Biography of Dan Jacobson

Name: Dan Jacobson
Bith Date: March 7, 1929
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Johannesburg, South Africa
Nationality: South African
Gender: Male
Occupations: writer, teacher
Dan Jacobson

Author Dan Jacobson (born 1929) used his experiences as a child growing up in South Africa to mold his writings about human nature.

Dan Jacobson was born March 7, 1929, in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his parents' families had come to avoid the persecution of Jews in their European homelands. His father, Hymann Michael Jacobson, was born in Iluxt, Latvia, in 1885. His mother, Liebe (Melamed) Jacobson, was born in Kelme, Lithuania, in 1896. Jacobson had two older brothers, Israel Joshua and Hirsch Jacob, and a younger sister, Aviva. His mother's family immigrated to South Africa in 1919, after the death of his grandfather. His grandfather, Heshel Melamed, was a rabbi, and refused to leave Lithuania after traveling to the United States and finding that many Jews were not following their religion. Jacobson later wrote about his travels back to Lithuania to find out more information about his grandfather.

Learned about Prejudice

When Dan was four, the family moved from Johannesburg to Kimberley, which was then under British control. The city had once been a huge diamond mining center, but the mines had closed and the town was in decline. However, the De Beers Consolidated Mines Company continued to have great power. He attended a public school and learned English. During his childhood, he became aware of the ways that different people were treated based on their race, religion, economic status, and social status. In his autobiography Time and Again, he refers to the many classes of people in his community: "The Africans lived either in rooms in the back yards of their employers' houses or in sprawling, dusty, tatterdemalion 'locations'; the Cape Coloureds (people of mixed blood) lived in their parts of town; the whites in theirs. Interspersed among these groups were smaller communities: Indians and Chinese among the non-whites, Jews and Greeks among the whites. As for the major division among the whites themselves, that between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking, or Briton and Boer .... All these peoples met in the streets, they did business with one another, but just about every aspect of their social life was severely segregated. To sit together in the same room with anyone of a darker skin than their own was a moral impossibility for most whites." He later recalled that many of his Jewish friends and acquaintances sympathized with the blacks in South Africa. He began to observe the ways that the government, churches, and the newspapers justified the ill treatment of blacks.

At the age of 11, an event occurred that affected Jacobson for the rest of his life. After helping a boy rescue his book bag from a filthy trash bin, he went to school unaware that he had gotten dirt on the back of his legs. When his teacher mentioned the dirt in front of the class, several of the boys made fun of him and led the class in ignoring him for six to eight weeks. He was stunned at the mob mentality, seeing how a few leaders of the class could control the actions of the entire group. Paul Gready writes in Research in African Literatures: "A childhood experience of bullying and ostracism was something from which Jacobson was 'never to wholly recover.'"

Identified as a Jew

The Jewish community in Kimberley was a strong one. More Lithuanian Jews traveled to South Africa in the early 20th century than to any other country except the United States. Many were hoping to follow in the footsteps of Sammy Marks, a Lithuanian who had made his fortune in the diamond mines. The Jewish community grew even closer together in the 1930s as Nazism rose, and they felt connected to Jews around the world.

Jacobson's parents were not particularly religious, but his father insisted that the children attend synagogue and Hebrew lessons, because, as Jacobson later wrote, "To have done less, especially as the Nazi madness swept across Europe, would have seemed to him spineless, even treacherous." Jacobson attended, but usually under protest.

Jacobson attended Boys' High School in Kimberley and graduated at the age of 16. He went on to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he graduated at the top of his class with a bachelor's degree in English Literature. Following his graduation in 1948, he worked as a laborer in an Israeli kibbutz for about a year. Then he got a job as a teacher at a Jewish school in London. In less than a year, he was asked to leave, according to his autobiography, because he did not know enough about Orthodox Judaism.

Became a Writer

He returned to Johannesburg in 1951 and worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies as a public relations assistant and then as a journalist for Press Digest. In 1952 he returned to Kimberley to work as a correspondence secretary on his father's cattle farm. During this period he became determined to be a writer. His first literary success occurred with a short story entitled "The Box," which was published in Commentary. It was followed by other short stories in Harpers Bazaar, the New Yorker, and other magazines.

In February 1954, he married Margaret Pye, whom he had met while working in London. She was a teacher and children's writer from Rhodesia and had a son named Julian. They set up residence in London, where they brought up three additional children, Simon Orde, Matthew Lindsay, and Jessica Liebe.

