Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1914. His father was a small grocery-store owner. His mother died when he was in high school. During the Depression, Malamud attended the City College of New York, which at that time was a school for intelligent but poor students. After graduation, Malamud worked several odd jobs before going to graduate school at Columbia University and obtaining a master's degree in English.
Malamud began publishing short stories in the early 1940s, but it was not until the early 1950s that he began to develop a literary reputation. His first novel, The Natural, was published in 1952. The novel blended the great American pastime—baseball—with myth, particularly the Arthurian legends of Perceval and the Fisher King. The Natural was a success and put Malamud on the literary map; later it would adapted into a film starring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, and Glenn Close, which became one of the most popular films about baseball ever made.
Malamud went on to write a number of novels. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for The Fixer (1966), a novel about a Jewish man persecuted in 1911 Kiev. The novel was immediately successful in the midst of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It swiftly became a classic, but it also gave Malamud a reputation as, in his own words, "a Jewish writer," as so many of his stories and novels concern Jewish characters and issues.
For this reason, The Natural is somewhat of an unusual novel in Malamud's body of work. There are virtually no Jewish characters—at least, none that are obviously or overtly Jewish—and it certainly does not deal with Jewish issues. Instead, The Natural is a complex blend of myth, legend, and the American obsession with professional sports and celebrity. Roy Hobbs, the talented but tragic baseball player, becomes tied up with the hopes and dreams of New York as he brings the New York Knights up from last-place oblivion into a pennant race. Malamud modeled Hobbs's brief career on the myth of the Fisher King, focusing on the core idea that the health of the king—or coach, in the case of Pop Fisher—is related to the health of the land, or, in this case, the city. Hobbs is Perceval to Pop's Fisher King; however, Hobbs himself is also a Fisher King of sorts, unable to achieve the Holy Grail because he refuses to forego his dreams of glory.
The legacy of The Natural does not rest solely on the novel—in fact, many people are unaware that the novel even exists. Much more famous is the 1984 film adaptation. The filmmakers made significant changes to the storyline; most important, Roy does not strike out at the end of the film, but instead hits a home run and wins the game, and the pennant, for the Knights. Roy is also united with his son and, presumably, ends up with Iris. The film is very different from the pessimistic, naturalistic tone of the novel, but what remains intact is Malamud's use of myth to enhance the story of a baseball player. The film's triumphant, feel-good ending has made it more popular and enduring than the novel. Despite the changes made to his story, Malamud was pleased that the film helped him become recognized once more as an "American writer" rather than exclusively a Jewish writer.