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Kiss, József

(1843–1921), poet and editor. József Kiss was born in Mezőcsát; both his grandfathers had moved to Hungary from Lithuania. His father, István Klein, was a poor merchant who sent his son to study in a yeshiva. Kiss, however, left that school when he was 13 to attend a gymnasium. For five years he was a melamed (itinerant teacher), wandering from village to village, “for all but nothing, some food, tobacco and a new shoe sole.”

Kiss arrived in Pest in 1868 and published his first book of poetry, Zsidó dalok (Jewish Songs). Some of the poems in this volume express joy over Jewish emancipation, which had been granted in 1867, and about finally finding a homeland in Hungary. From 1871 through 1873, Kiss edited the weekly illustrated literary magazine Képes Világ (Pictorial World), but lost his income when the journal ceased publication. He turned to writing pulp fiction, and published Budapesti rejtelmek (Mysteries of Budapest; 1874) under the pseudonym Rudolf Szentesi.

In 1875, Kiss worked at the editorial office of Nemzeti Hírlap (National News), a politically independent daily. His first major literary success was his ballad “Simon Judit” (Judit Simon), which was read at the 1875 convention of the highly respected literary organization, the Kisfaludy Society. He also edited Zsidó évkönyv 5636 (Jewish Almanac 1875/76), a publication that included some of his poems and short stories, including “Jokli,” the story of a Jewish peddler. Kiss’s literary endeavors did not, however, ease his financial difficulties. He moved to Temesvár (Timişoara) in 1876 and became secretary of the local Jewish community.

In 1882, Kiss’s fortunes changed when Josef Lewinsky, an actor from Vienna, recited Kiss’s poem “Ágota kisasszony” (Miss Ágota) at a German performance in Budapest. Kiss was then acclaimed as a major poet. He returned to Budapest and published a new edition of his poems (1883) and in 1890 launched A Hét (The Week), which he edited until his death (the weekly continued to be published until 1924). A Hét generated another journal, Nyugat (West; 1908–1941), the most significant periodical of modern Hungarian literature; many of its writers and poets had started their own careers by writing for Kiss’s journal. Kiss’s most creative poetic period followed, though his official recognition came only much later. He was not admitted to the Kisfaludy Literary Society until 1913.

In his early works, Kiss wrote within existing Hungarian literary traditions; his historical, folk- and Jewish ballads became most popular. His later poetry and verse novels dealt mainly with urban topics but were noteworthy also for their Jewish subject matter (Jehova; 1887). His liturgical poems, titled Ünnepnapok (Holidays) were published in 1888. His so-called Noémi-poems, written in the late 1880s, were addressed to his romantic partner, Jozefa Polgár. His final famous text, Legendák a nagyapámról (Legends about My Grandfather; 1910–1911), is about one of his grandfathers, the Bohemian cantor Mayer Litvak. Some of his poems have been published in German, English, Hebrew, French, and Russian translations.

Critics have debated whether Kiss should be considered as a Hungarian or a Jewish poet, as he expressed both identities throughout his works. In the former role, he followed Hungarian poetic traditions, and his voice pointed in the direction of twentieth-century modern poetry. In the tone of his writings, his joy over finding a homeland at the time of the emancipation was later replaced by bitter disappointment. Toward the end of his life he composed his own epitaph: “He was free prey in his homeland / Disowned, destitute, and homeless / Maybe the grave will bring him peace / But maybe even that will reject him.”

Suggested Reading

Tünde Császtvay, “A Hét bagoly esete a magyar irodalomban,” Budapesti Negyed 16–17 (1997): 243–264; József Kiss, Kiss József és kerek asztala: A költő prózai írásai és kortársainak visszaemlékezése, ed. Géza Kiss (Budapest, 1934); Mózes Rubinyi, Kiss József élete és munkássága (Budapest, 1926); Sándor Scheiber and Jenő Zsoldos, eds., Ó mért oly későn: Levelek Kiss József életrajzához (Budapest, 1972); Jenő Zsoldos, “Korai fejezetek Kiss József életéből,” Évkönyv n.v. (1971–1972): 81–103.



Translated from Hungarian by Veronika Szabó