Bel Kaufman: Writer whose bestselling 1965 novel, 'Up the Down Staircase', captured the inanity of high-school rules


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The Independent Online

Bel Kaufman was the witty and spirited fiction writer, educator and storyteller whose best--selling Up the Down Staircase captured the insanity and the humour, the pathos and the poetry of the American high school. She was the granddaughter of Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem, and a vital link to Yiddish culture.

Kaufman was a middle-aged teacher and single mother in the mid-1960s when her autobiographical novel was welcomed as a kind of civilian companion to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a send-up of maddening bureaucracy. Like Catch-22, the title of Kaufman's book became a tell-all label, shorthand for all the senseless rules students and educators could never quite follow.

A scrapbook of letters, notes and memos, it follows a few months in the life of Sylvia Barrett, the new idealistic young teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School. She is a kind soul staggering under a blizzard of administrative nonsense and student impudence. To date, Up the Down Staircase has sold more than six million copies and has been translated into 16 languages. It was made into a film and helped start a trend of candid education books.

She was born Bella Kaufman in Berlin and raised in Odessa, her first language Russian. Her family fled in 1923 to escape the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and she arrived in the US aged 11, speaking no English. However, she caught up quickly, graduated from Hunter College in 1934 and received a master's in English from Columbia University two years later.

Literature was in her blood, not just from her grandfather, but also from her mother, Lyalya Kaufman, a popular and prolific writer. After leaving Columbia she wrote short fiction, including "La Tigresse," published in Esquire (she shortened her first name to Bel because the magazine only accepted work by men).

During the 1950s and'60s, she taught in high schools and community colleges. In 1962, when her essay, "From a Teacher's Wastebasket", was published in the Saturday Review of Literature, she was contacted by an editor at Prentice Hall, Gladys Justin Carr, who said it might make a nice start for a novel. Kaufman resisted. Carr offered an advance. Kaufman spent it. "So I had to write the book."

The novel was finished during the "lowest point" of her life. She had left her husband, her children had grown up and her mother was ailing. She was alone and lonely in a two-room apartment and some pages had to be retyped, she said, because of the teardrops on the manuscript.

After Staircase, she wrote a second novel, Love, Etc, and was a popular lecturer and speaker. "In schools where I used to patrol the toilets," she once said, "I am today required reading."


Bella Kaufman, teacher and author: born Berlin 10 May 1911; married first Sydney Goldstine (marriage dissolved, two children), second Sidney Gluck; died New York 25 July 2014.