The ques­tion of which pieces would make it into the col­lec­tion that became Old Truths and New Clichés: Essays by Isaac Bashe­vis Singer remained open until the very last moment. In nor­mal cir­cum­stances, such deci­sions would have been made before the man­u­script was deliv­ered for type­set­ting, but in this case, the dynam­ic way in which Isaac Bashe­vis Singer wrote, rewrote, and rethought his ideas cre­at­ed dilem­mas that car­ried them­selves into the pro­duc­tion process. For this book to be the best that it could, edi­to­r­i­al changes were made in the proof­ing stage – essays were removed and para­texts were revised – because the process of work­ing with Singer’s mate­r­i­al for so many years cre­at­ed a kind of fog that only lift­ed at the last minute when all the pieces were falling in place.

There are at least three dif­fer­ent ver­sions of this col­lec­tion in draft form. The first ver­sion put all of Singer’s essay­is­tic non­fic­tion from the archives into the vol­ume, where­as the sec­ond ver­sion picked out the few works that would be con­sid­ered essen­tial to Singer’s think­ing and writ­ing. The final ver­sion aimed to find a bal­ance between the two extremes. Still, there are aspects of the first draft that were inter­est­ing in them­selves – espe­cial­ly reviews, accep­tance speech­es, and oth­er pieces of lit­er­ary mis­cel­la­nia. Among them was a list: Ten Rea­sons I Admire Hen­ry Miller.” It appears here for the first time:

1) Hen­ry Miller was a per­fect ego­tist, which means he tried to be hap­py him­self, nev­er to make oth­ers unhappy.

2) He did­n’t give a hoot about the crit­ics. He nev­er read them.

3) He nev­er acknowl­edged Freud, Adler, Jung. As far as he was con­cerned the whole school of psy­chol­o­gy nev­er existed.

4) He nev­er tried to solve a sin­gle soci­o­log­i­cal prob­lem. As far as he was con­cerned this rot­ten world was good enough.

5) He nev­er tried to find new ways or meth­ods in lit­er­a­ture. He wrote as he spoke – sim­ply, clear­ly, with­out any pre­ten­sion to style.

6) He nev­er made the slight­est effort to redeem humanity.

7) He kept away from all politicians.

8) He nev­er preached any­thing, not even his own way of life.

9) He nev­er com­plained, nei­ther in life, nor in his writing.

10) He nev­er strived for hon­ors. Dis­hon­or was good enough for him.

I was intrigued by this sin­gu­lar affir­ma­tion of a con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous writer and so I searched his cor­re­spon­dence for let­ters from Miller. I found a few short let­ters, the first two dat­ed Jan­u­ary, 1965, in which Miller express­es his extreme enthu­si­asm for Singer’s work. I fin­ished Fam­i­ly Moskat the oth­er night,” he writes, feel­ing as if I had lived through 500 years of Jew­ish his­to­ry, myth, leg­end, tor­ture and humil­i­a­tion. It was a real feast.” Miller, who was not Jew­ish, con­cludes his let­ter, All I need to dis­cov­er before I die is that lit­tle drop of Jew­ish blood in my veins.” And while I didn’t have access to Singer’s replies, I saw that they had a warm exchange and shared a sense of admi­ra­tion for each other’s work. But I still didn’t under­stand where Singer’s list came from, and what had inspired him to com­pose these spe­cif­ic sen­ti­ments about Miller.

Then I came to a form let­ter sent from Miller to his col­leagues, in which he asked for sup­port in being award­ed the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. The let­ter asks the recip­i­ent to write a few suc­cinct lines” to the Swedish Acad­e­my and includes a PS: If you are also vying for the prize, for­get this and let me write one for you!” The let­ter is undat­ed and the post­mark is rel­a­tive­ly fad­ed, but you can make out the year as 1978, the same year that Singer received the Nobel.

A fol­low up let­ter, dat­ed Sep­tem­ber 16, 1978, seems to reply to Singer’s own admis­sion that he is, indeed, vying for the prize too. I know it seems shame­less but I know I deserve the prize… All my life I have had to fight for every crumb I received… So please for­give me! … I think you know that my heart is in the right place.” It’s a touch­ing and vul­ner­a­ble note that shows just how hard a writer whose influ­ence on world lit­er­a­ture today is unques­tion­able had to fight for a grain of recog­ni­tion in his time. It was also writ­ten less than two years before Miller died in 1980.

Singer wrote out the list in his own hand­writ­ing. And, hav­ing found these few let­ters, I couldn’t escape the feel­ing that he’d writ­ten it after Miller’s death – per­haps out of a feel­ing of guilt for get­ting a prize that he believed Miller deserved too. But the Nobel Prize isn’t designed to be award­ed to every­one who may be deserv­ing. As Miller says in his let­ter, it is a mat­ter of pol­i­tics,” and Singer served the pol­i­tics of the moment, like­ly as the only Yid­dish writer with the stature and renown to be award­ed the prize. That didn’t mean Miller didn’t deserve it as well. But, at least from the traces Singer left behind, he seemed to acknowl­edge that there were oth­er writ­ers out there who were just as good – and who didn’t get the prize.

As a final note, apro­pos the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture, peo­ple often call Singer the only” Yid­dish writer to receive a Nobel Prize. This, I believe, is a lim­it­ed view of lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry, and it’s not a view that reflects Singer’s own faith in the Yid­dish lan­guage. So, when it comes up, I often say that Singer was the first Yid­dish writer to win the Nobel Prize. Because, as Singer remind­ed his audi­ences, in Jew­ish his­to­ry, the dis­tance between dying and death can be very long.

David Stromberg, a writer, trans­la­tor, and lit­er­ary schol­ar, is edi­tor for the Isaac Bashe­vis Singer Lit­er­ary Trust. His books include Bad­dies, Idiot Love and the Ele­ments of Inti­ma­cy, and A Short Inquiry into the End of the World.