His first novel, The Trap, was released in 1955, followed by A Dance in the Sun in 1956. Both books drawn upon his childhood experiences. Together the two books earned him a yearlong creative writing fellowship at Stanford University in California. During his time at Stanford, he completed his third novel, The Price of Diamonds, which was also set in South Africa but was a lighthearted comedy-mystery with a moral message. All three books dealt with prejudice and racism.

He returned to England in 1957, determined to seek greater depth in his writing. In 1959, he received the John Llewelyn Rhys Award for fiction for his collection of short stories, A Long Way from London. In 1960, The Evidence of Love was published. It dealt with the racism involved in a romantic relationship between a black man and a white woman who were put in prison for getting married. In 1964, he received the W. Somerset Maugham award for his first collection of essays, Time of Arrival. One of his short stories, "The Zulu and the Zeide," was adapted into a musical and produced on Broadway in 1965. In 1966, he published The Beginners, a longer, in-depth novel following the lives of a Jewish family after their emigration to South Africa. It was a great literary success.

Over the next two decades, he continued to write while holding various teaching positions. In 1965-66, he was visiting professor at Syracuse University in New York. A Dance in the Sun, his second novel, was produced as the play Day of the Lion in Cleveland in 1968. He was a Visiting Fellow at the State University of New York at Buffalo in the summer of 1971. In 1974, he became vice chair of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain. In 1981, he was a Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre at Australian National University. He also took a position at the University of London as a lecturer; from 1979 to 1987 he was a reader in English. In 1988, he became a professor of English, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1994.

A Change in Focus

Jacobson's first five novels all focused on South Africa. His writing focus then shifted to moral and ethical issues involving all of humanity. Although he had no interest in learning the Bible as a child, he developed a strong interest in the Old Testament as an adult. In The Rape of Tamar, he retells the story of the rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon, the brother of Absolom. The book was adapted into a play called Yonadeb, after the narrative character in the book, and was produced in London in 1985.

In The Story of Stories: The Chosen People and its God, he provided a study of the Bible. His goal was to have a textual analysis as a narrative. The book was criticized by many Jews, probably because he refers to God as "an imaginative creation."

Themes that continued to reveal themselves in his works included race relations, class consciousness, human nature, universal traits, group mentality, corruption, betrayal, guilt, power, and social morality. In an article that he wrote for Commentary in 2000, entitled "My Jewish Childhood," Jacobson said: "It is always going to be difficult to get socially and racially diverse people to live harmoniously together within a single polity."

In 1985, his autobiography, Time and Again: Autobiographical Essays, was published. Each of the 13 chapters tells of an event in his life that shaped his way of thinking about the human race. The book won the J.R. Ackerly Prize for autobiography.

The God-Fearer, published in 1992, is a story of persecution. Jews are in the majority and oppress a group called the "Christers." In a Washington Post article, Anne Roiphe observed: "By making the majority Jewish, Jacobson makes it clear that power is the source of oppression: not that the power is German or Christian, but that it has the weight of numbers.... The horror of the story lies not in gruesome details or heated prose, but in the calm truth of what we call normal behavior when we try to save our skin at any cost."

In the middle 1990s, Jacobson turned to nonfiction. In 1994 he published The Electronic Elephant: A South African Journey about his travels back to South Africa to observe the changes in the land and the culture since his childhood. In 1998, Heshel's Kingdom provided a moving story of his travels to Lithuania to learn more about the life of his grandfather. He started with his grandfather's identity document, spectacles, an address book, an old photograph, and the memories of relatives. Sadly, he found no trace of his grandfather, and, indeed, not even the cemetery he was buried in remained. He did find that in 1941, within six weeks' time, the Nazis essentially wiped out the Lithuanian Jewish community, killing 210,000.

Although retired from the University of London, Jacobson continues to write. A Mouthful of Glass was published in 2000.

Further Reading

  • The International Who's Who, Europa Publications Limited, 2001.
  • Jacobson, Dan, Time and Again: Autobiography, The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985.
  • Commentary, November 2000.
  • Daily Mail and Guardian, July 20, 1998.
  • Judaism, Winter 2001.
  • Research in African Literatures, Winter 1994.
  • Washington Post, December 26, 1993.
  • "Dan Jacobson," Gale Literary Databases, (January 21, 2002).
  • "Dan Jacobson," Harry Ranson Humanities Research Center, (January 21, 2002).

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