Lester Goran was born in May of 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although he was Jewish, much of his work was influenced by his experiences growing up in an Irish immigrant neighborhood. His first novel The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue (1960) was a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and his other works include novels (e.g. The Keeper of Secrets ), short story collections (e.g. Outlaws of the Purple Cow and Other Stories ), translations of Isaac Singer stories, and a memoir. Goran was instrumental in introducing and furthering creative writing programs at the University of Miami (UM) and served there as a Professor of English for over 50 years. Goran died on February 6, 2014, at the age of 85.
Lester Goran was born on May 16, 1928, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and “in one of the roughest neighborhoods, Hill District,” his son, John, stated in an article by Howard Cohen for the Miami Herald. While himself Jewish, Lester Goran’s written work was most influenced by his childhood in an Irish immigrant neighborhood.
When asked by Matthew Asprey of Contrappasso Magazine what he remembered of childhood, Goran had said, “I remember this enormous fear when I was a child because my father was often not home and people would prowl our house while we were in bed. …[S]ometimes it was so awful in that house that my mother would wrap me up in scarves and run out into the street and we’d go nowhere. We’d just run down one dark street, up another dark street until there would be some lights, and we’d pass through there, and then run down another dark street until the people on the first floor came home.”
Although Goran based the setting of his first novel, The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue (1960), on the Hill District where he grew up, he made a sharp distinction between his real-life neighborhood and its fictional version: “I called it Sobaski’s Stairway rather than the Hill District because I didn’t want the book attached to me. The characters in that book were not my mother and father. They just weren’t. They were an amalgam of a certain kind of underclass life that I was aware of because I grew up around it.” He also happened to share the same neighborhood as playwright August Wilson. “I worked in a pawn shop across the street from where [Wilson] lived.”
Goran aspired to be a writer from the time he was eight years old. “As a storyteller growing up in government housing,” his son John explained, “people were laughing at him, as you can imagine. He sells aluminum storm windows in Pittsburgh. I never understood the need for storm windows in Pittsburgh.” At the age of 16, Goran joined the Army and became a Corporal following World War II. He then went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh and later returned to the university for his Master’s Degree.
“Nineteen-sixty was ‘a banner year’ for [Lester Goran],” asChauncey Mabe put it in a SunSentinel article. “[Goran] earned his Master's Degree from the University of Pittsburgh. His first novel, The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, came out to wide attention. And he went to work in the English Department at the University of Miami.”
But his momentum momentarily faded when Paratrooper lost the Pulitzer Prize to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Goran found himself in a position as an English Professor in Miami that was less lucrative than he’d expected. "I wasn't making that much writing and I was teaching a lot of hours," Goran told Mabe. "In the summers I went back to sell storm windows in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, I wouldn't have made it."
Goran followed his first novel with Maria Light (1962) and The Candy Butcher’s Farewell (1964) and would go on to “publish 14 novels, in every decade but one from the 1960s to 2010 in a writing career that topped 50 years,” according to Cohen, as well as go on to redefine his teaching career. In 1965, he established the University of Miami’s (UM’s) first creative writing curriculum, and in 1991 had a hand in creating the Graduate Creative Writing Department. During his 50 years at UM, he taught around 20,000 students, including novelist Chantel Acevedo, poet Paul Perry, novelist Terrence Cheng, novelist and TV producer Tom Cavanaugh, young adult novelist Crissa-Jean Chappell, and marketing executive Hayes Roth – a few of which attended celebrations in honor of Goran’s career in 2010-2011: “I'm delighted to have had some small part in their early careers,” Goran said. “The dispiriting thing about teaching people to write is that there isn't much market for what they do. And it's hard, hard work.”
He also taught alongside Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer from 1978-1988 and translated stories included in Singer’s collections, The Image (1985) and The Death of Methuselah (1988). On translating Singer, Goran told Asprey of Contrappasso:“He felt I was a miracle worker at the beginning. He had ten stories published in a row and he hadn’t really been hitting that well, even before the Nobel Prize, and the same thing after. We did okay.” Goran later wrote The Bright Streets of Surfside (1994), a memoir dedicated to his friendship with Singer.
In 1996, Goran published the short story collection, Tales From the Irish Club. Jay Parini praised it as “an odd and wonderful book,” in a full-page New York Times Book Review. “Lester Goran's Tales From the Irish Club presents a group of stories so well imagined that one can hardly tell them apart from life.”
During the 2010-11 academic year, the UM Creative Writing Program organized the Goran Reading Series in honor of his 50 years of service, according to an article by Melissa Peerless in UM’s Veritas. Prominent writers who had studied with Goran offered readings, classes, and workshops. The program also established the Lester Goran Endowed Creative Writing Fellowship for emerging writers.
“No, it hasn't been a bad finish, Goran stated, regarding all of the festivities honoring his career in Mabe’s 2011 SunSentinel article. “I've lived an interesting and productive life. Not a day goes by I don't think I'm lucky. I have a good family, a good job, and I still love to write.”
Lester Goran died on February 6, 2014, at Baptist Hospital in Kendall, Florida, at the age of 85. He is survived by his wife, Edythe, and their three sons, John, Robert, and William.
The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Maria Light. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
The Candy Butcher’s Farewell. New York: McGraw, 1964.
The Stranger in the Snow. New York: New American Library, 1966.
The Demon in the Sun Parlor. New York: New American Library, 1968.
The Keeper of Secrets. New York: McCall Publishing, 1971.
The new land: a novel. New York: New American Library, 1980.
Covenant with tomorrow: a novel. New York: New American Library, 1981.
Mrs. Beautiful. Far Hills: New Horizon Press, 1985.
Bing Crosby’s Last Song. New York: Picador USA, 1998.
Short Story Collections
Tales From The Irish Club: A Collection of Short Stories. Kent: Kent State University Press, 1996.
She Loved Me Once, and Other Stories. Kent: Kent State University Press, 1997.
Outlaws of the Purple Cow and Other Stories. Kent: Kent State University Press, 1999.
Singer, Issaac. The Image and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1985.
Singer, Issacc. The Death of Methuselah. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1988.
The Bright Streets of Surfside: The Memoir of a Friendship with Isaac Bashevis Singer. Kent: Kent University Press, 1994.