MacArthur Fellows Program

Jonathan Lethem

Writer | Class of 2005

Weaving the conventions of noir mysteries, westerns, science fiction, and comic books into narratives that explore the relationship between high art and popular culture.

Brooklyn, New York
41 at time of award

Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, a novella, two short story collections, and a volume of essays that explore, in various ways, the relationship between so-called high art and popular culture. Characterized by narrative leaps between vastly divergent genres, his fiction weaves the conventions of noir mysteries, westerns, science fiction, and comic books into coming-of-age tales that are otherwise evocative and realistic in content. In his most recent novel, Fortress of Solitude (2003), he depicts the intricate codes of childhood street life he navigated while growing up in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn during the 1970s, a time when the neighborhood was gentrifying and rife with race and class tensions. Demonstrating keen powers of observation and description, he embeds his readers deeply within the physical and social worlds his characters inhabit, in the schoolyards, on the stoops, and in the midst of the energetic dialogue and pop riffs that pulse throughout. While comic book motifs appear in Fortress, Lethem’s earlier novel, Motherless Brooklyn (1999), takes the form of a detective story that is ceaselessly interrupted by the outbursts of its highly unconventional narrator, a Tourettes-plagued private investigator named Lionell Essrog. By orchestrating such allusions to popular genres within his fiction, Lethem heightens emotional engagement with his characters, blurs boundaries across a broad spectrum of cultural creations, and expands the frontier of American fiction.

Jonathan Lethem studied at Bennington College (1982-84) and immersed himself in the culture of literature by working as a bookseller at numerous bookshops in New York City and in Berkeley, California. His other novels include Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), Amnesia Moon (1995), As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and Girl in Landscape (1998). He is also the author of the story collections, The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (1996) and Men and Cartoons (2005), the novella, This Shape We're In (2001), and the essay collection, The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays (2005) and is editor of an anthology of stories, The Vintage Book of Amnesia (2000). His writings have appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and McSweeney's.

News About this Fellow
January 1, 2017
"Inside Jonathan Lethem’s Oddball Trove"
The New York Times
Jonathan Lethem , 2005 MacArthur Fellow
December 16, 2016
"Writer Jonathan Lethem, Part-Time Blue Hill Resident, on His New Book"
Maine Public Radio
Jonathan Lethem , 2005 MacArthur Fellow
October 1, 2015
"10 Ingenious Books By Certifiable Geniuses"
The Huffington Post
Sandra Cisneros , 1995 MacArthur Fellow
Lydia Davis , 2003 MacArthur Fellow
Jonathan Lethem , 2005 MacArthur Fellow
George Saunders , 2006 MacArthur Fellow
Chimamanda Adichie, 2008 MacArthur Fellow
Junot Díaz, 2012 MacArthur Fellow
Karen Russell, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
Alison Bechdel, 2014 MacArthur Fellow
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ben Lerner, 2015 MacArthur Fellows
May 16, 2015
“Jonathan Lethem: The Versatile Writer and His Influences”
The Sydney Morning Herald
Jonathan Lethem , 2005 MacArthur Fellow
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Photos are owned by the MacArthur Foundation and licensed under a Creative Commons license: CC-BY.
Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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