle child of Seymour Mann, a Polish Jewish drummer turned businessman, who was known as one of the most “acclaimed makers of collectible porcelain dolls” and a Russian mother, Eda Mirsky, a painter and textile designer who also designed dolls for her husband’s company.

Married four times, Jong’s first two marriages, to her college sweetheart (Michael Werthman) and later to Allan Jong, a psychiatrist, share many similarities to those described in Jong’s infamous novel Fear of Flying.

Erica Jong has a daughter from her third marriage, Molly Jong-Fast, and is currently married to Kenneth David Burrows, a New York attorney.

For three years in the 1960s, Erica Jong lived in Heidelberg, Germany with her second husband, while he was stationed at an army base there.

Jong first attracted literary fame for her fiction and poetry and, in particular, the 1972 novel Fear of Flying which caused no little sensation with its candid depiction of female sexuality, coining the phrase ‘zipless fuck’, and quickly becoming a key text in second-wave feminism’s evolution, at a time when (in Jong’s words), “…there were few women studying law and medicine in America, no female secretaries of state […] and few women poets writing in English who were not considered laughable.”

At the time, the novel seemed to connect chiefly with women who felt caged in unhappy marriages. As timelessly witty, cultured, psychologically articulate, direct, fresh, and insightful today as it was in 1973, Fear of Flying tells the story of a young woman on a journey to Vienna with her second spouse, who decides to pursue her fantasy of being with another man.

Other novels Jong has produced are of similar calibre to Fear of Flying (notably Shylock’s Daughter, How To Save Your Own Life, and Parachutes & Kisses), but there is more to her than fiction, as her many poetry awards and non-fiction work demonstrate.

Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir with its self-referencing title, is a meditation on marriage, motherhood, fame, sex, and creativity, while Seducing The Demon: Writing For My Life is a collection of essays on her lot as a writer (with particularly detailed focus on the ‘muse’, the pursuit of less than suitable lovers and, perhaps most important of all, the belief that without writing, she would be unfulfilled, insane, and probably an alcoholic).

The latter of these two non-fiction works, Seducing The Demon, touches on her relationship with Ted Hughes, her twenty or so books, and the female writers who, she feels, were not able to be saved by their craft (e.g. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf) and why she has avoided joining them.

Poetic, engaging, dynamic, passionately pro-sex, eloquent, intelligent, amusing – love her or hate her, Erica Jong is one irrepressible, indisputable firecracker of feminist writing for us to rightly salute today. Happy 70th birthday, Erica.

Hannah Dunton